Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Unforgettable Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Werner Herzog’s latest documentary, “Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” is shot inside the remarkable Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc cave in the Ardèche region of southern France.  The film is awe-inspiring and brilliantly filmed, despite the fact that Herzog was only allowed himself, cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger, one sound recorder, and one assistant – hardly the size of your standard film crew.  Additionally, because the few people in the cave were confined to narrow metal walkways covering the fragile surface, all the machinery had to be particularly portable and battery operated.  Herzog had customized 3D cameras built for the project. 

I don’t like 3D – it makes me feel vaguely uneasy and tires my eyes.  Nevertheless, I fully comprehend Werner Herzog’s decision. With 3D, he was able to capture the contours, depressions, textures of the rock formations, the rock pendants, the stalactites and stalagmites, the depth of the cave itself in its different levels.  Most importantly, 3D shows the artists’ work to the best advantage.  For artists they were, 31,000 or so years ago, drawing sometimes with their fingers, sometimes with sticks, on the walls of the cave, using the contours of the walls to add life, depth, and even movement to the animals they drew. 

Inside the caves are bones, skulls, and skeletons, of cave bears, hyenas, an eagle.  Human activity in the caves is plainly seen by the handprints near the original entrance and in the depths of the cave, in addition to the amazing abundance of paintings.   The paintings:  horses running, mouths open, perhaps whinnying.  Cave bears, lions, a panther, antelope, rhinoceroses fighting, bison, mammoths, all adorn the cave walls.  These are neither level nor straight, and the animals are drawn using the shapes and surfaces available.  One can imagine seeing the drawings in motion by the light of flickering torches, much like early film projection.  Some are outlines, some shaded in a remarkably sophisticated manner.  The claw marks of bears are under and over the drawings.  For the human artists, they were another level and texture to add to the paintings.  But the drawings do not include humans in the scenes.  There is only one drawing that has been interpreted as human:  a woman’s hip, upper leg, and pubic triangle, painted on a rock pendant (a stone outcropping hanging down from the cave’s roof).  It/she appears to be commingling with a bison.  

Herzog shares these images with us, holding and moving the lights over the drawings so we can see, perhaps, what the artists saw all those millennia ago.  In addition to the overarching fascination of the cave’s interior, we also have the pleasure of viewing the magnificent Pont d’Arc natural land bridge. Herzog brings us outside to the lush Ardèche countryside (even to the Rhone River 20 miles distant with its nuclear plants) to relieve the claustrophobia of cave dwelling.  The humans who did the paintings in the cave presumably did not dwell in it.  No human skeletal remains were found, although there are human footprints.  This cave belonged to the bears.

Noxious gases, in addition to the desire to protect and preserve the site (the very breath of tourists in other prehistoric caves caused mold to form and the sites to be closed to visitors) limited Herzog and his minimal crew’s time in the caves, first to one hour, then to four hours a day for one week.  In that time, a miracle of documentary filmmaking occurred.  “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” may have a limited audience, but for those interested in documentaries in general, the subjects -- and there are several encompassed here -- in particular, and its handling by an expert filmmaker, seeing this film on the big screen is a treat not to be missed. 3D glasses and all.

~ Molly Matera, signing off to do some finger painting. If you want to learn more about the Chauvet Cave on your computer, go here.

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