On Saturday, I got to see The Cave of Forgotten Dreams, which I posted about earlier (see Fantastic prehistoric cave art movie).
I enjoyed Werner Herzog’s narration in English with a soft German accent, completely understandable. He’s so earnest, it’s easy to make fun of him, but when you realize he’s the only filmmaker that’s been allowed to film the oldest known art, the precautions they had to take, his love for cave art since he was a child, and what an awe-inspiring experience this must have been, and you understand and forgive him. He’s a treasure of a filmmaker.
The art is pretty remarkable.
The “supporting cast” (the archeologists and other experts who shared their insights) was good and interesting. One man dressed in clothing made of reindeer hides is the type of colorful character that Herzog loves to include in his documentaries.
A young archeologist, Julien Monnet, stood out for helping Herzog give the film its title. This young scientist with a ponytail (formerly a circus juggler and unicyclist) spoke about his initial response to the cave. He said that when he first went into the cave to do scientific work, he was dreaming every night of lions — of real lions and of paintings of lions (they are depicted multiple times in the cave).
In his dreams, the lions weren’t attacking him, they were being peaceful, but their presence in his dreams was quite powerful.
Being exposed to the cave art was such an emotional shock, after five days, he had to stop going in. He needed time to absorb the experience. The cave art touched something deep.
Here’s a link to a clip of Herzog interviewing him from the film.
That was a profound response to this art, the kind of experience that can reorder your map of the world and who you think you are, and perhaps why Herzog chose to title the film The Cave of Forgotten Dreams. There is something dreamlike about seeing these fresh, lively images intact inside a cave and realizing they are over 30,000 years old.
Watching this film feels like rooting around in your forgotten ancestral memories. Something ancient becomes very, very fresh and new.
The film offers an opportunity for the collective unconscious to become a bit more mindful, for us to reflect on our evolution and deeply appreciate the lives of our forebears from the time before recorded history.
We can now connect to these unknown people because they have become more known to us.
Thank you, Werner Herzog, and thank you, French authorities who decided to use extreme preservation methods yet allowed this film to be made.
In a postscript at the end, Herzog shows us a biosphere heated with water from a nuclear power plant 20 miles away from Chauvet Cave. The biosphere has been especially hospitable to alligators, and some of them are albinos. The camera lingers on images of albino alligators.
At first, it seemed like a rambling nonsequitur to include this in a film about prehistoric cave art, but I had a sense that Herzog was affected by the images of these albino alligators in a nuclear-heated biosphere in the same way the pony-tailed archeologist was affected by the images of lions in the cave.
The proximity of the ‘gators to the lions, the biosphere to the cave, a nuclear power plant to ancient drawings of animals, somehow stretch the boundary of what we think of as possible — and we humans played a role in the creation of both environments. The juxtaposition of the new and the old, the natural and the unnatural, the images and the collapse of time in this film and in our psyches is deeply powerful and disturbing, like the best art.
Do we humans like who we’ve become?
I liked it when Herzog’s cameras lingered on the art. The 3-D is subtle. There are no tricks that make you jump. Instead, the curves of the cave’s walls and features are made more visible. It adds life and depth to the imagery.
The perspective of seeing the beautiful wild countryside in southern France, with pockets of vineyards, massive geological formations, and deep rivers, was also integral to the beauty of this film.
The musical soundtrack seemed very well-suited for the film, although I might have wished for more silence at times. The soundtrack is due to be released on October 11, 2011.