Friday, June 3, 2011

Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2011)
Dir. Werner Herzog
Starring a bunch of rocks with animals painted on them, featuring some boss cave bear skulls, with special appearances by albino alligators, crystal formations, and Frenchmen.

            When Werner Herzog makes a documentary, you better believe he’s found something you’re not that interested in and that he’s going to turn it into a film you’re fascinated by. A big part of it is his eclectic fascination and love of unusual topics, talents, and people, and the obvious enthusiasm with which he presents his subjects. But the other part of the appeal is Herzog himself, who is equal parts philosopher, artist, deadpan comic, and German weirdo. His films are intensely interested in his subjects, and yet they feel like deeply personal statements from this inscrutable man at the same time. Somehow, even though he doesn’t talk a lot about himself, the films seem reflective of his own unique perspective, loves, fears, and obsessions. I believe he’s written and narrated all his documentaries since ECHOS FROM A SOMBER EMPIRE in 1990, and that fact alone makes them a subjective experience from the point of view of a very curious individual. Sure, I want to watch the fuck out of some 3D cave art, but if I have to choose between David Attenborough’s lightly informative prattle and Werner Herzog’s quasi-mystical philosophical musings, it’s an easy choice. Whatever the topic, you bet hearing Herzog’s voice over is gonna make it infinitely weirder and more interesting.

Among what I’m certain are many areas of philosophical agreement and professional respect between Herzog and Michael Bay, both have expressed their distaste for the proliferation of 3-D films and both immediately made their next film in 3-D. While TRANSFORMERS 3-D is still awaiting final cut approval from the Dark One, Herzog has taken his shot at 3-D by turning it on the dimly-lit walls of Chauvet caverns in France, where exist the oldest known paintings in the world. While Herzog and James Cameron may never see eye-to-eye on this 3-D thing, anyone who experiences CAVE it in 3-D has to see immediately that this was the occasion to use it, if ever there was one. You’ve seen these images before; there aren’t really all that many and most of the major ones qualify as pop art by this point. But what you haven’t ever seen is how stunning they look in their natural state. There’s a reason it’s worth it to go see the Paul Gauguin exhibit at the National Gallery until Sunday ( There’s a reason my pulse quickened when I got to see an exhibit of the original art of Dr. Seuss. You can see these images, easily, online, often in insanely high resolution. But when you see the texture, the layers, the whole dimensions of an image, it comes alive in an entirely different way. It suddenly puts you in touch not just with an image, but with the whole piece as a physical object. It connects you with the artist’s hand and movement, with the fact that you’re looking not at some lines on paper, but a physical link between two people across space and time.

And here, the people on the other end of that link happened to live some 30,000 odd years ago. Herzog uses his 3-D camera to explore these surfaces that they traversed, trying to imagine what they thought, how they moved, what it meant. He’s reverent but probing, examining and reexamining each little line with an almost erotic intensity.

It’s not lost on Herzog that these humans lived lives which are almost completely unknowable to us at this point. Some tantalizing clues remain, even through the gap of tens of thousands of years – but it’s like trying to get to know someone from three random items picked from all their possessions through their whole life. A ballpoint pen, a high heel, a copy of Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” with an inspirational message from an irritating relative written on the inside. You can use these items to get a sense of time and place, the kind of resources that might have been available, maybe the basic things which might have been important. But you don’t want to know that. You want to know the person. Who they were, what they loved, how they thought, what they aspired to, what they dreamed of.  Herzog turns to scientists who can speculate on what kind of tools they might have had, what their basic routines might have been like, but it’s all a tease. He wants to know their souls. And if art is indeed the expression of a human soul, he’s picked a subject which might tantalize us with the earliest known glimpse into the human heart, rather than the human brain. This may well have been the birth of the human soul, that subtle but staggeringly important line between Cro-Magnon man, who created art, and Neanderthal Man, who created tools, but not culture. Both were still alive at this time, incidentally, living side by side in these valleys and caves. Imagine that. A second species of humans walking amongst our early ancestors. Were they humans in the sense that we are today? Can we say that Cro-Magnon man definitely was, because of the clearly abstract quality of the icons they left behind? Is that the line which measures humanity? If so, looking at these early but already rich expressions of that human soul are about as close as we can get to identifying the spiritual difference between man and beast, if indeed there is one. 

There’s some basic scientific mumbo jumbo, but Herzog's quest is to try and look into the spirit of humans over a gap of 30,000 years. Everywhere he looks, he finds signs of human playfulness and seriousness, of personality – from thousands of years in the past and from the people all around him today. Some dullard American scientist suggests that archeology is no longer an adventurous, outdoor activity, but rather a painstaking chore of dirt farming and computer modeling. Herzog, with his typically inscrutable deadpan wit, cuts to a bearded, slightly insane looking scientist with the suitably badass name Wulf Hein (I think his on-screen title may actually be “adventure geologist”) gamely dressed in his recreation of Aurignacian period fashion and playing his heart out on a recreation stone-age flute. If they had flutes, they had music, and now you have to wonder what they played. Significantly, he notes that the flute is in the right key to play “The Star Spangled Banner,” which he coyly demonstrates. Did some Stone-Age flautist pick out that tune 30,000 year ago, not realizing that ancestors separated from him (or her) by an incalculable span of time would attach their own meaning to it? Herzog doesn’t have to say it aloud to know you’re pondering it. 

Man, Hall and Oates did not age well.

He can’t help but be interested in modern spirits too – he includes a bit where he asks a pony-tailed scientists about his former job as a circus performer, and an interesting but irrelevant tangent about a master perfumer who literally uses his nose to look for hidden caves (what the fuck, that guy gets to go inside the cave but I don’t?) – but it’s the ancient ancestors who are the star of the show, and Herzog does everything he can to try and help you see through their eyes (the crews’ ever-moving lights and shadows hint at the way the paintings must have been originally experienced by torchlight), listen with their ears (during a long quiet stretch where the crew stand perfectly still and let the otherwise imperceptible audio of the cave become the star) feel with their hands (through his penetrating use of 3-D) and even smell with their noses, thanks to our friend the master perfumer cave-smeller. I’d bet my life there’s a deleted scene where he talks to some hunter or chef about the taste of raw cave bear meat. He wants us to have every possible tool to try and imagine their lives, their minds.

But as much as it is tantalizing to imagine, the more you think about it the more alien and mysterious it becomes. They might be humans, but trying to understand them is like trying to imagine what a baby is thinking. Not because they were primitive, but because their context and way of thinking about the world is just so entirely unknown and unknowable.  Just to put it in modern language would probably destroy any truth you might find. In a way, this is a perfect companion piece to another excellent, poetic documentary from Europe, 2010’s INTO ETERNITY. That one is ostensibly about the nuclear waste repository being stuck at the very bottom abandoned copper mine in Finland, but actually it’s just as much about communicating across an unimaginable amount of time for a human being. You see, once we store that nuclear waste, it’s going to be dangerously radioactive for 100,000 years.

Yes, 100,000.

Meaning that we have a responsibility to communicate to our ancestors 100,000 years in the future that this site is dangerous and must never be opened. It goes without saying that no human sociological structure has ever survived that long (or even come close) and neither will this current one.100,000 years from now, any tiny remnant of our current human societies is likely to be as mysterious and unknowable as the cave paintings are to us. Perhaps just as primitive. If the human soul has evolved from ancient paintings of horses to the music of Lady Gaga in a mere 30,000 years, imagine what our ancestors in the year 102,011 CE will wonder about our wants, out dreams, our values, our souls. Our minds can’t comprehend that span of time and space in human terms. Maybe someday millennia from now, a descendant of Werner Herzog will be reverently ultra-3-D-smell-o-visioning the few remaining copies of O magazine and trying desperately to imagine what kind of humanity he shares with people that far removed from himself. He won’t really be able to know, but maybe it means something just to imagine. Anyway, hopefully he’ll get the hint that he should stay the fuck out of caves in Finland, regardless of the primitive art he might find down there.

As it is, modern-day Herzog is always a worthwhile watch. Here, more than perhaps anything else he’s ever done, he’s committed to arming us with as many tools as possible to fuel our imaginations, and challenging us with perhaps the ultimate question about the nature of the human soul. This would be a stunning documentary were it a purely visual piece alone (Herzog is showman enough to structure his film in a way which organically escalates the power of the paintings and the way we get to see them, and he effortlessly utilizes Ernst Reijseger’s stunning score to great effect) but the heart of the film is that this beauty and mystery is being explored by this particular Baywatch-referencing German oddball. It puts a human face on the mystery of humanity itself, and makes it seem all the more remote, and yet all the more vitally compelling.

Coda: here is a picture of an albino alligator.

As inscrutable German metaphors go, this one is pretty unexpected.

For reason I can confidently say I don’t entirely understand, Herzog also chooses to end his film with this image. I think he may be meditating on the inevitable evolution of humans from one thing to another, with the single thread of our common humanity uniting us but still allowing for startling distance between our minds, if not our souls. But possibly not, I’m open to suggestions.

1 comment:

  1. Great analysis/appreciation of a great movie. In fact, I think this is the best piece I've read about this film. Thank you for it. You expressed a number of things about the film that I wasn't able to put into words.

    Unrelated, I think I might be going to the WPFS movie this Thursday, possible with the fiancee and little brother. Any chance you'll be there?