Cave of Forgotten Dreams

by Andrew

Inside the cave

Inside the cave

All I’m doing this week is watching dailies, so a brief aside before I go nuts from watching the fruits of your labors for another hour:

Carey and I went to the Arclight with another couple last weekend to see Werner Herzog’s latest documentary, Cave of Forgotten Dreams. It’s a 3-D production about the Chauvet caves of southern France, where the oldest paintings known to man were found. Since its discovery, the cave’s importance has been universally recognized and the age of the paintings repeatedly confirmed through scientific testing. It seemed like a good idea for a movie so I went into it expecting something of a travelogue and Discovery channel featurette rolled into one.

What I got was instead one of the most profound experiences I have ever had in a theater. The paintings, done by some of the earliest homo sapiens, are remarkably beautiful and technically strong. They’re insightful, playful, animated, expressive, layered. And seeing them preserved so flawlessly (by a fortunately-timed rockslide that sealed off the cave from the environment) is breathtaking.

What elevates the material even further is Herzog’s utter reverence for the artistic process. He interviews scientists and artists, historians and perfumers, all with an attention to the interviewee’s inner life. What struck me most remarkably was the idea (causally brought up by one historian) of the inner landscape. Our inner lives are overlooked by most today, and success is equated with ownership almost exclusively in western culture. The value that Herzog gives to feelings and dreams wasn’t quite revelatory to me, but it was a wake-up call that I needed. Editing is sometimes a balancing act of clarity and expressiveness, and when focusing on continuity and cause and effect it can be easy to overlook the value of novelty or the amusement that unexpected elements bring. The unexpected aside can create  a broader sense of drama without feeling tacked on.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams forces the viewer to face truly incomprehensible passages of time while simultaneously communicating the desires of people tens of thousands of years dead. They seemed at times identical to my own. It made me believe in reconstitution and a collective unconscious, even though, I don’t think, that was ever considered the subject of the film.