03 January 2012

Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Shortly before I left for South America, I stayed with friends in Wellington and attended a screening of Werner Herzog's film, Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Immediately after the film I had a few hours on my own, so I jotted down some thoughts about the film. Here they are. I'll resume the South American posts shortly.

Thirty-two thousand years ago, prehistoric humans drew pictures of astonishing sophistication on the walls of the Chauvet cave in the south of France. The depictions of movement, the use of line and shading, the way the artists used the contours of the walls to emphasise the form of the animals — these and other aspects of the artwork seem impossibly advanced for humans who coexisted with Neanderthals. Yet the works can't be forgeries: calcite crystals which take thousands of years to form have grown on top of some of the drawings.

A typical documentary might have delivered the usual 60 Minutes type of product, with straightforward interviews clear, to-the-point narration and an arguably slanted perspective. But Cave of Forgotten Dreams is a film by Werner Herzog, and viewers should expect anything but the straightforward. Much of the film does provide extended footage of the drawings — maybe too extended for some, although I found them so beautiful and fascinating I didn't mind the repeated shots. Instead, I enjoyed the freedom to look again, to consider what I saw, to pay attention to the details — was the apparent duplication of an eye a second attempt after the first appeared out of position (and if so, why did the artist not erase the failed attempt); why do some aspects of a drawing seem roughly sketched or inaccurate when the remainder appears so lifelike, and so on.

But Herzog seems interested in more than just the wonderful drawings and more than their artists, about whom we know almost nothing other than what their art suggests. His fascination also — perhaps primarily — focuses on the most fundamental of subjects: what it means to be human. Sometimes he queries this directly, although not always literally — one of the things I love about Herzog is his ability to ask questions that require careful thought not just to answer but to understand; his questions encourage exploration far more than they demand answers.

This focus on the meaning of being human includes all the people in his film. The prehistoric artists, yes, certainly — but also the diverse experts he interviews. In the first interview, Herzog interrogates a young archaeologist about his background. Why should this young man's career have any bearing on a film ostensibly about the Chauvet cave drawings? Perhaps precisely because it makes him more human. Another example: a palaeontologist demonstrates how a simple wooden device extends the range and accuracy of a thrown spear (Australians know this as a woomera, although this isn't mentioned in the film). After the expert's unconvincing attempt, Herzog suggests prehistoric humans were probably much better at throwing spears, to which the expert agrees: I'd probably be very poor at spearing horses, he says. This dry humour makes him more human — he’s not just an expert, he’s one of us.

This humanizing humour crops up often during the film — references to Fred Astaire and Baywatch find their way in, along with Herzog’s typically acerbic commentary — and this also, I believe, exemplifies his concern with the nature of being human. As far as we know, we're the only animals with a sense of humour (many animals play, but play is not humour; the "humour" we identify in animals is our own interpretation, also known as anthropomorphisation — a word, incidentally, that should be ritually speared if an alternative existed), and to introduce humour into a potentially dry, albeit fascinating, film is to make it more human.

But perhaps I'm overanalysing, and to me the film came dangerously close to failing when some experts began extending analysis into interpretation. One of the cave's guardians explains the excellent work that enabled her to identify an individual artist and follow his work throughout the cave; however, she then begins to interpret the drawings — in glowing terms, of course, but the language sounds like that of modern art criticism, although far less convoluted. Fashions in art change; what was avant-garde in the twentieth century has become tedious now, and in Cave of Forgotten Dreams Herzog overtly makes the claim that while we are bound by time, those prehistoric artists were not: some drawings are separated by 5000 years or more, a span incomprehensible to us. An accomplishment like the art of the Chauvet cave cannot be analysed appropriately using the language of contemporary art — nor does it deserve to be so ill-treated.

In the end, my overriding response to the film was emotional rather than analytical. I couldn't help feeling close to overcome by the thought of a human being thirty thousand years ago scratching at those walls with charcoal in the light of a guttering flame; a human utterly unaware of the significance of his actions (or could it have been her actions? — Herzog never asks the question); someone with no understanding of the concept of "art", drawing on those walls simply because he felt compelled to do so. Did his companions consider him odd, a little weird, or did they hold him in awe? How is it possible we know so little about those artists yet can look on their works and be so moved?

Perhaps this is true for most, perhaps all, of us: that in the end we will be unknown, and the only clues to who we were will be our works. Who, then, might leave a legacy that moves our successors — whomever or whatever they might be — as much as that of the artists of the Chauvet cave now moves us?

1. Puerto Natales, southern Chile. What motivated this? What do the people who live and work here think of this? How long will it survive? All I know is the boat — the canvas, the cave wall — will never sail again.
2.  Abandoned bunker, Godley Head, Lyttelton harbour.
3.  Street art, Ushuaia. Do I detect the influence of Banksy?

Photos and original text © 2012 Pete McGregor