Open Thread: Cave of Forgotten Dreams

This one is absolutely worth paying the 3D premium, if you have any interest in paleoarchaeology, caves, art, or lions…

We are none of us liable to tour the Chauvet cave in person — to preserve the delicate microclimate, it is accessible to only a handful of specialists for a few hours at a time — so it’s a wonderful thing that a filmmaker both as gifted & as experienced as Herzog was allowed to be one of those specialists. Frankly, I’m not sure I could risk a tour, because even the filmed images made me long to touch, to get my face up close and inhale, even to lick the glittering calcifications that have coated “humanity’s first known artwork” over the last 30,000 years…
Best part of the film, for me and the Spousal Unit, were the lovingly detailed closeups and full panoramas of the cave lions; there are lots of reproductions of Chauvet’s ‘three bisons and four horses’ mural, but not many good images of the rhinos and lions which Herzog lingers over. Also excellent, the French archaeologist telling a German filmmaker in English the story of an Australian aborigine showing a European anthropologist rock artwork from his ancestors’ dreamtime — while carefully redaubing some of the time-eroded images. How can you risk damaging the image? asks the fieldworker, and the man tells him I am not drawing a picture, I am the instrument of the Spirit whose image is meant to be here. [that is my best interpretation of the fourth- or fifth-hand account]
Another one of the specialists describing the Chauvet cave points out two overlapping horses that look contemporaneous, but which carbon dating the charcoal used to draw them indicate were drawn 5,000 years apart. We’ve lost the capacity, I think, to imagine a timebinding universe where an artist/shaman/worshipper is adding their own interpretation to something that is as immediate as yesterday and yet older than our most ‘established’ modern monotheisms…
The film ‘starts slow’, with gorgeous panoramic shots of the French vineyards and landscapes, little vignettes of the scientists, gradually circling into the barely-lit closed-in majesties of the cave itself. This feels like a ‘Wernerism’ to me, although I haven’t seen enough of his films to be sure. It closes with a brief ‘Postscript’ about the albino alligators fortuitously bred in a biodome using the excess heat generated by a giant nuclear-power complex “just 20 miles from Chauvet, as the crow flies”. Those alligators seem to be a sore point for many of the professional reviewers, but they make perfect sense in context. We’ve just spent some 85 minutes trying to appreciate / understand why our distant ancestors chose to put “the first human-produced art” inside caverns that have been blocked off for the last 20,000 years; who knows what our inheritors, thirty thousand years from now, will make of gorgeous moonstone-luminescent reptiles with strawberry-tinted catseyes, born as the unimagined offshoot of the grinding generation of power?

30 replies
  1. 1

    I’m sure the film is great; your review was a thing of beauty!

  2. 2

    You’ve convinced me to see this. Thanks, AL.

  3. 3
    Sturunner says:

    1. Wow . . .

    2. Tech question: what is the state-of-the-art for enhanched video online? HD? Is there more? Or soon-to-be more?

  4. 4
    Lysana says:

    Ho. Lee. Shit. Now THAT is a use for 3D. Bless the French government and Werner Herzog.

  5. 5
    Lysana says:

    Oh, crap, did I use the wrong email address?

    Ayup, I did… my comment above this one has the wrong addy. /sigh/ and fiddlesticks.

  6. 6
    R-Jud says:

    We’re going to see this next Friday night. I can’t wait.

  7. 7
    cmorenc says:

    The artwork in the cave is apx 30,000 years old. Turning momentarily from inside the walled cave to looking out into the open night sky on any clear spring or summer night, one of the joys of amateur astronomy is seeing the ancient light from the globular clusters 30,000 light years away (glittering jewels comprised of hundreds of thousands of stars packed tightly together orbiting our galaxy), the light from which is striking out eyes tonight left these stars about the same time these Chauvet cave paintings were being made, when the artists who drew them were alive and walking the earth. The night sky is a beautiful time machine indeed.

  8. 8
    a hip hop artist from Idaho (fka Bella Q) says:

    Thanks for giving this a wider audience, AL, as it deserves.

  9. 9
    Nethead Jay says:

    There was an absolutely great interview with Werner Herzog, Cormac McCarthy and Lawrence Krauss about science and art on Science Friday a few weeks ago and of course this movie was among the things they talked about. I will be taking the hours drive to the best nearby 3D screen to see this when it comes here.

  10. 10
    debit says:

    Anne Laurie, thanks for this. I’d never heard of the film, and now I have to see it. You know what got me? The hand prints.

    @ thread: I dreamt I was married to Al Franken. We went on a bike ride. It was nice.

  11. 11
    Ghanima Atreides says:

    That was a beautiful post.
    Are you a synesthete?

  12. 12
    Steeplejack says:

    I second Anne Laurie’s recommendation. I saw this movie Thursday. It is definitely worth the effort to see it in 3D.

    I, too, really liked the cave lions. I have been searching unsuccessfully for one image in particular to use as screen wallpaper, two lions facing right in profile. The artist captured the essence of their grace and movement with just a few lines. And also transmitted some scientific information to us: as a researcher in the film notes, because of these pictures we now know that male cave lions did not have manes. It blows my mind to contemplate that fact being transmitted across the unimaginable distance of 30,000 years, from a time when the Alps were buried under 9,000 feet of ice and you could walk from France to England because the English Channel was a dry seabed.

  13. 13
    Jack Canuck says:

    That looks absolutely fantastic. I’ll definitely be keeping an eye out for that one. Thanks for the heads up.

    ETA: If you like Herzog’s style and want to see it in a very different context, his film on Antarctica, Encounters at the End of the World, is stunning.

  14. 14

    We saw “Thor” in 3D yesterday. While I enjoyed the movie (and especially enjoyed the star, Chris Hemsworth *pant* *pant*) I did not think the 3D was worth the extra money.

  15. 15
    Jim Kakalios says:

    I saw it this Friday – though alas only in 2D, as that was all that was available. Still very striking.

    But I have one bone to pick. They completely ignored an important scientific point: How can the cave drawings be 32,000 years old when the Earth itself is only 6000 years old?

    Riddle me that, Batman!

    It is indeed a striking opportunity to experience a major scientific find, that would not be accessible to us in any other way. Great review.

  16. 16
  17. 17

    But I have one bone to pick. They completely ignored an important scientific point: How can the cave drawings be 32,000 years old when the Earth itself is only 6000 years old?


    God bends time!

  18. 18
    Albatrossity says:

    Cave art, unlike canvas paintings, needs to be seen in 3D. The artists took advantage of the contours of the stone, and clearly thought long and hard about how to use a particular formation as a substrate for their work. I can’t wait to see this, particularly since a few years back my spouse was allowed to accompany some archeologists, led by Jean Clottes, into Chauvet. But due to restrictions on the number of guests allowed for that trip, I didn’t get to go in. I was left to wander around that gorgeous countryside for the morning! Not quite the same, so I am really looking forward to the movie.

  19. 19
    Doug Harlan J says:

    Very cool. Thanks for telling us about this.

  20. 20
    joeyess says:

    Oooooh……… I just bought a 42″HD Panasonic Viera 3D Plasma! I can’t wait until I can afford the $154.95 per unit fucking goggles!! required.

  21. 21
    gusthedog says:

    uhhh, those alligators are from louisiana, are the product of natural mutations, and that power plant doesn’t release anything toxic. the ending to the film isn’t just strange, it’s incredibly inaccurate.

  22. 22
  23. 23
    Phoebe says:

    Are you kidding me? I LOVED the albino alligators.

    @gusthedog: and I never thought they were mutants. Nor did he say they were, and if people want to leap to that “implication” because they’ve seen that particular Simpsons episode a lot, well, que sera sera, but it’s not on him. The fact that the power plant produces this steam that creates an environment (albeit enclosed) where these alligators swim around is just freaky, and I think it was the “freaky” aspect that he was going for.

    But I think maybe he was saying that, ok, we feel connected to prehistoric people through these paintings, but how much can we be reading in, how much can we truly know about them? And staring at the alligators, which were supposed to represent alien-ness, I thought, “aw, look at them paddling around, that looks delightful” and basically identified with THEM too. I’m a raging anthropomorphist. Because it’s funner than feeling alienated from everything and everyone, I guess.

  24. 24
    gusthedog says:

    @phoebe: I’m a dog, so instead of anthropomophizing the alligators, i’m just terrified of them. perhaps that influenced my opinion. but yes, it was a jump to assume he suggested the mutant connection. and if he was going for a freaky vibe for the scene, he certainly succeeded.

  25. 25
    Batocchio says:

    Thanks, Anne Laurie. I was planning on seeing this eventually, but now I’ll make a greater effort to see it in the theater.

  26. 26

    albino alligators from the southern u.s. taken from their natural habitat and forced to live in the south of france?

    i am thinking this was something political.

    i hate three-d, but i will see this film in its 2d iteration.

  27. 27
    Mike G says:

    @Southern Beale:

    How can the cave drawings be 32,000 years old when the Earth itself is only 6000 years old?

    The Free Market solved the problem back before France became soshulist.

  28. 28
    Bloix says:

    About the alligators – Herzog has a habit of telling falsehoods in his movies – he thinks it poetic. I heard interview with him once in which he described how and why he does it and gave as an example a statement he made, in the voiceover to
    La Soufrière (a 1977 film about a volcanic eruption on the island of Guadeloupe), that all the snakes on the island swam into the sea and drowned.

    It seems to me that the falsehood he tells in this film about the radioactive albino alligators (in truth, imported from Louisiana) is more serious, as it has a political purpose in the way that the snake falsehood didn’t.

  29. 29
    Wil says:

    Saw it last weekend in 3D….completely amazing. So there really IS a use for 3D after all.

    Didn’t understand the ‘albino alligator’ stuff at the end, but it’s only the last couple of minutes, and after the movie someone sitting a few seats from me said, “Herzog’s movies are great, but they’d be better if he didn’t put that kind of shit in there all the time…” or something to that effect.

    Still….completely amazing.

  30. 30
    Phoebe says:

    @Fucen Pneumatic Fuck Wrench Tarmal: I hate 3d too, but this really needs it/deserves it/uses it well. And Herzog hates 3d too — for everything but this movie! I read it in an interview. This interview.

    See it in 3d!

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