Sunday, December 25, 2011

Werner Herzog is the Captain of the Cavemen, With CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS


Note: This film was released theatrically earlier this year, but I recently watched it via Netflix.

- In the Chauvet Caves in France, archaeologists have recently found paintings dating back 37,000 years, made by primitive man. They are the oldest man-made drawings yet discovered. Sealed off for untold ages following a rock collapse, the caves and their secrets have been remarkably preserved. Now, they are sealed off for scientific research, with toxins in the caves preventing anyone from entering for more than a few hours at a time. Few people will ever see the caves and their ancient drawings in person, but thanks to Werner Herzog, we have the next best thing - a fascinating documentary that takes us inside the Chauvet Caves and lets us have a look at this relic of our primitive forefathers.

What I love about Werner Herzog is that he is a filmmaker who is also a philosopher of sorts. When confronted with phenomena like the drawings in the Chauvet Caves, Herzog is interested not just in the scientific and cultural findings, but also in the wider implications of this discovery. Sometimes, you don't know whether to nod in agreement at Herzog's musings or chuckle at their grim sincerity, but regardless, there's no one you'd rather have as your guide on this journey. Werner himself, I suspect, is half-mad (and I say that in the most endearing way possible), and so he has a way of tapping into the madness of others. He turns his camera on all manner of eccentrics and questions them sans irony or judgement, only with genuine curiosity. Herzog is accompanied to the caves by a motley crew of scientists and researchers, but in addition to his more factual questions, he asks them things like "what is human-ness?", and probes for the spiritual connection between the primitive cave artists and modern man. Herzog's distinct narration only pops up occasionally in the film, but his calming, questioning voice combined with the film's evocative, moody score makes the entire film itself into a sort of soothing, quasi-spiritual experience. Herzog will often simply let his cameras sit on the ancient paintings, slowly guiding our view, inviting us to ponder the works and their implications.

To that end, I do wish that there was a little more science to accompany the spirituality. As various subjects were brought up - the various, now-extinct animals depicted in the caves, for example - I found myself wishing that we were given a bit more context. I was eager to know more about the broader background here - what was the age that these men lived in like? At what points were some of these species killed off or driven to extinction? Herzog however isn't as interested in creating a true science doc, however. Instead, he is more interested in recreating the experience of descending down into these caves, and of recreating the awe and wonder that he felt as he visits this primordial world.

Overall, it's somewhat of a bare-bones production, rarely diverging from the caves and the drawings, with little attempt to recreate the time or place of the art, except via the experience of the caves. It's funny though, because Herzog can't seem to help himself from, almost by accident, making some of the scientists and researchers the unintentional stars of the film. There's the former circus performer, now an archaeologist, who ruminates on the spiritual nature of drawings. There's the doddering scientist who awkwardly tries to show us how ancient man used throwing spears to kill their pray. There's a crazy old cave-hunter who literally sniffs out caves with his nose, proudly sharing with us that he is the former president of France's national association of perfumers. Somehow, all of these oddballs are drawn to the equally eccentric Herzog, and vice versa.

And don't worry, if the movie proves too straightforward for you for most of its runtime, Herzog also includes a whacked-out postscript in which he visits a nature preserve nearby to the caves, where various species of animals are bred. With his camera focused on a group of "mutant" albino alligators, Herzog wonders what they would think should they happen into the Cave of Forgotten Dreams. It's all pretty insane, but wonderfully so. Who else but Herzog would close a documentary on ancient cave drawings with eerie, lingering shots of the eyes of an albino gator? God bless this man, he really is one of a kind.

In any case, while I don't think this film can hope to supplant the Planet Earths of the world as any sort of definitive science/nature doc, this is the history of ancient man as only Werner Herzog could deliver it. It's a glimpse into some truly thought-provoking paintings, that, indeed, stir the imagination and make you wonder about the life and times of prehistoric man. All this, of course, with a distinctly Herzogian twist.

My Grade: B+

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