Saturday, May 14, 2011

Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Last night the new Werner Herzog film Cave of Forgotten Dreams opened here in Salt Lake City and we went to see it. Last weekend my husband took me to visit my first cave - Lehman Cave at the Great Basin National Park in Nevada - so I thought now I would take him to see a cave too.

(Spoiler alert...if you don't want to know anything about the film before seeing it, then do not read further. Let me just say I would recommend seeing it.)

In this documentary, Herzog gets exclusive access into the very famous Chauvet caves (Cave of Chauvet Pont d'Arc) of southern France where we can see the oldest known pictorial drawings from man. For that reason alone I think this is worth seeing - even though it is a bit slow. Simply to catch a glimpse into a world you or I will never be allowed to enter, and to see these drawings that are as much as 32,000 years old. It really is a wild thing to think about. And it is wild to think about the animals that roamed southern France at that time. The images in the caves are of horses, rhinoceros, cave bears, cave lions, bison and wooly mammoths. There is only one partial image of a human. Way in the back of the cave they found a drawing of a woman from the waist down, with a bison head. That is it for images of people. There are a few places where someone put their hand print over and over again.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.
The caves are about 400 miles south of Paris in beautiful countryside (those countryside images make me want to go to southern France tout de suite!). The cave was discovered not long ago, in 1994, by French cavers. They have determined that the cave had been sealed shut for 20,000 years, thus preserving the drawings. It was immediately closed off to keep people out as human presence in the cave can destroy everything. The only ones allowed in are scientists and their time in the caves is extremely limited and their movements very restricted. The Government of France oversees the cave and they are trying to get it designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Visit the official government website here for more information.

I learned of this film from a recent story on NPR's Fresh Air program. If you aren't going to see the film, I recommend listening to the interview with Herzog. I really only know Herzog from his other documentary films Grizzly Man (excellent - my favorite of his) and Encounters at the End of the World (beautiful). I think he is slightly kooky, but I like him. There are some kooky old French characters in this film that I love - the old Perfumer walking around the worlds sniffing for cave air, the sweet goofy scientist with the big grey mustache who tries to show us how Neanderthal man may have thrown spears for hunting animals, and the archaeologist who tramps through the woods wearing traditional deer skin and animal fur clothing and plays the Star Spangled Banner on a replica of an ancient bone flute. Herzog wasn't too wacky in the film, but I have to admit that the last few minutes of dialogue where he talks about a nearby nuclear plant and a greenhouse where they are breeding albino alligators and then was talking about the alligators looking at the drawings in the went completely over my head. I have no idea - none - of what he was talking about or the point he was trying to make. If you can explain it to me, please do.

This film is out in 3-D, but the small, independent, theater (Broadway Theater - my favorite in Salt Lake) where we saw this does not do 3-D. I was puzzled to learn that this film is out in 3-D because I am not sure that this is a film that cries out for or needs 3-D. The film is mostly just a small camera crew walking along a narrow walkway that has been put into the cave, trying to capture the images on the walls and the bones on the ground with hand-held cameras and flashlights, interspersed occasionally with outside interviews with French scientists who work on the cave. I don't get the point of the 3-D. I guess maybe it is cool to have the cave images come out closer? I don't know - I don't think it is necessary. If any of you see it in 3-D and can share your experience and thoughts on that, I would appreciate it.

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