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Film Review

Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Can we ever truly comprehend large numbers, especially time? Paintings made ten of thousands of years ago in caves, by people anatomically identical to us, seem so distant in time that it is hard to grasp the magnitude. The earliest Egyptian and Hellenic cultures are 5000 years old, but many of the cave paintings are five and six times that age. They are the earliest known human art and the earliest preserved form of communication. Over 300 cave art sites in Europe are known, most discovered in the 20th C, some now famous: Lascaux, in the Dordogne; Altamira, in northern Spain; and Niaux, in Ariege. Lascaux was discovered in 1940, but Niaux was known in the 17th century. Until the 20th century, no one suspected its age. In 1994, Jean-Marie Chauvet and two other cave explorers discovered an enormous cave in southwestern France. It was in the high limestone cliffs on the Ardeche River, but the natural entrance to the cave had been blocked by rock slides at least 10,000 years ago. After going deep into the cave, they discovered an amazing array of cave paintings, the bones of many animals, and even human handprints and footprints. Radio carbon dating of the charcoal revealed that most of the paintings were done 32,000 years ago, the earliest known cave paintings. By contrast, the Lascaux paintings are much later, about 17,000 years old.

Werner Herzog, the great German born (now living in LA) director (Grizzly Man, Encounters at the End of the World, Little Dieter Wants to Fly, Rescue Dawn, Fitzcarraldo, etc) heard of the discovery. He had been interested in cave paintings since he was a boy, and contacted the French Minister of Culture, who happened to be a fan of Herzog's films. Herzog was able to persuade the government to allow him into Chauvet cave to make this film. In many other caves, paintings had been damaged by mold growth accelerated by the moisture and CO2 in people's breath, especially Lascaux, with its huge visitation numbers. Now no public entry is permitted at Lascaux and many other sites. Chauvet cave was immediately sealed off after its discovery and strict protocols established, including severely limited entry only for scientific purposes, time limits, and a team assembled by the French government to preserve and study the cave.

"Cave of Forgotten Dreams" takes us into the Chauvet cave with Herzog's small crew and the Chauvet scientists. The conditions imposed by the government on filming were strict. Everyone had to stay on a narrow aluminum plank walkway to avoid damaging the fragile floor, which in itself held many clues (i.e. footprints) and delicate formations. Herzog was only permitted six days to film, his crew limited to four, including Herzog, and had to use portable battery operated lighting entirely hand held by two of his crew.

After suiting up and walking through a narrow passageway, we enter the first chamber and see exquisite calcite formations, stalagtites and stalagmites, which glisten from the reflected light of their crystal surfaces. Herzog narrates in his distinct voice. The first chamber is very large, and then we see a drawing of a rhino, clearly identifiable with its double horns. It is lovely, and seems so fresh. Further we begin to see many other drawings of horses, other rhinos, bison, deer, aurochs (huge prehistoric cattle), bears, and finally lions. It is breathtaking. They are outlined with charcoal, with some having shading from torches or applied pigment. Often there are multiple heads in echelon, such as a beautiful panel of four horse heads. Sometimes the animals are fighting, as with two rhinos. Sometimes to show movement, the artist has drawn more than four legs. The horns and antlers are dramatic and graceful. A large rear chamber has a number of lions, which according to Herzog, are the first ever seen in cave art. They are beautiful, with their heads defined by outline and a few interior lines. They radiate power and majesty. But the most astonishing finds were palm prints making a design on a wall, and finally, a negative of a hand, created by blowing iron based pigment around the artist's hand. It was as if the artist had been waiting a millennium to greet us. Herzog shows us more: a haunting series of tracks in the now hardened mud of the cave floor, of a young boy with wolf tracks alongside. Herzog wonders if the wolf was stalking the boy or if they were friends. This cave was inhabited by cave bears, a huge species that became extinct at nearly the time of the paintings. The cave floor is littered with bear skulls and bones, but one skull has been set on a rock, clearly placed by a human being, as if to create a shrine.

This writer's only criticism is the postscript about a nuclear power plant not far from the cave, and the crocodiles, including albinos, being raised in the warmed water. It seemed awkward and unnecessary, and added little to the already powerful film. "Cave of Forgotten Dreams" is an impressive film, fully as accomplished and beautiful as any of Herzog's other documentaries. It is being screened in both 3D and normal formats. Herzog's felt that the 3D was necessary to show how the drawings often took advantage of the curves of the cave walls. And it did add much to the interior footage, but seemed superfluous for the exterior footage. I loved "Cave of Forgotten Dreams" and strongly recommend seeing it on the big screen. Very few people will ever have access to this cave, so this film may be the only opportunity to see these transcendent paintings, other than in still images. It is art that begins to define us as human. Screening in both formats at the Kabuki.

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