Stop reading this blog. Look up where Werner Herzog’s documentary movie Cave of Forgotten Dreams is playing in your town. Go see this mesmerizing movie.
If you are reading this blog, you are probably interested in aesthetics and art. Furthermore, you may be interested in the way science intersects with art. Cave of Forgotten Dreams is a movie about the incredible caves in Chauvet, France, that were discovered in 1994. This cave houses an amazing menagerie of Paleolithic art, with beautiful depictions of horses, bulls, mammoths and lions. One panel has a series of palm prints of a person with a crooked little finger. Footsteps of a boy about 8 were found across the floor of the cave. The floor itself is strewn with bones of cave bears, an animal now extinct. There is even a skull of a cave bear place in a rock as if on a pedestal or alter. The amazing thing is that the paintings in this cave date back to 32,000 years ago. The more famous Lascaux caves were painted around 17,000 years ago. That means the distance in time from Lascaux to Chauvet is almost the same distance in time as from the Louvre to Lascaux.
The French government assiduously protects the cave. They recognized the importance of this policy since Lascaux has been damaged by mold from the breath of hordes of tourists. Chauvet is only open for a few weeks a year in March and April. Access is restricted to a few scientists. That means you and I will never be inside this cave. Herzog offers the next best thing. He was granted unprecedented access to these caves and has produced a documentary of stunning beauty. The movie is in 3-D, but unfortunately I saw it in a theater with only 2-D capabilities. Showing how these Paleolithic artists made use of the undulations of the cave walls as part of their compositions would seem to be an ideal use of 3-D movie technology. I plan to see the movie again in 3-D.
The fact that Herzog had a limited crew that could only walk in single file over a protected path in the cave with limited lighting equipment gives the movie a charming quality. It lacks the slick gloss of a highly produced studio creation. Herzog’s own sonorous voice and inimitable ways of describing what we see and his enthusiastic reactions to the paintings carries us along the trance of watching this movie. His fascination and sense of wonder casts a spell on the viewers. It is an immersive experience. His interviews of the scientists at the site are intriguing. He asks questions on everyone’s minds. What do these paintings mean? Why did these early humans make them?
The movie has some unusual delights. I especially liked the surprising segment of a French perfumier who smells vents in the limestone cliffs, trying to detect the odor of ancient caves hidden in the recesses of the canyon walls. His description of the subtlety of old smells in the cave is marvelous.
Despite the wonders of this movie, it is not without flaws. As a scientist, I would have preferred more interviews with scientists to draw out the complexities and controversies of how best to think about these paintings. I recognized that my preference might not apply to a general audience. There are, however, two other things about the movie that were annoying. The movie’s musical score is ponderous at times. As we gaze at these amazing paintings, heavily orchestrated music tells us what emotions we are supposed to be experiencing. A subtle score that would let the viewer generate their emotions without manipulation would have been better. Finally, Herzog ends the movie with a bizarre post-script. He goes to a nuclear power plant not too far from the caves and films in a biosphere created by hot water run off from the plant. He has footage of albino crocodiles. Here, his musings so entrancing in the cave, seem disjointed and bizarre. It is as if he planned to make a separate documentary of this biosphere, but then decided to tack it onto the movie about Chauvet.
The flaws I mention are minor compared to the experience of wandering in these caves with Herzog. It is an experience of being overwhelmed by the elegance of these ancient paintings and marveling at their existence. If you love art, you must see this movie.