Sunday, June 12, 2011

Where The Wild Things Were: Forgotten Dreams Remembered

Werner Herzog and his fellow filmmakers in the Chauvet cave

Werner Herzog’s wonderful 2007 documentary about scientists studying the Antarctic is Encounters at the End of the World, which refers to a remote frozen outpost at the bottom of the planet. But the title suggests another, more ominous meaning: Au revoir, Earth! The German director’s latest effort could well have been called Encounters at the Beginning of the World, thanks to the French limestone cliff where other scientists investigate hundreds of primitive rock paintings and engravings that date back at least 30,000 years. Instead, his new film is Cave of Forgotten Dreams, a thrilling exploration of civilization’s Aurignacian Culture origins showcased in 21st-century 3D.

Herzog has swapped the Encounters zoologists, volcanologists, and physicists for Dreams archeologists, anthropologists, and paleontologists, as well as live penguins for pictures of long-dead mammoths, bison, panthers, hyenas, lions, and rhinos. Yes, lions and rhinos in the South of France!. Why not? It’s a lovely and fertile spot, near the Ardeche River, where all manner of wildlife both hunters’ prey and predators would have gathered back in the day. The Chauvet Cave, sealed off and hidden by an avalanche since the Ice Age about 20,000 years ago, was discovered by three spelunkers in 1994. Upon spotting the drawings, later determined to be the oldest ever found, one of them exclaimed the French equivalent of ”They were here!”

“They” means early Homo sapiens who had started to eclipse the presumably less gifted Neanderthals. Lacking a written language, the ascendant beings apparently signed their art work with red ochre palm prints close to the cave’s narrow entrance. The aesthetic quality is exquisite, especially considering how rudimentary the available materials must have been. Horses, for instance, are depicted with the sort of detail -- including sophisticated shading and perspective -- that any contemporary creative type would envy. Cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger’s camera also focuses on glistening stalagmites and stalactites that give the man-made images an even more ethereal context.

Herzog (right) with archeologist Wulf Hein
Herzog narrates with commentaries that are either wry or speculative. He loves obsessive real-life characters (Little Dieter Needs to Fly, 1998; My Best Fiend, 1999; Grizzly Man, 2005) or their manic counterparts in fiction (Aguirre: Wrath of God, 1972; Fitzcarraldo, 1982, Rescue Dawn, 2006). A few of the talking heads in Dreams come across as quirky, particularly an archeologist named Wulf Hein who is dressed in an Inuit-inspired reindeer-hide tunic and plays the reproduction of a Paleolithic flute carved from vulture bones.

But Herzog’s pursuit of extremes in nature and prehistory remains an almost mystical quest. When the scientists and four-person film crew observe a moment of silence to commune with the ancients who decorated the cave, he asks himself in voiceover: “Is this their heartbeat or ours?” The spiritual tone is enhanced by an Ernst Reijseger score that is all somber cello and chanting.

A young child’s footprint, left behind a mere 25 millennia ago, is not far from the paw marks of a wolf prompting Herzog to wonder if they were friends. The people responsible for the paintings actually spanned thousands of years, a continuum of communication that is a bit more than the “frozen flash of a moment in time” that he describes. They supposedly never lived there, perhaps just reserving the site for rituals and as a gallery to display their talents. The floor is strewn with skulls and other bones, most from extinct cave bears.

Horses and rhinos
The walls of the 1,300-foot-long cavernous space are not flat, and some of the 13 different animal species appearing on them look as if they’re in transit. Perfect for 3D, this effect may have been intentional. And a few of the fauna were drawn with additional legs, conveying movement further accentuated by the dance of shadows from the torches necessary to illuminate the darkness. Herzog deems this effect “a form of proto-cinema,” like frames in an animation.

Now accessible for only six weeks each spring, Chauvet is otherwise protected by a locked steel door and intricate audio-visual surveillance system that also monitors climatological and biochemical conditions. Those allowed to visit for just four hours a day Herzog secured permission from the French government in 2010 are required to move along a two-foot-wide metal walkway that keeps them from getting too close to the art. The moisture from human breath can cause mould. Similarly, the lights his crew carried had to be “cold panels” to prevent destructive heating.

To assuage the curious public, according to Herzog, a replica of Chauvet is being constructed nearby as a theme park. He doesn’t dwell on this fact, even though it’s certainly worth a sardonic laugh or two. The production is not nearly as humorous as that of Encounters, in fact. He poked more fun at the Antarctic researchers but seems to revere most of the Dreams team.

Yet, his trademark whimsy led him to provide a hilarious epilogue by perusing a biosphere project in the area that harnesses water warmed by a gigantic nuclear reactor. One result: mutant albino crocodiles. These creatures could be the sci-fi stars of a Jurassic Park-like attraction. Let the tourists gawk at them and leave the glorious Chauvet critters alone in their time capsule of a cave.

Susan Green is a film critic and arts journalist based in Burlington, Vermont. She is the co-author with Kevin Courrier of Law & Order: The Unofficial Companion and with Randee Dawn of Law & Order Special Victims Unit: The Unofficial Companion.

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