David D'Arcy
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The Cabinet of Werner Herzog

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Cave of Forgotten Dreams

If you’re tired of the art world’s race toward novelty, the latest documentary from Werner Herzog is for you.

The man who took on the Amazon in Aguirre, the Wrath of God has now taken on pre-history. In  Cave of Forgotten Dreams, the mostly-charcoal cave pictures of animals that Herzog films near Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc in the Ardeche region of southern France are more than 30,000 years old.  Herzog’s film would be a wild novelty, if brazen weird expeditions weren’t already his trademark.

An Image of a Horse Is Among Many Found Underground in Cave of Forgotten Dreams

I saw Cave of Forgotten Dreams this week at the San Francisco International Film Festival – for the third time. You can see it in theaters in New York.

The film is hypnotic, and I’m saying this about the work of a man who claims to have hypnotized his entire cast in Heart of Glass (1976).

Bear in mind that “pre-history” is a convenient term for a time that we don’t know much about. But these pictures are old. For a sense of perspective, the cave artists of Lascaux (17,300 years ago) are about midway between us and the Chauvet artists.

A rock face fell some 8000 years ago to cover what had been the entrance to the caves.  That miracle preserved the pictures. A near-total prohibition by the French government on entering the caves hopes is a step toward continuing to preserve them.

Werner Herzog On Location in Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Archaeologists found them in 1994. Access is extremely restricted. Until now, all we had were official still photographs. Now Cave of Forgotten Dreams, thanks to 3-D, gives you an intimate (or claustrophobic) sense of the space in which the “artists” worked.

No one knows who the Chauvet artists were or why they worked there, or whether there are other caves with drawings from that time. Herzog films it all, with his own voice-over narration in a meandering 3-D, which follows the undulations of the cave surfaces with pictures of animals – horses, mammoths, lions, panthers, bears and rhinos. The naturalism of the images is almost as surprising as the fact that they exist at all.  Then there’s the gestural drama. We have to assume that the “artists” saw these animals. Could they have dreamed them?

Some of them call to mind Susan Rothenberg’s horses. You may also here that he compositions are reminiscent of  those in Picasso’s Rose Period paintings of animals. (Reminiscent of pictures made many thousands of years later?) Most of them look like nothing you’ve seen before. If the artists depicted themselves, we have no evidence of it. As Herzog likes to remind you, many of the cave’s mysteries remain unsolved.  Given the fragility of the pictures, I don’t think we can expect another filmmaker to solve them.

A 3-D documentary of a descent into a cave with magically sculptural stalactites and stalagmites sounds like the ultimate gimmick, which it is. Then there was the suspense of last-minute delivery to the Toronto International Film Festival last September of the just-finished film. Think of it as an eloquent argument for three-dimensional filmmaking. (Brace yourself for 3-D films from Scorsese and other cinematic purists soon. The train has left the station. It’s not just horror or animation for kids any more.)

Another reason to see Cave of Forgotten Dreams, besides the beguiling pictures’ sheer novelty, is that you’ll never be allowed to enter the fragile caves, unless you’re fabulously rich and plan to replicate the whole thing somewhere like Dubai or Art Basel Miami. (The film will play in theaters and on the History Channel, which helped finance it.) Herzog’s team only a got a minimal visit, which makes the filmmaking all the more extraordinary.

Werner Herzog, Director of Cave of Forgotten Dreams

After the film’s first screening last September, I asked Herzog why the French government that gave him access to the caves – under tight French control since 1994 – didn’t require him to premiere the documentary in France. Herzog paused and said, “They didn’t know it was finished” – well, as finished as any mystery story is.

Now they certainly do. Did Herzog pay a price for giving the film to English-speaking Canada? He wasn’t going to be permitted to revisit the caves any time soon.

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