Friday, May 27, 2011

Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2011)

Watching CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS, one cannot help feeling an almost spiritual connection with the past. Not just a connection with the paintings discovered on the walls of the long abandoned Chauvet cave in the south of France, but with those who painted them – a long-forgotten group of people about whom we know nothing, other than what they tell us through their art.

Except that they’re not forgotten. Not really. Werner Herzog’s film is a testament to the endurance of the human spirit and its capacity for creativity and self-expression. And though the cave paintings that he lovingly showcases in 3-D were, in fact, created over the span of several thousand years by various artists, the fact that the oldest of them are said to represent the earliest human artistic endeavors is staggering and humbling at the same time.

Humbling, in the sense that not only does the cave serve, however inadvertently, as an archive of these earliest known artistic endeavors, but also in that it provides a kind of communal space where the past meets the present, as a contemporary artist (Herzog) comes into direct contact with the first generation of artists. One of the most haunting moments is a feeling that Herzog describes having experienced himself when entering the cave: an overwhelming sense of interrupting the artists in the middle of their work, as if he can feel their eyes upon him as he makes his way through their studio. It perhaps takes an artist, in this case a filmmaker like Herzog, to fully articulate the kind of connection that these paintings provide to the culture that created them. It is quite moving to think that these paintings, seen only by small groups of people tens of thousands of years ago, and shut off from view for nearly 30 millennia, are now receiving their widest audience exposure yet through the recorded image of the motion picture.

It is as a filmmaker that Herzog makes his most insightful observations about the paintings themselves, noting the use of multiple legs on a depiction of a bison to create the illusion of movement. Herzog also observes how the play of light and shadow, cast from the torches of these early artists on to the cave wall, would have provided the sensation of motion, just as the battery-operated torches of Herzog and his crew demonstrate. As Herzog describes the ways in which these paintings would have been observed, there is a reverence and wonder in his voice that suggests a very real spiritual connection between himself and his predecessors of 32,000 years ago.

At one point in the film, it is suggested that, at one time, the cave probably served a religious purpose, as indicated by an altar on which rests a cave bear skull. How appropriate, then, that the cave still provides a kind of spiritual connection with those who first explored the human’s capacity for artistic expression and who continue to speak to future generations that look upon their work.

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