For everyone who thinks that 3D should be limited to action movies or done away with altogether (cough, Roger Ebert, cough), the sensational documentary about the Chauvet cave paintings, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, should be an adequate rejoinder. Even though the 3D photography is far from perfect (washed out, sometimes mis-converged), it is absolutely essential to appreciating the artistry of the unknown artists who worked 30,000+ years ago on the uneven rock surfaces of the French cave. In this film, you will see these paintings in shifting, moving light which approximates their torches, and you will see how they used the bulges and pockets in the rock walls to give volume to the painted menagerie.
Director Werner Herzog goes to great lengths to bring the world of our early ancestors to life, but he doesn’t do that well. His is not a scientific mind, but a poet’s. And a clumsy poet, at that. (Albino alligators?!?) As anyone who has seen his work will attest, sometimes his reaching toward is its own reward. His previous celebrated documentaries, Grizzly Man and Little Dieter Needs to Fly, have a greater unity. But here he has a subject that is almost entirely made of mystery, and who can fault him for wandering off on whatever tangents that present themselves?
In Cave of Forgotten Dreams, you will meet a man dressed in reindeer fur who pipes the “Star-Spangled Banner” on a vulture-bone pipe. You will meet a master perfumer who sniffs the cave and detects the whiff of cavesmell. Even when he interviews the scientists doing amazingly detailed analysis of the cave, Herzog is more interested in their dreams and former careers as circus performers. Still, there’s a standard factual documentary hidden in all these distractions. Nothing is more chilling than the moment where scientists reconstruct the order of events on one wall. Some 40,000 years ago, a giant cave-bear scratched his claws. Thousands of years later, humans come along and draw some animal. Then, 5,000 years later, another set of humans come along, scratch over the first bits and draw their own bison. Considering that all of written human history will fit into 3,000 years, the scope of time on just one wall is mind-bending. We try to fathom these people who lived so long ago because they made art. And we make art too. So they must be us, right?
Where did humanity begin? When did we cross over from the animal kingdom into our own category? The clues left at Chauvet are tantalizing. Was it when we could imagine a being that was part bison, part woman? Was it the moment an individual artist made his signature with his distinct hand-print? A possibility the movie never considers is the more mundane one: there was plenty of cave-painting but little of it has been preserved. The early humans painted these animals because these are the large game animals that they hunted. (Horses were food at this time, not companions.) Their obsession was not religious, or spiritual, or even scientific. It was simply hunger mixed with boredom.
I found the long montages of the paintings in the film hypnotic, beautiful, transcendent. One person sitting next to me experienced hunger mixed with boredom. Who is to say which is the more valid response?