The Cave of Forgotten Dreams W. Herzog (2010; Fr. USA) Camera: Peter Zeitlinger
Viewed Tyneside Cinema: 31 March 2011; ticket price £8.50
Did Herzog forget something…?
At first as I watched The Cave of Forgotten Dreams, it seemed to me a TV doc tricked out with 3D wow factor imagery to enable a pedestrian but worthy documentary to be screened theatrically and make some money. As it developed its theme it seemed to do no more than go through the regulation art archaeological genuflections, a routine sweep with music through the Chauvet cave complex with its ice age paintings. Destined to succeed as a cinema release because of its core subject matter, the paintings and because it came stamped with the Herzog imprimatur.
What is difficult to evaluate is the extent to which WH has structured into the Cave of Forgotten Dreams (CFG) a laminate structural parody which overlays WH’s sense of serious intention declared in the film by both his voice and the interviews he conducts with the scientists. To some extent most of his recent work seems to have an element of parody, taking standard filmic structures and then undermining them by use of expressive content that deconstructs the overt claims of the film to be about what it appears to be about. An overlaid parody is a type of fabrication, perpetrated first on the contributors and later on viewers (who may fail to get it). If WH has filmed CFD with a shadow parodic form overlaying its the primary structure, it looks like WH have given himself an intellectual fall back position. This is a stance acceptable where film is made under politically censorious conditions; but it’s a position which under other conditions may betray the lack the moral courage to say what it is that you have seen. Or of course WG may be on the level, and intended to make a film with one consistent level of meaning: the proto-reverential.
In heavily hushed tone, archly emphatic of wondrous nature of the Chauvet site, WH leads us on a tour of this complex. Intercut in the course of the tour, WG talks to scientists whose work is centred on the caves. In fact the caves are only open to the scientists: they alone have access to them, they alone have the key to open the massive steel door that leads inside the cave; they alone have access to the interior of the site which contains the beautiful paintings (and many other fragments and traces of ice age accretions). All who gain entry to this hallowed ground, including WH and his crew, are subject to strict rules governing all aspects of movement and behaviour, the which severely circumscribes the positioning of the cameras.
As the cave’s human and archaeological narrative is hypothetically unpacked by the scientists from the clues they have found, the possibility suggests itself that the cave was a place of Shamanistic ritual. The paintings are all found in the deepest and darkest recesses where no light would have penetrated, A sort of holy of holies, an inner sanctum which few were permitted to enter, where idle gaze was restricted: a place bound up with religious practices whose purpose and meaning is now lost.
And when we consider the present situation at Chauvet, not much has changed. What has happened is that the scientists have become the new priests, the new shamans and voodoo practitioners. As WG’s voice informs us only the scientists have access to this place; only the scientists may gaze upon the wonders of the cave, only the scientists may tread where no other foot may step. The scientists it is who explain and reveal to us the meaning of all this. With their monopolisation of access they alone caste the chicken bones and read significance into the patterns. Like the shamans and priests of old, they control the sources of the readings. Technology is technology: whether magical or scientific. And the success is to a large extent defined by the control of meaning. In CFD, WH’s scientists take on the de facto mantel of a religion. They have their technical apparatus and processes which reveal to them the hidden aspects of matter which legitimises the statements and assertions they make about the nature of what we are seeing, and by extension, our own nature. As we are taken through the CFD the overlaid lamination suggests that nothing structurally has changed here in 32,000 years except belief systems with scientists supplanting shamans. The ‘public’ is excluded by the series of rationales relating to the delicate state of the cave as previously they were perhaps excluded by a series of religious rationales related to profane violation of the mysteries of the sanctum. We are bound in an irony that ice age man and information age man operate parallel systems.
I think that in making CFD, WH is using the film to make the claim for himself to be an artist guide, a sort of light bearer into the cave of the collective human soul. Either that or he is playing the trickster spoof to the hilt. The film has a tone and style of conceited self importance. It is a feature of contemporary Western culture that religion, with its complex psychic technology and it’s interpretation of meaning for man has been superseded by the arts. Scientists may be the technical shamans, but in the West it’s the artist to whom we look to reveal meaning; whose function it is to tell us who we are or who directs our sensual and psychic engagement with the world. Art from being the servant of God, becomes the source in its own right of sustaining self belief, to the extent that some people will tell you that they ‘live’ for art or music etc in a manner in which they seem to believe these forms can be embraced without context or meaning.
In this sense the paintings in the Chauvet complex are presented in the film as a sort of Garden of Eden moment. Not in the sense of the Fall: in this story self awareness replaces sin as the defining moment; artistic activity is presented as being co-existent with a key development of human consciousness. There is perhaps the defining moment at the end of the film, when WH puts a ‘question’ to the wise old scientist: “Were these paintings the beginning of the human soul?” Of course it is a question that cannot have an answer. The scientist takes the bait and replies. His answer is little more than intellectual babble (I found it impossible to understand), but the emotional glow in his response tells it all. He believes in art: he is a believer. He looks for meaning and finds it.
The aura with which the film is shot, the hushed tone of enunciation, the music on the sound track all conspire to create a mood and tone of revelatory importance implied in the moment when ‘art’ was born. In particular the corny use made by WG of the sound of a ‘heart beat’ laid over the paintings was presumably intended to reinforce in the viewer the idea that the paintings were made at the cusp of life’s beginning, the birth of ‘art’ whose beat continues to pump the life blood of meaning through the social body for ‘liberal’ humankind in the 21st century.
There is a strange postscript which takes place in a large structure, containing a tropical environment that is heated by waste water from a nuclear power station. WH uses this short sequence to introduce strains of thought that are typically whimsical. WG films the crocodiles lazily basking in the warm waters, and using the shared time framework with the paintings, asks what the crocodiles might make of the cave? Then zooming in on the mutant albino crocodiles asks the rhetorical question: “Are we today’s crocodiles looking back in time when we see the paintings?” The stupidity of this po voiced question, asked raised the issue for me of WH’s purpose in making the film: one lamination or two? A straight documentary or a spoof? And who cares?