The Ardèche River flows quietly across Pont d’Arc into southern France’s open air and sunshine. Looking at the grand vista, a voice from the famed Chauvet Cave says: “This is just like a Wagner opera.”

The voice belongs to the German filmmaker Werner Herzog who brought his small crew and Teutonic sensibility to the picturesque French country. After all, this documentary about upper-Palaeolithic paintings would be shot deep in cave where loaded meaning of the word “dream” is less likely to evaporate, not unlike those beautifully preserved graffiti from 30,000 years ago.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010) is said to be among the first documentaries using the new 3-D technology, of which Herzog is not a fan. “This is an imperative, not a decision.” he explains. 3-D, in fact, is an unnatural way of looking: “3D will always have one major problem, and that is when you look as a human being, normally only one eye looks dominantly at things. The other eye is mostly ignored. And only in specific cases – if somebody approaches you – all of a sudden the brain starts to use both eyes for establishing depth of field and understanding space.”

A sense of fluidity was attempted in this 3-D documentary on the 2-D inanimate cave paintings. But are they really inanimate? Many animals – bison and horses – depicted by primitive “artists” have extra heads and legs, indicating movement. The cave paintings, thus, are the earliest animations. To be more precise, they are the earliest cinema. Herzog must have found his artistic forefathers here.  The caves, cave paintings and the archaeologists are his objects.

“The upper-palaeo men lived in a world of fluidity.” one French archaeologist explains in the film. By “fluidity”, he means “animism”. The material world and human’s immaterial souls are one and the same. The universe, landscape, animals, plants, objects, human bodies and minds are constantly transforming into each other. “We are not homo sapiens – we are homo spiritual.”

As soon as the fluidity stopped for a moment in the human mind, an unbridgeable gap between word and image, sound and silence, order and chaos, contemplation and action, rationality and irrationality… emerges. The awkward contradiction can be found in those bison with eight legs in the moment of fear arrested by tranquility. It can be found in the film itself: a film documenting homo spiritual – not homo sapiens – is too wordy to enwrap us with awe (unlike those by Frederic Wiseman). Is the omnipresent neo-Renaissance music by Ernst Reijseger, which I enjoyed, an anxious attempt to recreate primitive sensibility? Or is it imposing a 19th-century Teutonism to palaeolithic cave dwellers (and us)? At one point in the film, Herzog even traveled “across the valley” from France to Germany to check out the Venus of Hohles Fels. He also had one German experimental archaeologist performed the Star-Spangled Banner tune on a recreated palaeolithic flute. Paintings are still here, but music is what has been lost and forgotten.

I suspect the filmmaker is attracted more to music than to painting. I suspect all good filmmakers are latent musicians. I suspect an attempt at depicting painting is preferrable than an attempt at depicting music. We can extend our taste in visual arts to the primitive ages (the nude female figure in Chauvet Cave resembles a Picasso, Herzog tells us); our taste in music, however, is much more limited. Painting is horizontal; music is vertical. Painting is material; music is vaporous. Painting is edgily; music is edgeless.

Another Teutonic filmmaker (albeit Russian) Alexander Sokurov whose sensibility travels between music and paintings once said that he wanted to create an edgeless feel in his films. His Russian Ark, a 96-minute non-stop one-take, is a 96-minute “vertical” walk across the gigantic Hermitage Museum. In fact, it succeeded in three-dimensionality without using 3-D technology.

Sokurov’s museum film successfully advocated a historical holism with its use of quirky details.  For audience, one of the greatest difficulties in understanding this film is not its lack of linear narrative, its incoherent dialogues (people are often murmuring in the film), and its lavish attention paid to objects, but to recognize who’s who and what’s what. Most of the historical characters – Peter the Great, Nicholas I, Nicholas II – was not explicitly pointed out. There is one figure often appeared suspiciously behind the Frenchman on the margin of the screen. He was never explained or developed, but people who are familiar with Russian history know that in the 19th-century, foreigners were often spied on by government agents. The dinner of the Nicholas II with his family looks tranquil and mundane to an innocent spectator, but the experience of the scene will be enhanced if one knows that this was the last dinner before he and his family were captured and executed by the revolutionaries – the actual seizure of the palace, however, is not shown in the film.

The words and messages in Caves of Forgotten Dreams (in essence another “museum film”) are loud and clear, too loud and clear. Fortunately, we are not entirely deprived of quirkiness. I’m not too sure about the albino crocodiles in end of the film – it’s too self-consciously metaphoric to be of interest, but we do have this young French archaeologist who was an acrobat specializing in monocycle and juggling before coming to Chauvet Cave. The 21-century, after all, continues a tradition of disorderly beauty occurred long before the palaeolithic graffiti artists walked into the dark cave.

 The cave museum (Chauvet Cave of Ardèche, France):

The palace museum (Hermitage of St. Petersburg):

, ,

16. On art as escape (from art): God gave blood to penis and brain, but not enough for both – filmmaking is about intense engagement; it is a very physical process, like making love; it takes a lot of energy: that’s why I need to get away from it – by doing collage.
16.Art as escape by untimelythoughts
 
17. On Gus van Sant: intimate but distant, personal but intellectually reserved – a true artist.
17.Gus van Sant by untimelythoughts

18. On getting a sense of specific spaces:
18.A sense of space by untimelythoughts

 19. Physical, not aesthetic: “Why shaky cam? Cinema Verite? No, ask my doctor.”
19.Shaky cam by untimelythoughts

 20. “I’m not kidding but I’m kidding.”
20.I’m not kidding but I’m kidding by untimelythoughts

 

 

 11. On filmmaking: “Just do it, because we have to exist.”
11.Just do it by untimelythoughts

12. On location shooting in his own tiny apartment: “Because this is the state of my life”.
12.This apartment is the state of my life by untimelythoughts

13. On universal pigeons: “They shit on everyone.”
13.Universal pigeon by untimelythoughts

14. On films as roadmarks of life journeys: “You never go back, because you can’t!”
14.Journey by untimelythoughts

15. On solitude: “It’s really useful to lose your credit card and passport.”
15.Solitude by untimelythoughts

My real job is to love.” – Christopher Doyle

Christopher Doyle finished his beer on stage halfway through the TIFF event, too shy to ask for more – but he managed to hold on to his brilliance to the end. This is the first part of his Little Red Audiobook from the event compiled especially for you. Enjoy!

1. On career choice:“Don’t fucking trust the system; just do your own shit.”
01.Just do your own shit by untimelythoughts

2. On the philosophy of life: “You do what you can, not what you want. This is a very important concept.”
02.You do what you can by untimelythoughts

3. On the dichotomy of thought and action: “How did we do the trick? In Chinese, we say “wenxi, wuxi” (arts vs. actions), a traditional division of labor.”
03.Wenxiwuxi by untimelythoughts

4. On who holds the authority: “A person’s authority comes from the objects he works with. Many of you spend much more time online or on computer than I do, and you are the ones who shall be telling me how to do.”
04.Objects and persons by untimelythoughts

5. On style coming from restrictions and obligations: “In the West, you are probably going to build a cave [to create the style], but for us, style comes from restrictions and obligations. That’s the cultural dichotomy of the image-making between the West and East. “
05.Dichotomy by untimelythoughts

6. On “persons and things” in cinema: “There are only three people in cinema: actors in front of camera; audience behind it; and those who are in between – most of time it is me. My real job is to love, to be trusted, to be a bridge, to be a hollow tube.”
06.Three people in cinema by untimelythoughts

7. On what it takes to be a great artist : “The function of art is to be subjectively objective. The real artist has the ability to put all of himself in, and stand back.”
07.Little Britain by untimelythoughts

8. On purity: “What you see is what we shot. I believe as an artist you shall put as much in there as what you wish to share with the audience. Editing is only secondary – I’m such as a purist!”
08.Such a purist by untimelythoughts

9. On the lure and danger of impact-making in art: “The balance between organization and impact sometimes went wrong.”
09.Balance by untimelythoughts

10. On Toronto: “Toronto is a kind of oasis, not Miami as you said.”
10.Oasis by untimelythoughts

, ,

In front of Tafelmusik’s Ivars Taurins, I’m a criminal. Not that I have the luck to know him personally or professionally, but I was the culprit who was so eager to applaud in the end of one of the greatest performances of Mozart’s Great Mass in C minor a few years ago that I had the ending silence Mr. Taurins so solemnly held with his still batons shortened. That performance of this unfinished masterpiece transcendentally finished with a repetition of the opening Kyrie.

Bach’s Mass in B minor Tafelmusik performed this Friday opens and ends with similar expansive solemnity and calmness, although the final moments of chorus (in particular the sopranos), timpani and trumpets are not without euphoria. The concert was deliberately paced for a period performance, but the exuberance easily came when it was called for. The conducting of Mr. Taurins, as usual, was a feast on its own. One of the great aspects of musician as a profession, is their privilege, when intelligently applied, of expressing their deepest personal feelings publicly without being improper.

So how about the audience? The next evening I attended TSO’s concert of Beethoven (Piano Concerto No. 4 with Garrick Ohlsson) and Tchaikovsky (Manfred Symphony). The audience were responsive to the point that they applauded after almost every single movement, including the slow ones. This invites smiles from connoisseurs and snobs, but the fact remains that the “no applause between movements” rule was invented relatively recently. Applause between movements was probably even expected in Beethoven and Tchaikovsky’s times, as Alex Ross of the New Yorker discusses in details here.

Putting all those noise from impulsive applause and self-applause to rest, you may still find the gold so eloquently shining in the darkness of silence. I just finished Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s 1993 ethnography In the Realm of the Diamond Queen (about the Indonesian Meratus Dayak people). True to the spirit of the so-called postmodernism, the book is overly verbal and unnecessarily self-referential – I felt compelled to detoxify myself by reading Hemingway’s short story Indian Camp afterwards to have a moment of serenity. However, in retrospect, the book is indeed ethnographically and philosophically rich. There are a lot of wisdoms you may not find anywhere else. If only the author had been more restrained in her eagerness! Probably only if anthropologists are not such a lonely group of people!

I would usually be annoyed if my fellow audience keep chit-chatting or rocking their chairs during a performance (so did one 400-pound dude in a TSO concert of Sibelius’ rousing symphonies last year). But during the Friday’s performance, I was absolutely delighted by a neighboring young girl who kept whispering in her ageing father’s ear. The performance of Bach’s mass is clearly a very lively event for her (probably even more so than to many adults there). And I find myself rocking the bench to the rhythm of Quoniam Tu Solus Sanctus:

, , , , ,

 

 

Ode on Solitude
Alexander Pope 

Happy the man, whose wish and care
A few paternal acres bound,
Content to breathe his native air,
In his own ground.

Whose herds with milk, whose fields with bread,
Whose flocks supply him with attire,
Whose trees in summer yield him shade,
In winter fire.

Blest! who can unconcern’dly find
Hours, days, and years slide soft away,
In health of body, peace of mind,
Quiet by day,

Sound sleep by night; study and ease
Together mixed; sweet recreation,
And innocence, which most does please,
With meditation.

Thus let me live, unseen, unknown;
Thus unlamented let me dye;
Steal from the world, and not a stone
Tell where I lye.

The impression the second rendition gives is probably closer to truth, for Alexander Pope wrote the poem before he was 12 (although I’m not sure if the poet was also a jock).  Child prodigy, it seems, besides a natural talent for technical command, could also possess profundity in thoughts and feelings.

It’s not all that surprising really, considering developmental psychology is regarded by some as microcosm of the evolution of human thoughts. Somehow, we already know all we are about to know. Empiricism is inevitably rooted in its poetic gene. After all, outside the realm of natural sciences and engineering, who would claim with full confidence that we are smarter than the ancients who lived more than 2000 years ago?

There is poetry, and there is prose. There are child prodigies, and there are those who “come to terms” late in their lives. As it happens, Stendhal is said to be ashamed of his youthful attempts to write poetry, and Leo Tolstoy is said to hold contempt for those who wrote poems only because they could not think clearly and who could not do anything more useful.

In the Milos Forman film Amadeus, an adaptation of Peter Shaffer’s play about Salieri, Mozart is portrayed as a goofy genius with silly laughs. This  image is probably as false as the senile portrait of Alexander Pope above – you only have to listen to the subtle sadness in his Symphony No. 1, written when he was about 9:

, , ,

 

To Find Our Life – The Peyote Hunt of the Huichols of Mexico (1969)

This ethnographical film documented a 1968 Huichol journey in search of the psychoactive cactus peyote, an event of supreme cultural importance. For the Huichol participants, the pilgrimage was intensely spiritual and sentimental, as seen in the end of the journey (not shown in this clip) when everyone wept. The film is rightfully acclaimed for its sensitivity, for it’s evident that the indigenous participants had full trust of the filmmakers/ethnographers. However, even a casual spectator would not fail to notice the bland voice-over that narrates in English the passionate thoughts of the band leader Ramón Medina Silva without a single trace of emotion.

This blandness may be merely technical, for after all this is not a film for entertainment. But there may be underlying philosophy: to this date, anthropology can not decide if it is science or art (although it might be offensive to most anthropologists if you suggest that anthropology is not a science). This ambivalence is shown in a recent controversy concerning dropping the word “science” from American Anthropological Association’s statement of its long-range plan.

There are similar questions. Whether we, the spectators (or “participant-observers”), are outsiders or insiders? Do we believe make-believe? If not, do we believe in make-believe?

In our own comedic arts, make-believes are never contradictory to truthfulness. In fact, by instinct, we know the truth of comedy is inseparable from its entertainment value – a detailed scientific proof of a humor’s validity would render the humor humorless. Humor is its own truth serum:

René of the café talks to the “outsiders” from the “inside”.

In fact, we invest our body and soul in more serious forms of dramatic arts where the boundary between fancy and reality blurred almost to the level of the Huichol peyote hunters, when we are moved by the drama. Here, even our bland voice, just like the voice of Mrs. Venable – played in the film by the peerless Katharine Hepburn – in the conclusion of Suddenly, Last Summer, betrays our trembling heart:

, , ,