Proto-Cinema: Cave of Charcoal Dreams

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):

One thought on “Proto-Cinema: Cave of Charcoal Dreams

  1. Herzog’s CAVE is a horrible film because he does not correctly portray animism, and seems to believe the woman-animal drawing is a fertility goddess. Along the way we visit quaint local experts who do not illuminate the message of the cave.

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