My love-hate relationship with the Tara Theatre in Atlanta took yet another twist this past weekend with their engagement of the new Werner Herzog documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Yes, the Tara shows some excellent foreign and independent films, but the mediocre projection too often dilutes the pleasure of seeing them on the big screen. This time, in addition to the usual dimly lit screens, the audience was treated to a flat (2-D) version Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams. That said, the documentary itself still holds up well in 2-D because of the inherent fascination of the subject matter, the Cave of Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc in France. I suspect that for this film the 3-D image works to give viewers a better sense of the contours of the cave walls, which is important because their effect depends partly upon the surfaces on which they were painted.
Clip from Cave of Forgotten Dreams, courtesy of IFC Films.
A product of the Upper Paleolithic Aurignacian culture, the oldest paintings in the Chauvet Cave date to 30,000-32,000 years ago–the earliest surviving cave paintings and not that much younger than the Venus of Hohle Fels, the earliest known example of figurative art. The Chauvet Cave paintings in particular are astonishing because of the sophisticated manner in which they employ expressive lines and shading, and how they are drawn to suggest movement. Around the same period one can find the first musical instruments such as an ivory flute, making this era the dawn of human culture as we understand it today.
Herzog interviews a number of scientists and thus provides the necessary context for understanding the cave art. And Herzog being Herzog, he also doesn’t shy away from the sheer alienness of the Upper Paleolithic culture and the mystical force behind the paintings. Ernst Reijseger’s otherworldly trance music works better than most scores of that type and certainly fits with the subject matter. I’m still not sure what to make of the ending, which shifts focus to a nuclear power plant and albino alligators; perhaps Herzog means to show the how the climate of that region is again in the process of changing, this time due to human activity. But between this film and Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, he seems increasingly obsessed with reptilian points of view.