Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Cave of Forgotten Dreams

IMDb (unrated) CNS/USCCB () Roger Ebert (3 1/2 stars) Fr. Dennis (3 stars)

IMDb listing - http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1664894/
CNS/USCCB review -
Roger Ebert’s review - http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20110427/REVIEWS/110429983

Cave of Forgotten Dreams is a documentary written and directed Werner Herzog and filmed in 3D about the paleolithic art found in the Chauvet Cave in Southern France discovered in 1994. Carbon dating of the charcoal outlines of the animal figures drawn on the cave’s walls date back to 30,000-32,000 BC making it the oldest known repository of representational art found anywhere. The story of the Chauvet Cave and its art is fascinating and it is worthwhile to read-up on it prior to seeing the movie.

The cave is closed to tourists because changes in the temperature and moisture of the cave’s environment by heavy human visitation would have detrimental effects on the cave walls. As such, the only way that most people will ever experience the art present in these caves would be through photographs and films like Herzog’s. Herzog’s choice of making this film in 3D is a good one as the cave walls, floor and ceiling are _not flat_ and the 3D experience makes one immediately appreciate how the paleolithic artists made use of the contours of the cave to enhance the representations (mostly of animals) that they drew.

What was the cave used for? Interestingly, while scratch-marks on the walls indicate that bears periodically inhabited the cave, humans apparently never made use of the cave for living. Instead, the cave seemed to have a reflective/spiritual purpose evidenced by the cave drawings and perhaps ceremonial one evidenced by a bear skull found lying on top of an altar-like rock and evidence of torches or fires having been lit by it. In one of the most memorable scenes in the documentary, Herzog was able to help the viewer appreciate how shadows would appear to "dance" along the walls as a person or group of people danced (or otherwise moved) before a fire. Having noticed this "dance of the shadows" phenomenon when he began his filming in the cave, Herzog noted that he was immediately reminded of a famous "dancing with the shadows" scene Fred Astaire’s Swing Time.

All this reminds me of Joseph Campbell’s famous work Primitive Mythology in which Campbell sought to ascertain the earliest indications of a spiritual life in humans and our animal kingdom cousins. Specifically, he noted that chimpanzees appear to enjoy twirling around (approaching dancing) just for the heck of it (just for the joie de vivre). He also noted that the acquisition of fire appeared to have had a truly profound (and even guilt producing) effect on the human psyche, suggesting that even the Christian concept of "original sin" may have its roots in human acquisition of fire.  Finally, he noted that a bear cult (evidenced by the purposeful placement of a bear skull prominent spot in a cave) appeared to be among the oldest forms of archeologically attested worship. Herzog offers the viewer of his documentary the opportunity to imagine all three of these phenomena – the interplay of dance and artificial light/shadows in the service of some kind of bear skull / animal worship – taking place in this cave.

In the end, Werner Herzog reminds us that we can only imagine how the cave was experienced by the early humans who would visit it over 30,000 years ago. The cave becomes, therefore, truly a Cave of Forgotten Dreams.

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1 comment:

  1. Powerful documentary. Impressive to see two drawings close by that were created 5,000 years apart.