Cave of Forgotten Dreams: too much whimsy and overbearing music, not enough facts and editing mar a fine documentary

Werner Herzog, “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” (2010)

In 1994, three speleologists discovered and explored a cave in southern France and found prehistoric paintings apparently dating back over 30,000 years. The paintings are of large animals that were present in southern Europe during Palaeolithic times: horses, bison, mammoths, cave bears and lions. This documentary, made by famed German film-maker Werner Herzog,  gives both a science and history lesson about the artwork found and the probable culture of the people who produced it, and a discussion about the spiritual life they might have had. Something of the work of the archaeologists, art historians, geologists and other scientists on documenting and preserving the cave paintings is presented and the documentary also comments on the painters’ attempts to capture animal motion in ways that resemble early forms of film animation such as rotoscoping, and to interact with the paintings and the cave walls themselves through shadow-acting.

The film is structured in a supposedly detailed and matter-of-fact way that immerses viewers in the travails of the film crew and the people involved in investigating and preserving the paintings. We become quickly aware of the claustrophobic and dark conditions Herzog and company had to work in and of the restrictions imposed on them. Along the way Herzog intersperses interviews with scientists and art historians which tend to focus more on what they think of the spirituality and culture of the artists, than on the actual work they do and how they arrive at their conclusions about the painters’ culture and spiritual lives. Herzog attempts to draw out the individuality and eccentricity of his interview subjects: one scientist admits he used to be a juggler and unicyclist in a circus and another clumsily demonstrates how the prehistoric cave people made and used spears and spear-throwers. Slow as it is, the film gradually builds up a superficial picture of the spiritual and cultural life of the cave painters based on the findings and musings of the scientists and others documenting the paintings so that near the film’s end, viewers are primed psychologically to respond with awe and ecstasy at the paintings revealed in as much full-on glory as Herzog and his crew could film on their last visit to the cave.

Herzog’s narration and interviews descend into shallow purple-prose philosophical babble: there is talk about people, animals and plant life having fluidity (in the sense of one species adopting the behaviour and abilities of another) and the spiritual and material worlds blending into one another but there is not much speculation about the kind of (presumably) nature-based religious beliefs the artists might have had, the role played by the art in their beliefs and daily lives, why they painted large animals and not small animals, and how the paintings themselves support notions of fluidity and the links between the spiritual and the material. There is little discussion of shamans and their role in the painters’ society. It is possible much of Herzog’s questioning and musing is shaped by stereotypes he has absorbed unwittingly; there is the assumption that the prehistoric painters spent their off-time chasing and spearing large dangerous animals when archaeological evidence and comparisons with modern hunter-gatherers suggest gathering plants, hunting small animals and driving animals off cliffs and butchering them later on were the preferred methods of getting food. A cave ceiling protrusion apparently shows a bison having sex with a naked woman but the representation could also be of a female shaman. Some of his interviewees prattle on a fair bit but are not very informative. They engage in whimsical actions such as playing the US national anthem on a bone flute not found in Chauvet Cave.

The music soundtrack is jarring, inappropriate in style (it’s a mix of choral music and chamber music) and mostly unnecessary, adding very little enjoyment to the viewing of the cave art. In some parts of the film where Ernst Reijseger’s cello becomes low and droning, the music acquires a sculptural quality and fits the filming and the camera tracking around the cave walls and paintings which themselves often follow the walls’ contours. The rest of the time though, viewers will wish the choral voices and shrill violins would just shut up and the paintings be allowed to speak for themselves. For a film of this nature, if music is necessary, then a varied style of sound sculpture music incorporating quiet and loud music is called for. Brian Eno and Laurie Anderson come to mind but I am thinking also of installation / sound artists such as Maryanne Amacher whose music can be very epic and awe-inspiring, Spanish ambient / noise purveyor Francisco López and Germany’s Thomas Köner who has specialised in frigid Arctic-sounding electronica.

A brief coda is necessary after the climactic viewing of the paintings but it’s very unexpected: Herzog takes the audience on a quick whip-round lecture tour of a nuclear energy facility some distance down the Rhone River and the greenhouses and a biosphere set up around it to use the heated water produced by the facility. Rather than use the facility’s presence to make a strong case for preserving the cave and its surrounds from further encroachment by the plant, the greenhouses and the wastes they may produce, Herzog muses on the alligators at one hot-house and in particular on an albino ‘gator “found” there. One’s gotta wonder if Herzog’s sponsors write and veto parts of his script to make sure he presents a “balanced” and “neutral” position on nuclear energy production (as in saying nothing at all).

The film could have been much shorter and better if the jokey whimsy had been edited out; the product could still feature much of the film-making process and the scientists’ work. There is considerable repetition of the cave imagery which suggests that there are not very many paintings in Chauvet Cave, or at least not many that are spectacular and have recognisable representations of large animals. Still, the documentary is worth watching but in an environment where viewers can control the sound level (such as at home). Then the paintings can be appreciated on the home-theatre big-screen in all their silent lustre.

The film would have been improved too if Herzog had been able to define more clearly what he wished to emphasise about the paintings and their creators that could be related to the scientific effort to preserve the cave art. Rather than try to impose ideas about the artists’ spiritual relationship with their land and the flora and fauna onto Western audiences – we have enough trouble already trying to understand the spiritual relationship First Nation peoples in Australia, Canada and other parts around the world have with their lands – Herzog might have concentrated more on the artists’ curiosity about their world and why it operates the way it does, their keen powers of observation and wish to “capture” the spirit or vitality of the animals they observe, perhaps in the hope of being able to appeal to the animals’ spirits and get them to do certain things for them (the artists); and the film-maker could then emphasise the parallel between the process of making the art and the scientific endeavour generally.

(Postscript: the film had a postscript so I’ll add my own – just after writing this review, I heard news of an accident at a nuclear waste treatment facility in Gard department in France on 12 September 2011. One person died and four were injured. Gard department is located in southern France and borders Ardèche department where Chauvet Cave is located. As far as is known, there was no leakage of radiation)

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