When I was a kid in southern Arizona, I went caving and spelunking with a guy who was a middle school teacher in the town where I lived, Casa Grande, Arizona. We walked into basalt cave mouths in the Silver Bells and Silver Reef Mountains, and into our own little Sawtooths. We sniffed around for the scent of gas as he told us about canaries in coal mines. He was from coal mining country. We pitched rocks down mine shafts that had claim markers that looked like they were still maintained by prospectors. The rocks clicked and clacked and often we heard the rattle of diamondbacks climb out of the shafts. I wondered if they were albino rattlers or if they climbed out at night just like the ones we killed with forked sticks and shovels. I wondered if they captured and swallowed kangaroo rats and other small things, wrens, and such. Sometimes there were windlasses and big containers that would lower you into vertical mine shafts, but I was always frightened to go down in. The possibility of snakes scared me, and the thought of the ropes breaking scared me too, and that I might end up dying down there while the teacher and his two sons ran back to town in an effort to find someone to save me.
I have always had a primal fear of going into the bowels of the earth and admire miners with the way they go miles down into the tunnels that wind and penetrate below the surface. Likewise, I admire the men who go into caves and search below the earth for life and remnants of life.
Last Wednesday night, Betty and I went to see the Werner Herzog documentary film titled, The Cave of Forgotten Dreams. The film is available in 3D but our art house theater didn’t have that option, so we watched the film in two dimensions. Earlier this year, I heard Herzog talk about the film and one of the things he said was that it was the only film he would ever make in 3D.
But even in 2D it was impressive. The cinematography was outstanding from beginning to end with some very odd frame composition that worked, I think, to help set on end our modern arrogance about how smart we are. The cave, Chauvet, which is in southeastern France, is mostly off limits to anyone but scientists studying the geology; or the Paleolithic era information about cave bears and wolves and cave lions and horses and bison; or the astounding artwork, some as old as thirty-five thousand years. Human activity inside the cave presently is limited so the film crew was restrained as to the types of lighting and camera equipment they could employ. What they created is truly a fine work, particularly given the limited gear they could take into the cave.
All great films have obstacles that must be overcome by the characters on the way to reaching goals and in this documentary, the physical restraints and the restraints imposed by the French government become the obstacles that must be defeated. Herzog, who narrated the film, gives us this information right up front so the requisite tension to keep us interested is created.
What is on the walls of Chauvet are astounding paintings at least twice as old as anything previously discovered on this planet, and the likenesses were amazingly correct, not primitive like some of the old Hohokam rock scratchings that we used to find in the caves of southern Arizona, but sophisticated artwork displaying not only the fauna of the time, but fauna behavior that included breeding and hunting. The cave paintings included great, stunning murals of horses and bison being hunted by lions and bears; and wooly rhinos fighting each other. I think I was doubly stunned because of what the images told me about the intelligence of the people who created this ancient art. When T. S. Eliot came out from viewing the sixteen-thousand-year-old cave paintings at Lascaux, he is reported to have said something along the lines of, “We haven’t changed a bit,” and I could see that, I could see what he meant, as if Picasso or Klee or Matisse or de Kooning had been down there, painting away, or at least their spirits encaved in the bodies of Cro Magnon man.
I also liked the music in the film. It was often melodic and spiritual like the milieu it described, especially at the end, where the narration takes a holiday and lets the camera work. The fine lines of the cave drawings along with the choral voices allow us to step back into our racial memories, our racial minds, and contemplate the long run of humanity on this planet. They allow us to ponder what is possible, what might come to pass.
At one point in the film, Herzog takes us out of the cave and on a cinematic sojourn to the University of Tübingen in Germany where a large exhibit of small sculptures of Venus and animals of the Paleolithic era is housed. We get a clinical analysis of these artifacts‘ relationship to the paintings at Chauvet (evidently they are all from the same time period, give or take five thousand years) and how Cro Magnon could carry on so advanced a concept as paintings and art while his neighbor Neanderthals were not capable of creating anything of the sort. All of this was interesting, but to me, felt as if the magic created by the paintings, their rendition in Herzog’s film, and attention to the power of art were all defeated by the measuring stick-and-caliper outlook of the sciences of studying ancient peoples.
I was glad when that train of thought ended and we returned to the magnificence of the paintings, what they said about my ancestors’ intelligence, their powers of observation and creativity. Some of the paintings are five thousand years older than others, so the time frame in which the cave was used as a ceremonial site, but apparently not lived in, is as long as the history of the written word in our Homo sapiens sapiens sub-species.
Given my innate fear of caves, I sat and wondered if I would go down to look at these images and I have to say yes, I would. In the film, Herzog points out that he and his crew often felt as if they were being watched by the ancients, and he remarked that the anthropologists, the geologists, the paleontologist also had the same sensation, so maybe my old fears are not without grounding in the human psyche.
I would definitely recommend that you go see this film. It is a visual masterpiece, and to boot, stimulates the imagination. The Cave of Forgotten Dreams will force you to ponder various issues, how far apart we are from the artists who created the Chauvet paintings, and how alike we are. They were smart, as smart as the men who built the windlasses that lowered miners down into the vertical mine shafts that we investigated in my youth. As smart as we are now. Not yet with the tools that make us what we are in this time, but smart enough to understand the world they inhabited and to record and interpret what they saw.