“Are we truly the crocodiles?”: Herzog’s “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” at IU

We were very excited to catch what was apparently the first commercial/non-festival showing of Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams in the U.S.  This showing was introduced by Jonathan Sehring, president of IFC Entertainment, which is distributing the film.  He buttered us up in a nice way, effusing that “This is one of the best, if not the best, theaters I’ve ever been in… It’s a spectacular venue. You guys are very, very lucky.”  Maybe he says that to all the girls, but it gave me a warm & fuzzy (/smug & self-satisfied) feeling inside.

Apparently inspired by Judith Thurman’s article in The New Yorker about the neolithic cave paintings in Chauvet Cave in southern France, Herzog managed to receive permission from the French government to be the first and perhaps only filmmaker to be allowed in to see and film the paintings.  In 1994 some hikers/explorers stumbled on this incredible find: hidden within a rockslide from thousands of years ago, they discovered hundreds of spectacular wall paintings, mostly of animals, dating from about 32,000 years ago.  Here’s Wikipedia’s summary:

Hundreds of animal paintings have been catalogued, depicting at least 13 different species, including some rarely or never found in other ice age paintings. Rather than depicting only the familiar animals of the hunt that predominate in Paleolithic cave art, i.e. horses, cattle, reindeer, etc., the walls of the Chauvet Cave are covered with predatory animals: lions, panthers, bears, owls, and hyenas. Also pictured are rhinos. Typical of most cave art, there are no paintings of complete human figures, although there is one possible partial “Venus” figure that may represent the legs and genitals of a woman. Also a chimerical figure may be present; it appears to have the lower body of a woman with the upper body of a bison. There are a few panels of red ochre hand prints and hand stencils made by spitting pigment over hands pressed against the cave surface. Abstract markings—lines and dots—are found throughout the cave.

Because of the bad experiences at Lascaux, where (Wiki again) “since 1998 the cave has been beset with a fungus, variously blamed on a new air conditioning system that was installed in the caves, the use of high-powered lights, and the presence of too many visitors,” Chauvet is now completely inaccessible to the public.  So if you want to see the paintings, you gotta see Cave of Forgotten Dreams.

I found the movie to be a slightly odd combination of really excellent Discovery Channel-type archaeology documentary (this describes let’s say 75%-80% of the film) and characteristically whacked-out Werner Herzog film (the remaining 20% or so).  When I first heard the phrase “Werner Herzog 3D cave painting documentary” a year ago, I guess I imagined something different, something stranger, so at one level it was a bit disappointing to find scenes like the following: Shot of four scientists sitting in a generic white office-style florescent-lit room.  Herzog’s voice-over: “The scientists were housed in a nearby sports complex.  Although they each possess particular specialties, they share their work collaboratively” (something like that).  Cut to the laptop screen of two nerdy scientists explaining a graph.

That is to say that the two aspects of the movie, the earnest Discovery Channel-style documentary and the whacked-out Herzog film, often felt to me somewhat in conflict. Some of the most Herzogian scenes involve scientists and others involved in the project whose obsessions and idiosyncracies he draws out and dwells on to amusing or defamiliarizing effect.  There’s the “Perfumer” who walks around the surfaces outside the cave, smelling the ground, trying to sniff out undiscovered chinks or crevices.  (I remained a bit confused about whether he was an actual member of the investigating team or just a local amateur.)  Or the scientist whom Herzog films dressed in his deerskin Inuit costume performing a rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” on animal bone flute.  Or the affably nerdy, bristly-moustachio’d scientist (the 3D really brings out the moustache) who demonstrates, badly, the technique of spear-hunting with a small sling.  I guess the problem for me was that these scientists, unlike many of Herzog’s previous documentary subjects (e.g. Timothy Treadwell), do not in fact seem bizarrely or inexplicably obsessed.  They are dedicated to their work, for obvious and good reason; sometimes when Herzog tries to draw out their oddities (as with the anthropologist who, it turns out, used to work as a circus performer), these eccentricities seem somewhat beside the point.  This isn’t exactly Klaus Kinski in the jungle of Peru, and none of the scientists seem all that strange.  Herzog specializes in depictions of obsessives whose objects of fascination do not make rational sense; these cave paintings cannot be explained by reason alone, but anyone’s fascination with them is perfectly easy to comprehend.  (Sarah pointed out that it was a little surprising that Herzog spent so little time discussing competing anthropological/archaeological theories about the ritual practices of these neolithic peoples, which would seem to offer ample opportunity for Herzogian musing on primitive urges and practices.)

There’s also a sort of coda featuring some albino crocodiles, supposedly the product of genetic mutation from nearby power plants, who inspire Herzog to wonder, “Are we truly the crocodiles who look back into the abyss of time? at the neolithic artists of the cave paintings.  (Sehring wryly noted that at a public appearance last year, Herzog blithely declared that all the stuff about the albino crocs was completely fabricated, which Sehring implied poses a marketing challenge for a documentary.)

The crocs felt like classic Herzog (not least in their uncertain positioning on the fiction/documentary border), but then so much of the rest of the film is a much more earnest and straight-forward examination of the cave paintings, in the context of which some of his vatic pronouncements can seem a bit silly or extraneous.  (Speaking of his vatic pronouncements, ever since I discovered the brilliant “Werner Herzog reads classic children’s story books” series on Youtube I sometimes find myself giggling a bit at the sound of his voice.)

No question though that I would not want to miss the loving, rapturous exploration of these amazing and very mysterious images, which Herzog convincingly describes as “proto-cinematic” in their capture of animal motion; the 3D technology does not feel like a gimmick but an opportunity for something close to an in situ experience of them.  And, despite some of my reservations, Chauvet Cave does make perfect sense as one of Herzog’s sites of wildness and mysterious otherness, a sealed-off zone of otherworldly creation that, no matter how fully we study and chart it out, we will never fully understand.