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The mystical art of rudeness


Cave of Forgotten Dreams (G). Director: Werner Herzog. 90 minutes

At more than 30,000 years old, the paintings in southern France's Chauvet Cave are by far the oldest known examples of cave art. They have been preserved in near pristine condition due to a rock slide that sealed the cave 20,000 years ago, and to severe restrictions that since the cave's rediscovery in 1994 have limited human access except by a select team of scientists and academics.

More recenlty, German filmmaker Herzog was granted unprecedented access, accompanied by a diminutive production crew. The result of their visit is this extraordinary documentary, which, with the added benefit of 3-D, aims and largely succeeds at evoking the, for most of us, virtually unattainable experience of being physically present at this incredible location.

We are guided during our cinematic tour by a flock of sometimes endearingly eccentric experts: a paleontologist who exuberantly lists the many species whose skeletal remains are in the cave; an archaeologist who wears Palaeolithic era clothing and plays 'The Star Spangled Banner' on a replica bone flute; art historians who elucidate the artistic merit and technique of the cave's artists.

Footage of the cave's interior would, in itself, make a fascinating film. The hundreds of paintings that clamour upon the undulating walls are more than simply interesting relics. They are remarkable artworks, both technically and aesthetically. Subtleties of shape and shading give depth and character to ostensibly simple animal figures, immaculately etched upon the rippling canvas.

But it is no accident that the promotional poster for Cave of Forgotten Dreams includes the sillhouette of Herzog, the veteran maverick filmmaker himself, cast alongside a detail from one of this prehistoric gallery's more famous pieces, the 'panel of horses'. For better and worse, Herzog is a presence in the film, serving as a sort of narrator-cum-quasi-philosopher.

The best of Herzog's intrusions are profound. He notes the illusion of movement in the art, effected by blurred edges or ghosts of multiple limbs, and enhanced by electric torchlight that churns against the rocky contours, mimicking the firelight of the paintings' original 'audience'. This was, he postulates, a type of 'proto-cinema'; indeed the thread of human artistry that connects the cave's Palaeolithic storytellers to Herzog and his contemporary film crew is alluded to at other times.

On the other hand, the film contains a bizarre postscript during which Herzog daydreams about what the mutant albino crocodiles, who dwell nearby in a greenhouse heated by runoff from a nuclear power plant, might think if they one day made their way to the cave and gazed upon its paintings. This is the most obscure of Herzog's musings, and an alienating note on which to conclude.

It must be said that Herzog is at times a condescending interviewer. He regards his subjects with anything from mute respect to detached fondness, or less. In one scene he snaps at an archaeologist who is attempting, with limited success, to demonstrate Palaeolithic spear-throwing techniques; in this instance Herzog crosses the line from gentle joshing to outright ridicule.

But he is at other times astute and discerning. Guided by his questioning and observations, the experts are able to evoke, beyond the academic historical and cultural importance of the site, the awe-inspiring, even mystical aura that dwells inside the cave.

One expert reflects on the relationship of the Chauvet paintings to those of Australian Aboriginals, among some of whom rock painting is a living tradition. He refers to a ritualised practice whereby paintings are periodically retouched by successive artists, to counter the wear of weather and time. In this there is an underlying belief that both the original painting and the repairs have a divine source.

It's likely, he infers, that the Chauvet Cave painters had a similar belief, that art was the work not of man but of 'the spirit'. Even gazing upon their images from a distance, through a pair of 3-D glasses in the dark of a cinema in Australia, it is not hard to share this belief.

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street. He is a contributor to Kidzone, Inside Film and The Big Issue, and his articles and reviews have appeared in Melbourne's The Age and Brisbane's Courier-Mail. He was a member of the TeleScope jury at the 2011 Melbourne International Film Festival. Follow Tim on Twitter

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, Chauvet Cave, Werner Herzog, cave paintings, Aboriginal artwork



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Existing comments

You have just described Werner Herzog, Tim - astute, discerning, bizarre, obscure, condescending. Add "passionate" and you have it all. I am always thankful and humbled to see the work Herzog and other great artists who are uncompromising in the depiction of the world as they find and imagine it, and I share your enthusiasm for this wonderful, enlightening film.

Anna | 23 September 2011  

I can't wait to see this. I think it is important to remember that Herzog is German and many Germans appear very blunt - or even rude - to Australians because they do not always observe the same level of 'politeness' as Australians do. And Herzog is beautifully mad! Thank God.

Steve | 30 September 2011  

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