Thursday, June 16, 2011 The Single Greatest History Teacher of All Time Ever, much like its namesake, is a highly addictive substance. Though I love the site dearly, and enjoy reading just about everything they produce, I find it necessary to remove it from my bookmarks list if I ever want to get some work done ever again in my life.

Part of their power comes from the site's format: lots of links, articles on intriguing subjects, titles that pique the reader's interest, and a complete and utter lack of pretentiousness. But I think the biggest factors accounting for the site's popularity and effectiveness at spreading information are: 1)the content of the articles themselves, and 2) the irrepressible sense of amazement and wonder that the writers bring to the table.

Every article that graces the "pages" of this digital humor publication is practically bubbling over with enthusiasm. Reading their material, one almost can't help but get excited about... umm... well, whatever the article that you're reading happens to be about! They just make it so much fun to learn about the world!

Wait, did I just use the words "fun" and "learning" in the same sentence? Yes, that's right: doesn't just make it fun to learn about the world as it was, is, and yet might be; it actually makes you want to learn more!!!

If you're like most people (particularly Americans), you probably thought that History was one of the most boring classes you were ever forced to take. It consisted mainly of watching a mustachioed, middle-aged man in a geeky sweater drone on for 45 minutes about stuff that happened way before you were born, when people were stupid and dressed all funny and didn't shower.

But imagine if, instead of starting off the semester with a coma-inducing PowerPoint presentation, your History teacher walked into the room on the first morning of class and announced that you were going to start with a discussion of the The 6 Most Insane Underdog Stories in the History of Battle? Or a lesson about great modern inventions that have their roots in unbelievably gruesome tragedy? Don't you think you and your classmates might have leaned forward a little in your seats? Just a bit?

All of has that effect on people.

Detractors complain about its poor academic standards, its haphazard research, and its noted tendency to exaggerate the "awesome factor" in its stories. And you know what? I don't give a rat's ass. Anything, anything at all, that can convince a kid to go online and willingly read something about the past is, by definition, a good thing!

Even in America (allegedly the "greatest country on Earth"), there are a truly horrifying number of people who graduate high school without even so much as a basic grasp of historical perspective. So what if what they're reading is more fluff than substance? At least it gets them off their asses (so to speak) and makes them hunger for more. It forces people to appreciate just how weird, wild, cool, mixed-up, crazy and friggin' unbelievable the world is. is not content to sit by and say "You should know more about history," or "This is important, kids!" It physically reaches out of your screen, slaps you across the face, and shouts "PAY ATTENTION! THE WORLD IS AN AMAZING PLACE!"

People need to be forced to confront the world they live in. In a democratic system (which I believe the planet is heading towards, albeit slowly), the people generally get what they deserve, in terms of their government. An uninformed populace, one which cannot recognize the repeating patterns of history, will condemn itself to being governed by those who, like so many before them, do not have the best interests of the people at heart.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Movie Review: The Cave of Forgotten Dreams

For several weeks now, I had been hoping to see this film, and I was starting to get a little antsy. I really wanted to see it in theaters; if I couldn't, then there didn't seem to be a point. This is because the 3D nature of the film is so integral to the experience that viewing it in a paltry two dimensions would really just be a waste of your time. Don't get me wrong, you'd still learn a lot, and it's a very thought-provoking film, but the whole reason that Werner Herzog & Co. got a special permit from the French government to film inside the Chauvet caves was so that they could give people all over the world the chance to stand nose-to-nose with primeval history.

First off, it's not a very long film. Only about 90 minutes or so. That's almost equal to the time it actually took to shoot the whole thing! Actually, slightly less, but their time inside was severely limited. The French government is highly wary of letting too many people into the caves; their delicate, perfectly balanced climates are the only reason that these paintings look so fresh. (If not for the thin layers of calcified deposits, you'd think they were painted yesterday.) The French government tried opening another nearby cave to tourists, and the collective moisture from their breath caused mold to grow on the cave walls, so access to the caves is highly restricted, and highly limited on the exceedingly rare occasions when it is granted.

The Chauvet caves were discovered a mere 15 years ago, almost by accident, by a trio of amateur spelunkers. They contain cave-paintings from as far back as 32,000 years ago! That's six times as old as the pyramids, folks! Sixteen times as old as Christianity! Eighty times as old as the freaking concept of gravity! These paintings, made from simple plant dyes and applied by the flickering lights of torches, are considerably older than the human mind could ever really hope to comprehend.

And they're gorgeous! The level of detail that went into these things, despite their apparent simplicity, is really something that can only be achieved by living in close proximity to these animals for your entire life.

In one corner, a pair of woolly rhinoceroses battle one another. One can almost hear the impact, feel the shaking of the earth as these enormous beasts collide. Nearby, a bull bison gallops out of an alcove, seeming to barrel right past the viewer. Elsewhere, running gazelles and horses are drawn with multiple legs, to create an illusion of rapid movement, more than thirty millennia before comic-book artists would rediscover the technique for their own use.

In every case, the placement of the creatures is by no means random or haphazard. Some juxtaposed images were actually painted thousands of years apart! This means that these early humans had generations in which to figure out the perfect placement of each animal, each limb, each subtle nuance of position and composition. Every painting in the cave is carefully placed, in a way that utilizes the natural flow and bulge of the cave wall to accentuate the form of each creature, and even create the illusion of movement.

The summer when I was twelve, my family took a vacation to Mammoth Caves National Park in Kentucky, one of the largest cave systems in the world. At one point during the tour, about halfway through, the guide led us into a large cavern, and she asked us, for just a moment, to be completely silent and still, while she turned out the lights for a moment. My family did a lot of things on that trip, but that moment of absolute darkness and unbroken silence remains, to this day, one of my most vivid memories of that entire trip. The darkness was so complete, I could almost feel it hovering over and around me, pressing itself against the very surface of my eyeballs.

The Cave of Forgotten Dreams was a lot like that moment of darkness, in a way. Watching this film gives one an almost tangible feeling of being in the presence of some enormous, invisible, unknowable thing, which, if you were to reach out your hand to its extremity, your fingertips might just barely brush against something hairy, and warm, and much, much older than you.