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.