Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Cave of Forgotten Dreams

The Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc Cave is a cave in the Ardèche department of southern France that contains the earliest known cave paintings, as well as other evidence of Upper Paleolithic life.

It is located near the commune of Vallon-Pont-d'Arc on a limestone cliff above the former bed of the Ardèche River. Discovered in 1994, it is considered one of the most significant prehistoric art sites.

The cave was first explored on December 18, 1994 by a group of three speleologists: Eliette Brunel-Deschamps, Christian Hillaire, and Jean-Marie Chauvet, for whom it was named. Chauvet (1996) has a detailed account of the discovery. On top of the paintings and other human evidence they also discovered fossilized remains, prints, and markings from a variety of animals, some of which are now extinct. Further study by French archaeologist Jean Clottes has revealed much about the site, though the dating has been the matter of some dispute. (Wikipedia)

The French government soon took custody of the cave, and visitors were barred to protect it from the kind of damage done to other prehistoric caverns. Researchers are allowed to visit once a year to study the cave and they are boxed in with all sorts of protective restrictions - from the "do not touch" to wearing sanitized boots to prevent mold spoors from being tracked into the cave. Herzog brought his powers of persuasion on the French government to permit him and a tiny film crew to film inside the cave. He went to French Minister of Culture Frédéric Mitterand and volunteered to become a government employee for the salary of one euro (on which, Herzog promised, he would pay taxes).

Eventually, he and his three-man crew received permission to shoot for five four-hour days, with lightweight 3-D equipment, inside the Chauvet cave, under the sponsorship of The History Channel. The result, Land of Forgotten Dreams, is an enthralled and mostly enthralling guided tour of what Herzog describes as "one of the greatest art discoveries in the history of human culture."

He has a talent for into the darker recesses of the human soul and the beauty of this film is a startling contrast to his other forays into the human psyche. But then, his animus, Klaus Kinski is now dead. Maybe that released the more perverse demons in Herzog's soul.

The cast of characters includes a circus performer turned anthropologist here who night after night dreamed of lions after visiting the cave, a perfumer who tries to sniff out caves and anthropologists who dream of and in one case, recreates what he feel are the spirits of the people who created the art by wearing skin and furs and playing the Star-Spangled Banner on a bone flute

 The technique of 3D has never been used to greater effect; instead of cheesy Hollywood mobsters or monsters, we have a camera that lovingly reveals the skill of the long-ago artists, their creative use of the bulges and ripples of the stone wall. The close ups of the stalactite covered skulls of the cave bear, white and glistening, is powerful enough to almost erase the incomprehensible millennium that separate us from them, the them that were our ancestors.

In archaeology circles there has been debate on whether the earliest Chauvet paintings date from 32,000 to 30,000 BP (or “before present,” in the charming parlance of archaeology) or are actually somewhat younger. Whatever the case, even one of the critics of the earlier dating, a German archaeologist, Christian Züchner, has agreed on their beauty, enthusing in one 2001 paper that, “Even if Chauvet Cave is not as old as assumed it remains one of the outstanding highlights of cave art!” 

Mr. Herzog doesn’t address the conflict, which partly turns on whether the radiocarbon dating was sufficient, but then again, he isn’t a scholar. As the wistful title of the documentary indicates, he moves in a world of dreams and stories.

The film isn't perfect; would that there had been more images of the cave and less of the archaeologists walking up and down the mountain, crawling through the cave, less nausea inducing 3D film swooping over hill and dale. Herzog can't resist pompous pontificating on German Romanticism as the film pans the nearby Ardèche River  and the film score is loud and irritating. Why is it so difficult to understand that these caves were probably used for magic and ritual? The ending, set in a freaky research center where albino crocodiles swim in the runoff from nuclear reactor plants, is apparently a fraud. 

But it's Hertzog's spirit that presides over the documentary - amazing, sometimes irritating and endearing. In his late 60's,  he is as curious as ever, never ceasing in his lifelong journey to excavate the strangeness at the heart of the human soul. 

Of course, it's wrong to assume that these cave painters were strange. They were men - and women - of their time. It's we who are strange, estranged as one archaeologist explains, from a world that was once fluid and permeable.  

Maybe some aspects of the cave weren't so spiritual. This article claims that humans and bears battled over use of the cave:

1 comment:

Zoomie said...

I used to wish I could visit Lascaux, when that cavern was open to the public; this one would be even more of a thrill. Must go see the flick!