The First Artists, Herzog's "Cave of Forgotten Dreams"

Spoiler Alert: These are my thoughts on Werner Herzog's latest documentary and I find it difficult to describe my feelings without giving away some details of the movie. This isn't as bad as narrative spoilers where plot points are given away, but if you prefer to see this film on its own terms then stop reading now. Below the trailer I'm going to start writing.

First thing's first: let's get the 3D chat out of the way. I've written before about how I'm not bothered by stereography. Whether it's a gimmick or not is irrelevant to me so much as the filmmaker's reasons for applying it and how it's used to tell the story. I do not think the idea here was "come for the 3D, stay for the anthropology;" but even if it was, is that such a bad thing if the end result is a little enlightenment? I was interested to see how a serious filmmaker would apply stereo to his story and I wasn't disappointed. Yes, the element of spectacle is ever-present but spectacle and wonderment are at the heart of this documentary. In my opinion the 3D was elemental to this story, which is rooted in cave paintings found in the Chauvet Caves in France - the oldest cave paintings ever discovered and the first examples of human art. I say that 3D is elemental because these paintings are not applied to a flat surface but follow the contours of the cave walls and how you see them is very dependent upon the angle and depth at which you view them. I recall a painting of lions that seems entirely natural at the beginning of a shot but elongates as the camera tracks around the curved wall to reveal a different view which seems natural in its own way. In short, the feeling of presence and sensitivity to the grandeur of the cave was enhanced by the 3D.

It's difficult to say whether Herzog understood the movie he was making or not. The story, such as it is, is told in terms of repetition. We spend quite a bit of time staring at cave paintings, often returning to the most spectacular examples again and again. I think the intention is that each time we return with new eyes. At first we are lured into the overwhelming sense of wonder that one feels when first seeing the cave. It's all about astonishment. The second time we come, we do so as intellectuals - we've met the scientists studying the caves and they've begun to explain the importance of the paintings. We have an armchair anthropologist's comprehension of what the artists were and what world they lived in. From here we start to venture out into the world outside the caves so that we can be given a bit of context. We see demonstrations of how these people might have hunted, how they made music. We see their fascination with sex in the fetishization of the female form. We even get hints of religion and spirituality. We essentially begin to relate to the people who lived here 35,000 years ago. Now properly initiated, we can enter the cave one last time as the film crescendoes into a 10+ minute stereographic montoge set to an intense but simple and exotic score and we can experience the caves as our ancestors did.

Or at least I think that's the idea. Opinions may vary as to whether Mr. Herzong pulls it off or not. I think it's mostly effective and I quite enjoyed the journey. I could see the argument that the film goes on too long and that there's more movie than the subject requires. Even if that is the case, the filmmaker should be applauded for delving deeper into the subject than his medium might be able to support. His thesis is that this may be the very place where the modern human soul was born. I think this is probably true, or at least this is an example of the sort of thing that was happening during this time frame. Neandertahls were roaming Europe at this time and this is certainly where our species began its dominance. It is these primitive - though remarkably elegant - abstractions that began to make us Human. Creativity, self-realization, the recognition of the world around us as something more than just a habitat - Art - through this film Herzog seems to be telling me that it is Art that makes us human and I am glad to share his awe at this opportunity to reach back through time and stand among the first artists.

A moment that might be described as goofy or hokey shows an experimental archaeologist recreating a paleolithic lifestyle for himself. He wears furs as the prehistoric men would have at a time when all of this was under a glacier and he plays for us on a replica of an early flute. Though it seems a bit funny, this is the moment that for me - a music lover and long time musician - has the deepest impact. A flute from over thirty millenia ago is tuned to pentatonics! The song that he plays for us? The Star Spangled Banner. An instrument from a time long before civilization can be used to play the anthem of one of the most advanced nations on the planet now. Nothing can further demonstrate more to me that we today are echoes of the people who drew lions, horses, and bison on the caves of France so many ages ago.