Last night Ted and I made the trek out to Robinson to go to the Cinemark theater at Settler’s Ridge. “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” was released months ago, but the Robinson Cinemark is the first place in the area to show it; Tuesdays, by the by, are the “sale” days out at that theater – our 3D tickets were $8.25 apiece.
First, a word about 3D: in general, like Roger Ebert, I’m opposed. I’ve seen several “blockbuster” type movies in 3D, and I never think the experience adds much to the viewing. To begin with, 3D movies do not resemble human, stereoscopic vision – rather, what they allow is for you to examine all of the plains of focus in the shot, since all of the plains are simultaneously in focus, as opposed to traditional 2D films, which confine the viewer’s examining gaze to only that plain that the director has chosen to focus on. The thing is, my experience has been that there’s never anything worth examining in these 3D blockbusters’ other plains – the directors never seem to take the opportunity to fill the middle or far distance with anything visually interesting or important, making the opportunity to examine them not worth the distractingly unrealistic nature of the 3D format, nor the increased ticket price. In general, it seems 3D directors only value the ability to have fists, swords, exploding debris, or what have you “fly out of the screen” at the viewer, and I don’t see that that enhances the movie-viewing experience, certainly not to the tune of five extra bucks.However, also like Roger Ebert, I thought “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” utilizes 3D differently and well. The movie is a documentary that explores the Chauvet cave, discovered in France in 1994, which contains the earliest known cave paintings produced by human beings – the paintings, spanning thousands of years, are between 40,000 and 30,000 years old. A rockslide sealed the mouth of the cave many thousands of years ago, preserving it perfectly until it was recently rediscovered. Since its discovery, the French government has kept it carefully sealed and guarded, allowing only scientists to briefly enter the still nearly pristine cave; even they must limit their visits to a scant hour or two at a time, and they may only tread on a narrow, carefully laid steel track. This cave and its artifacts are treasures of humanity, and the care with which they are being preserved gives one a sense of relief. The drawings themselves are breathtaking, heart-rending renditions of prehistoric animals in overlapping numbers, doing battle, nuzzling, running, uttering. The geology of the cave itself is also stunning, and here is where the 3D makes the film: all of the plains of focus in the cave are worth examining in the minutest of detail – the geologic formations, the bones of animals preserved over time, and the drawings themselves, which were drawn upon undulating walls and which the artists rendered in such a way as to take advantage of the walls’ undulations in conveying a sense of movement in their animal subjects.
Werner Herzog narrates the film, and if you’ve ever seen a Werner Herzog movie before, you know he’s absolutely crazy, which can be fun. (I highly recommend you check out Encounters At the End of the World, streaming live on Netflix, for an example of his batshittery and the unexpected joy it brings to some of his films.) But crazy can be distracting, too, so it’s lucky that Herzog chooses to narrate Cave of Forgotten Dreams only lightly, and so does not tread on the absolute wonder he documents in this cave, which seems to represent the beginning of human-ness, the birth of what Herzog calls the human soul.What I found most striking about the drawings was their continuity over time: scientists have determined that different drawings were made up to 5,000 years apart, and yet they clearly share the same artist’s conception of the world and its creatures. Considering the fragmentation of our modern culture – our inability to meaningfully understand our ancestors’ lives of only a hundred or so years ago, or even our inability to understand our contemporaries if they are located too far from our experience – it astounds me that these ancient artists’ work and its content was coherent and meaningful to their fellow artists thousands of years later.
I was also struck by their impression of the natural world as literally teeming with life: the animals on the cave walls are in crowds, they suggest multitudes. I believe that if you could transport one of the artists from 30,000 years ago to the present, the absence in the modern world of this crowd of life would be the most shocking change. Technology, of course, has advanced, but these people, our ancestors, had tools, and understood their usefulness – once the shock had worn off, I’m sure they would see and understand that our buildings, equipment, transportation devices, are all just improved tools for survival. But I get the sense that the absence, in our ever-diminishing world of environmental degradation, of the teeming host of fellow creatures that must have been of such bedrock importance to a time-travelling paleolithic artist would be irreconcilable.