Cave of forgotten dreams: the work of homo spiritualis

My wife wanted to see “Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” a documentary which had just opened here. We caught the matinee yesterday. It was a completely spellbinding experience.

German film director Werner Herzog is a master at conjuring unforgettable visions, from the ship dragged over the jungle mountain in his "Fitzcarraldo" to the Antarctic landscape in "Encounters at the End of the World."

In this latest film, he brings us the earliest known visions of humankind: the Chauvet cave art of the Ardeche River region in southern France, created more than 30,000 years ago. By comparison, the famous cave art of Lascaux is roughly half as old. Since Chauvet’s discovery in 1994, access has been extremely restricted due to concerns that overexposure, even to human breath, could damage the priceless drawings. Only a small number of researchers have ever seen the art in person.

Herzog gained permission to film the caves using lights that emit no heat and small steadicams that shoot in 3D. He initially resisted shooting in 3D, then embraced the process, and now it’s hard to imagine the film any other way. The works at Chauvet are breathtaking in their artistry. The artists took advantage of the undulations and concavities in the natural surfaces in the cave. The 3D format proves essential in communicating the contoured surfaces on which the charcoal figures are drawn. Beyond the walls, Herzog uses 3D to render the cave’s extensive water-formed calcium formations and stalagmites like a crystal cathedral and to capture stunning aerial shots of the nearby Pont-d’Arc natural bridge.

His probing questions for the cave specialists also dig deep; for instance: “What constitutes humanness?” “Why is there such exquisitely beautiful artistry here?”

In an essay titled “Why I Hate 3-D (And You Should Too),” the critic Roger Ebert wrote that he could only be reconciled to the format by a filmmaker like Herzog.

"Cave of Forgotten Dreams" was triggered by an article in The New Yorker by Judith Thurman, who tried to gain access to the Chauvet caves and finally wrote her piece based on photos and interviews. When Thurman attended a preview screening for her first experience of Chauvet in 3D, her response: “It’s a miracle.”

The paintings depict the animals – rhinoceros, deer, antelope, horses, cave lions, bison and more -- that were so important to our ancestors at a time when the nearby Alps were buried under 9000 feet of solid ice. But they’re not accurate renderings; they are magical, mythical interpretations of the animals’ spirit. They are done with sophisticated craft -- using shading, perspective. A three dimensional quality is achieved by incising or etching the outlines of certain figures. This visually emphasizes some of the animals and allows torch light to cast shadows about the edges.

One area of the cave walls shows bison in motion, depicted with eight legs in a kind of primitive animation effect, worthy of Disney. You can also see numerous scratchings on the walls made by now extinct cave bears.

The only human figure depicted is the lower half of a woman being embraced by a bison. Herzog points out that this mythical configuration of woman and bull is both ancient and modern – found in Picasso’s work.

Also found in the cave were the footprints of a 9-year-old boy, along with the pawprints of a wolf. It’s speculation whether the prints represent stalker and hunted, boy and pet, or just a coincidence of time.

Towards the end of the film, after the talking heads have finished, the camera simply roams through the paintings, the lighting similar to the flickering shadowy illumination that must have been present when the artists worked and when these ancient peoples gathered to gape too at the work of their shaman/artists. You realize you’re looking at one of the lavishly beautiful and spectacular art treasures of humankind, equal to the Sistine Chapel ceiling, the craftsmanship equal to Monet. Herzog's camera lingers long and contemplatively.

Herzog interviews a young anthropologist who has studied rock painting throughout the world. The French anthropologist, by way of explaining the artists' motives, tells the story of an Australian aboriginal artist, followed around by an ethnologist, who was touching up ancient rock paintings in the backcountry. The ethnologist asked the artist why he was doing that. The artist replied simply, "I'm not working ... it's the spirit."

Herzog wants you to see the art but also wants you to think about what it means. After showing an area of the cave that decidedly resembles an altar, another French anthropologist at one point says: "I think homo sapiens is a misnomer. We really don't know much. We should be called more accurately homo spiritualis."

Thoughout the tour, you can see handprints in the background, made by the same individual. We know this because of a crooked small finger. At the very end of the film, as credits begin rolling, there’s a closeup finally of a handprint, the mark of the artist, with his/her ancient crooked little finger. It sent chills of awe up and down my spine. This is an actual relic from the very dawn of the human soul.

Herzog’s film is a truly unforgettable experience.

NCR's Eco Catholic Blog

Eco Catholic is an exploration of the green Catholic imagination and ecological spirituality. Contributors include Rich Heffern, NCR staff writer, columnist and author, and Carol Meyer, executive director of the Sustainable Sanctuary Coalition.

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