Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Among the strange places Werner Herzog has taken us to over the years, the caves of Chauvet, in the Ardeche region of southern France, do not rank near the top. Nevertheless, we are glad that he visited them and took us along.

First, a few cold, hard facts. The walls of the caves contain painting s that are 32,000 years old. Discovered as recently as 1995, they’re the oldest works of art in the world by a good ten thousand years. They offer representations of a number of large mammals that haven’t walked the earth for quite some time. It’s impressive.

These caves are not open to the public, and very few film-makers with lights have been granted access. Therefore, even if the film itself was a piece of monotonous documentary fluff—which it is not—every man, woman, and child should be rushing to see it, or at least put it on the Netflix cue.

Why? Because these works of art were created by our ancestors at a time when “the world” and “the out-of-doors” were synonymous. Today we debate whether to install Wifi among the trees at state park campgrounds. In those days, other large mammals outnumbered humans by maybe 100 to 1, and nomadic bands hunted beasts, gathered roots, played music, built fires. In short, their lives were like our hobbies.

The sight of a string of horses sketched in charcoal on the wall of a cave force us to re-ask the question: “What is an image? What is its relation to “reality”?

Such images drag us beyond mysticism and metaphysics to a realm of awe and stupor, which is only intensified by the fact that we will never know any of the answers.

I have been to a few such caves myself. Hilary and I visited Faut-de-Gaume in the Dordogne region of France in 1978 (Lescaux had already been closed), walking down narrow tunnels and slithering over sills before arriving in those small dark chambers covered with polychrome images of bison and mammoths and who knows what. The extraordinary thing (aside from the paintings) is that we were accompanied by about fifty grade-school children from the neighborhood who were on a field trip.

We paid a visit to the Ariege region of the Pyrenees in 1999 to investigate the cave paintings at Niaux and Bedeilhac. The woman selling tickets at Bedeilac was tipsy and the tour was entirely in French, but the caves were massive and the images were superb. Later that day I made an attempt to master the art of throwing a spear with an atlatl at the Parc de la Prehistoire at Tarascon sur Ariege. (It isn’t as easy as it looks.)

And a few years later we toured a cave in Andalusia holding lanterns given to us by the “tour guide”—the local farmer who owned the cave. (To get his attention you drive up to the mountainside entrance and honk your horn.) There were images of fish scratched into the walls and a series of slashes that looked like a primitive version of a cribbage scorecard you’d create if you’d forgotten the cribbage board.

Staring at such primitive slashes forces us to reconsider how much time we spend keeping track of things. Did I fill out the time card correctly? Did I send the estimated tax payment on time?

Herzog intermixes his cave footage with interviews, focusing on smiling, long-haired French experts who are hippies in disguise. (One was formerly a circus performer.) Their comments are intermittently interesting, but they reinforce our impression that our guess is as good as theirs, regarding the meaning of it all.

Music plays a prominent role in the film, and some reviewers have found it intrusive. I would agree that at certain points it becomes a little “churchy” and overblown, yet it also contributes to an atmosphere of staggering awe that would be difficult to sustain through imagery alone. After all, a cave is a font of echoes. And singing came before talking. (Remember Vico!) And visual imagery is often created to revive experience that might otherwise be lost to memory.

Why did these men or women draw images of wild beasts on the wall of a cave far removed from “ordinary” life? One answer would be, Because things are hard to remember. The past will fade into mush, if we don’t make an attempt to take hold of it through enduring imagery. Such imagery naturally takes on a magical caste. And imagery is a kind of music, with echoes and overtones and patterns of repetition.

There is a long segment near the end of the film during which the camera pans repeatedly across a marvelous grouping of horses and bison while the music blares. Some viewers may find it monotonous, but I found it mesmerizing. The problem with visiting the caves is that you soon grow tired of looking at these astounding images in spite of yourself, and begin to think about the Coke machine back at the visitor’s center, and whether you should camp out tonight. Here we have no choice. We are forced to reconsider, to re-evaluate, to ponder once more.

Postscript on memory: I had a strong recollection of having read an essay by John Berger about the caves at Chauvet, at a time when I’d never heard of the place, but couldn’t find the book. The caves were only discovered in 1994, which rules out most his books that I own. It occurred to me that a library of books is like a wall of images, a memory palace, a lifeline to the past.

I eventually concluded that the essay may have appeared in Here is Where We Meet, a collection I reviewed in RainTaxi but only checked out of the library. In any case, I can't find it. You can read Berger’s very interesting essay here. If you read the essay and then see the film (or the other way around) it will give you an idea of how the power of words and images differ.

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