Sunday, 17 April 2011

"The Cave of Forgotten Dreams"

I apologise for the massive spaces between paragraphs - apparently, I can not change this. 

Directed by Werner Herzog, this documentary film allows us the chance to view the spectacular palaeolithic rock paintings inside a cave in the Ardeche Gorge, South France (slightly strange watching on t.v. as I have actually canoed down parts of that river with my secondary school and it felt very familiar). It was filmed in 3D, and it is totally worth it. Unfortunately, google does not throw up any shots of the amazing geology of the cave inside.

In 1994, some explorers discovered a cave. It is a beautiful cave, with many fantastically formed stalactites and stalagmites, and calcium build up over the many bones of extinct cave bears. But aside from the geological beauty of the cave (shown to best effect in 3D, though it'd be beautiful in 2D, too), this cave has amazing cave paintings, done during the time of the Neanderthals. The cave was named for the finder, Chauvet Cave.

It is a fairly slow-paced film (only 90 minutes), has somewhat over-bearing musical accompaniment and some jerky movement as the camera crew were only permitted a small camera a lot of the time, with the team size severely restricted.
The paintings, though, were stunning. I'm sure that the majority of those that actually bother to read this post or even this blog have heard of the Cave of the Swimmers. If not, then go and watch The English Patient, you'll thank me later. (But no, seriously, it's a really famous cave in the Sahara, though it has been somewhat weather worn, and is no comparison, I think, to this fantastic display in France which still looks fresh and stylistically is more ''advanced''.)

The paintings were so fresh looking that to start with, there was uncertainty as to their authenticity - but calcium or whatever it is that has something to do with calcium deposits over the paint proved that they were real - since some of that took thousands of years to develop. It's just that the cave was closed off to the world after a huge landslide (which is only detectable from the inside) so they were preserved far better than any overhang in a desert.

So! Yeah, the paintings. I'm not an artist, but they were damn better than what most people who can't really sketch can do. They were detailed enough so that we know that palaeolithic male cave lions did not have a mane, the way modern African lions do - we know this because there is no change in the head shape, and the artist has drawn the testicles hanging underneath the tail.
The paintings follow the contours of the rocks and almost add an extra dimension - there was one shot of a horse in an alcove, with the closer wall of the cave bearing the heads of lions, which to me seemed to be stalking the further away horse. The eyes on the animals are often detailed - the lions have similar styles to the way Disney drew the eyes in the Lion King (if you see what I mean).

Rhinos and bison have shading and even have extra horns or arms to indicate movement - I disagree, with a few, where my grandmother suggested that instead it was to show more than one, as the Egyptians did in their paintings. I think it looks more as though they are trying to make the animals move, not to make them plural.
Note the shading using not just the charcoal, but also the colour of the rock. The shapes were accurate and, in some cases, reminded me of a cartoonist or caricature artist sketch in black pen.

The most stunning (according to the film, and whilst I agree they are beautiful, I had other preferences) are the horses. There are four or five heads of horses, and there is a feeling that they are running, whilst the one in the foreground's mouth is open - perhaps whinnying, as the cave keeper suggested. They have shading. Their eyes give them presence.
They are moving and complete a montage that does a sort of circle, starting with two rhinos fighting in the foreground, their horns clashing (not in that picture, the rhinos are in to the bottom right corner).

There were interviews with various scientists and archaeologists asking about the painters, what they might have been doing, and about the cave itself and what we can learn. The narration (done by Herzog) can get quite heavy with philosophical and almost whimsical sounding ideas - such as what the cave can tell us about the dreams of the painters and their hopes and fears. I'm not exaggerating. I wish I could properly tell you the content of his final philosophical point, related to a nearby nuclear plant, which has developed mutant albino crocodiles (they live there, in the water, and some of the chemicals have clearly taken a toll) and Herzog muses over various things such as how the crocodile will view the cave ''when'' it gets there, and such, as though the crocodile will mutate to a sapient being or something.

There was, however, a particularly amazing moment for me. This 'pendant' in the cave depicts a bison clutching at the lower half of a woman - the only depiction of a human, which greatly resembles early palaeolithic 'Venus' statues, as we see in a museum in Germany over the boarder. Anyway, the bison has a relatively human body, and the woman giving us the tour around the cave paintings compared it to the story of the Minotaur and the Lady, from the Greek period. Of course, this isn't a Minotaur per se, but it is damn close to one, and it is somewhat astonishing to think that, whilst in history there are plenty of cases where ideas and stories and descoveries were made at the same time by independently working people, this 'Minotaur' is over 30,000 years old, perhaps, whilst the Greeks, and the story of the Minotaur as we recognise it, were around 2500 years ago.

Another thing we learn is that there was a discovery of bone flutes in Germany and France from the same period as these paintings. The flutes have been reconstructed and tested, and they use the same sequence of notes and tones as we do today. The man showing us the flute played us the beginning of Star Spangled Flag - which the audience found very amusing. So music back then would have been recognisable and transposable, perhaps for us. Had it of course been written down and stuff.

The overall film, I suppose, could feel a bit scattered, with various points not quite tying into each other - but then I suppose that's almost like the paintings in the cave. But it is very interesting, and definitely a visual treat, even if the music could get a bit oppressive or over the top. If it is available at a cinema or arts theatre near you, I recommend you go to see it.


Rosemarie said...

The real Cave of the Swimmers, paintings of which have been copied for a cave in the film "The English Patient", is in the deep south of Egypt, far removed from the action of the film. Count László Ede Almásy, the English patient, was co-discoverer of the so-called cave in the Gilf Kebir mountains in southwest Egypt. I say so-called because it is not a cave at all, but two niches or overhangs in the rockface where neolithic people took shelter from the burning midday sun.

Chief Mauskateer said...

Whilst this is very much true, I mostly pointed towards that film because it helped make them more famous, and the reader also gets a damn good bit of drama out of it. :)

e.f. bartlam said...

Those are just gorgeous.

It makes me wonder about the mental capacity of those people (not that I really know what it was supposed to have been)...there seem to be some very complicated concepts involved.

Thanks for posting these.