Friday, May 20, 2011

Go see Herzog's "Cave of Forgotten Dreams" in 3D

by Salman Hameed

If you have the opportunity, please check out Herzog's Cave of Forgotten Dreams in 3D. Yes, 3D makes a huge difference. The film is about the 30,000 year old cave art discovered in Chauvet Cave in France in 1994. This is the earliest expression of art that we know of. This dates back to the time when humans shared the planet - and this area of Europe - with their neanderthal cousins. And yet, as far as we so far know, the artistic expression belonged to homo sapiens alone.

Couple of quick things about the movie: The cave art is actually quite amazing. The perspective in the drawings is very sophisticated and the artists utilized the shape of the cave walls beautifully. The 3D film allows us to experience and appreciate the efforts of our ancestral artists.

But as expected, the movie is not simply about the cave. Instead, Herzog's main focus is to understand what makes us human? What were our ancestors thinking when they were making these drawings? What was the purpose? Most of these drawings are in the inner most chamber of the cave, and there is evidence for some sort of ceremony. What kind of ceremonies were these?

There is a fascinating tension in the film. On the one hand, Herzog finds it wonderful that in many ways, these cave artists are very similar to us. Their artistic skills can rival those in the Renaissance. There seems to be a common thread between us and the cave ancestors - even though there is a chasm of 30,000 years. On the other hand, the romantic in Herzog, likes to point out that we really cannot say anything about the cave artists. While he loves the work that scientists are doing to understand the cave artists, he compares it to "compiling a directory of individuals" living in New York city, without getting to know any thing about their lives and passions. This tension - being similar and yet so alien - is what really drives the film.

Not surprising for a Herzog film, the scientists studying the cave also become a subject. The urge to understand our past, is in itself a very human endeavor, and Herzog wants to document that as well.

Then there is the postscipt in the film. I do not want to give any thing away, but I think much of Herzog's emotional and intellectual response to the experience of Chauvet Cave lies in the postscript. It includes albino crocodiles (I hope this will whet your appetite for the film)!

During the film I was also wondering about the social status of the cave artists. After all, it is quite clear that only a handful of people painted the pictures. How were they chosen? There must have been some kind of criterion for the choice. If yes, then we are looking at the specter of not only beautiful art, but also of art criticism 30,000 years ago!

If you have a chance, please go see the film. Also, make sure to set aside some time after the film to absorb the movie.

Here is the trailer for the film:

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