Monday, June 6, 2011

Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Chauvet Cavern)

So, the weekend before last (specifically, Sunday the 28th), we went and did something we haven't done for a while: went out and saw a movie. I forget what the last movie we saw in a theatre was, except that it was long enough ago that all the things we saw previews for then have since come and gone and are now available as dvds by the checkout stands in supermarkets. So it's been a while (the thing about falling out of a habit is that you usually do it gradually enough that you don't much notice, except in retrospect).

This one, however, sounded good enough to lure us out: a documentary about cave art -- specifically, Chauvet Cave: the oldest of the three famous Paleolithic caves with paintings of animals (many of them now extinct), the most recently discovered, and the one I knew the least about. Plus, the film was by Werner Herzog, whose GRIZZLY MAN showed just how well he cd do a documentary, while his INCIDENT AT LOCH NESS is perhaps my second-favorite mockumenary.* I've never seen a 3-d movie before, and hadn't realized until arriving at the theatre (in The Commons in Federal Way, near the recently departed Borders) that it was '3-d'. I'm not much eager to see one again -- glasses over glasses is an awkward fit -- but it really was appropriate here, since it turns out the cave-painters used the shape of the walls as part of their images, somethings painting heads on bulges or bending figures around curves.

All I can say is that this film (made under difficult conditions in order not to disturb the site) does a great job of showing the art. It gives a good sense of what it's like to be in there, wh. is important since so few of us will ever get to see the cave in person (the closest approach I've made is to Pictograph Cave near Billings Montana, though I hope to make it up to Nanaimo Petroglyph Park in British Columbia one of these days). And I won't hold against it the one annoying moment, when he wants to emphasize the silence of the cave by overdubbing first heartbeats and then the soundtrack over the scene of characters standing quietly.

Now I wish I cd find equally good depictions of the two other such caves. The first, Altamira, was discovered as far back as 1879 but not generally admitted to be authentic until from around 1902 onward; this is the one that inspired Tolkien's cave-paintings in the 1932 FATHER CHRISTMAS LETTER. The second, Lascaux, was discovered in 1940 and, I gather, recognized as the real thing right away. But Chauvet, although only rediscovered in 1994, is much, much older: the art here is about 32,000 years old. That's a long, LONG time ago.

I have a book on Altamira (borrowed years ago from a co-worker at WotC, to whom I cd never return it because the person I thought loaned it denied all knowledge of the book and none of my subsequent attempts to find its owner were ever successful), but it's rather technical in tone and shows v. little of the art. And I have a beautifully illustrated oversized book on Lascaux, picked up at Elliott Bay Books several years ago, when they were actually near Elliott Bay, but have not yet read it. Now I'll need to be on the look-out both for a good documentary about the other two caves and a good, well-illustrated book about Chauvet to ponder over.

Two things that bemused me: First, the fact that you can't go and see these caves for yourself. Both Altamira and Lascaux are now closed to visitors to prevent wear and tear on the site, and access to Chauvet is severely limited for the same reason. Or, as my wife put it, "the cave must be preserved for future generations, who won't be allowed to see it either".

Second, the persistence of chronological snobbery (as Barfield called it). When Altamira was first discovered, people simply refused to believe that "cave-men", who they imagined as brutish, stupid, and barely able to say "Og", could have created such beautiful art. When Altamira was finally authenticated, and with the later discovery of Lascaux and much more contributing evidence (like the discovery of musical instruments), the experts had to adjust their conception of what the people from that time were like. That is, people just like us. And yet each time they assume the new evidence they've found comes right on the cusp of people first being able to do that thing. There are a few mentions in the Chauvet documentary of humans having just gained the ability to draw like that -- a wholly unwarranted assumption. The best corrective I know is to read THE LOST CIVILISATION OF THE STONE AGE, which argues eloquently that the basics of civilization -- people living in little villages, with domesticated animals and some crops, trade-routes extending thousands of miles, wearing woven cloth and probably with pottery -- go back a long, long way. The basic human experience we share in doesn't start five thousand years ago in Egypt or Mesopotamia but tens of thousands of years ago, much of it in places now inaccessible (because of rising sea levels after the Ice Ages).

In any case, here's a link to the one thing I thought missing from the film: a diagram of the cave to help convey a sense of where what you're seeing is in relation to everything else:


**beaten out, I think, by Peter Jackson's FORGOTTEN SILVER, which people viewing it have actually mistaken for the real thing.

1 comment:

N.E. Brigand said...

Thanks for the review; I hope to see this movie in the theater. As for Forgotten Silver, I certainly enjoyed it (especially Harvey Weinstein's appearance), and saw it at a festival where it was billed as a straight documentary, but like any viewer with a little knowledge of film history, realized pretty quickly that it was a joke. And yet it did fool a lot of people.