The documentary, “Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” has high-quality cinematography and is therefore recommended. But boy is it flawed. Like most of the films by Werner Herzog, this one takes the viewer to a place where he/she cannot go, Chauvet Cave in southern France. The cave is filled with prehistoric animal drawings (and other artifacts) that may be as much as 33,000 years old. The cave is closed to the public.
According to Sean Means writing in the SLTrib (13 May 2011):
The original entrance to the cave was sealed by a rock face millennia ago “creating a perfect time capsule,” Herzog informs us. Now the entrance is a steel door installed by the French cultural ministry and kepted locked to all but a few scientists who study the cave paintings and animal remains inside.
After all, the French know from experience the damage tourism causes to such sites. The famous Lascaux caves, home to some of the best-known Paleolithic cave paintings, are now overrun with mold from the breath of so many visitors.
The documentary is Herzog’s awkward attempt to bring the cave to the attention of a wider audience. But instead of providing real information about the cave, he generally opts for New Age babble (and music). And the film is at least 30 minutes too long. The same images are shown over and over and over again.
If one is a believer in the adage that “all’s well that ends well,” then this documentary is not well. The “Cave” epilogue is preposterous and incomprehensible. According to NYT’s reviewer Manohla Dargis (28 Apr 2011):
. . . The cave largely keeps his (Werner’s) indulgently shticky side in check, save for a needless obfuscating coda set in a freaky research center where albino crocodiles swim in the runoff from nuclear reactor plants. “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” is certainly an imperfect reverie. . . .
Here are two examples of opportunities that were missed:
- a laser-generated layout (actually a myriad of small dots) that outlined the general shape of the cave is shown briefly, but is underutilized.
- the stalactite with the illustration of female body and a bison’s head (fertility goddess) could have been graphically re-created. Because of its location, it is apparently impossible to get a clear image.
Some of the interviews are silly. The first interview with the circus-entertainer-turned-archeologist is too New Agey. What is with the Fred Astaire dancing scene? The interview with the perfumer is just plain loopy. I could have used more science and prehistory, and fewer crazy musings. Subjects that could have been covered include:
- What was the relationship between the cave painters (our ancestors?) and the Neanderthals?
- What happened to the animals depicted in the cave, the cave bears and rhinos? Were they killed off, were they victims of climate change, etc?
- A graphic of the ice-cap situation 33,000 years ago (and what has happened since).
- Where did the cave artists come from, what were there origins?
Near the end of the documentary there was a question about whether the cave art represents the beginning of human consciousness (or soul)? This is particularly relevant when you consider they had musical instruments also. But this question is poorly answered.
Go see the “Cave” because it is the only way to see the art and environment in the cave. The cave is a prehistoric cathedral; the art work is very striking.
The camera work, in 3-D and with much of it hand-held, is quite good. And as Means has pointed out, this is an instance where technology (3-D) “serves art, not commerce.”