The older I get and the more movies I’ve seen, the more I equate movie viewing experiences with the same feeling I have while watching fireworks. Wow Boom Bang Gone. Obscene special effects, poor writing, endless rehashes of a great idea someone had 20 or more years ago; it seems these modern movie qualities are all part of some intellectual filter Hollywood pushes it’s creativity through these days. Then wonderfully and inexplicably sometimes you have moments when you’ve felt like you’ve just seen a work on film that allows you to trust your eyes again. Sometimes, your brain notices something behind the bright and shiny things up there on the big screen. Something between the frames. The syntax. Every once in a while, something beautiful happens to film — Werner Herzog.
Amy and I had the pleasure of seeing Herzog’s latest masterpiece last friday on it’s opening night here in Portsmouth. In Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Herzog does humanity and the arts a favor by going to Southern France and documenting the oldest known cave paintings in the world on film for everyone to see and enjoy for ages to come. It’s an excellent work that not only documents this prehistoric achievement of mankind, but also does so in painstaking detail. As most of Herzog’s docu-style work, he mixes unmeasurble amounts of subjectivity and objectivity to create something unique and timeless that will leave you pondering what you’ve seen for hours or even days.
Hats off to the French authorities which, upon immediately realizing the value of such a national and worldly treasure, put the cave behind a locked steel door, but still somehow chose Herzog and his team as the professionals they would allow in to document these treasures on film. To me this shows that the French minister of culture has remarkable insight on the value of art and dissemination of it’s meanings for the greater public. At one point a archeologist is interviewed and tells a story about a journalist who while traveling with an Aborigine guide in Australia came upon some ancient cave paintings. Inexplicably the Aborigine began to touch up the paintings himself. Knowing that his guide was no artist, the journalist asked why he had the need to add to these ancient works of art. The guide’s response was that he wasn’t, but that the great spirit of the paintings was touching them up through his hand. I could not help but think of this story after the movie and how in a way this is what Herzog and his team was doing in the cave in France. By filming the cave paintings he was in essence “touching up” the works, giving them a new light and allowing them and all their mythology to be enjoyed by modern humans. This theme occurs again in the movie when they point out a beautiful animal in the cave that had yet another animal over-layed on top. The creature in front was painted over 2000 years after the original.
The film runs for about an hour and half and while I sat there and marveled the artistic achievements of our ancestors, I couldn’t help but question my own imagination and the lasting power it might have. I mean, I consider myself a pretty creative person, but will anything I create stand the test of time and compare with these paintings? Will anyone be around to “touch up” my works? The majority of things I create through code or audio recordings reside in the memory of a computer. Will computers even be relevant 30,000 years from now? My guess is probably not. Although I do find comfort in the fact that there’s a good chance the creativity and imaginations of humans in general will survive. These caves and this film shows proof of that.
Chauvet Cave — Official web site from French Ministry of culture in French/English/Spanish.
Werner Herzog official site — Cave of Forgotten Dreams on Herzog’s official site. Don’t miss the excellent interview with Stephen Colbert here.
Cave of Forgotten Dreams - IFC films
I would like to share an amazing piece of audio that Minneapolis’s own Paul Foster (fellow Herzog fan, writer, and film professional) made after being inspired by Herzog’s work.
I asked Paul if he could write us something about what inspired him to make this track:
“I wish Werner Herzog would record a complete reading of the King James Bible. I think that might just turn me back to God. The tone of Herzog’s voice, and the way he enunciates each word, is intoxicating. There’s an undeniable strength in the voice. A power to persuade. Like his films, Herzog’s interviews are infused with a vitality and the stories he tells about his life are related from a perspective that would seem unnatural if his voice weren’t simultaneously convincing you that it couldn’t be any other way.
It was on a 16-hour road trip from New Hampshire to North Carolina that I heard him being interviewed by Terry Gross on NPR. With a certain amount of amazement, he spoke of working with the often-deranged Klaus Kinski and it occurred to me that the tales from his own life were no less astonishing. This is, after all, the man who once told Henry Rollins that he had no interest in finding or prosecuting the man who shot him during a BBC interview because “this is not a serious bullet. It’s something very exhilarating for a man to be shot at with little success.”
I wanted a way to listen to parts of the NPR interview in another context and, in the spirit of what Herzog calls ‘ecstatic truth,’ I folded bits and pieces of Kinski’s life into Herzog’s to create a biography of the director that was, somehow, more true. Laying these clips onto a track from The Last Temptation of Christ seemed a logical choice.”