Friday, 15 April 2011

Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2011)

Starring: Werner Herzog et al
Director: Werner Herzog
Screenplay: Werner Herzog
Director of Photography: Peter Zeitlinger

Given the almost-universal acclaim (if not widespread cinema release) with which ‘Cage of Forgotten Dreams’ has been greeted, one gets the feeling that it’s a film most people don’t even need to watch to like. Werner Herzog, the Chauvet Caves, 3-D (3-D?!!!) – what could go wrong? Yet, while it’s certainly a competent piece of work, often it feels like a straight documentary which has self-consciously been made 'Herzogian' round the edges - most notably, with the 'characters' of the perfumier sniffing for cave and the fur-suited man playing 'The Star-Spangled Banner' on a bone flute, as well as (of course) the postscript about albino crocodiles. As one review notes, Herzog's typical view of nature as, at best, indifferent, at worst, actively hostile, takes a back-seat here for a reverent approach to the dynamic, yet ultimately rather benign depictions of animals inside the cave itself. There would have been plenty to stress about the hunter-gatherer way of life, humans placed in a world of actively hostile animals where they were not yet top of the pile – and yet this element is not emphasized, Herzog even suggesting that the footprints of an eight-year old boy found next to those of wolf might hint at some sort of companionship – yes, the wolf may have been stalking the boy, but they may also have been walking side by side. This seems to provide an instance where, because the history is so far back, Herzog can play on his old ‘ecstatic truth’ trope, inventing stories and fantasies and dreams about what the cave artists’ life may have been like (somewhat akin to the original idea of creating a sci-fi out of the desert landscapes, wrecked vehicles, and drought-riddled corpses of the African desert in ‘Fata Morgana’) – and yet, much of the time it feels as though we are actually witnessing something rather sanitised, National Geographic-style. This reverent approach is underscored by the ever-present sound of Ernst Reijseger's music, which pairs Reijseger's own high-pitched, folkish improvised cello melodies over organ drones, quasi-medieval choir, and, in the final montage of the cave paintings, an 'ethnic flute' deployed in something approaching early ’90s chillout fashion. As a result, sections of the film are actually rather dull, the most notable culprit being the 5-minute sequence in which we follow a female professor around the caves as she points out what we can actually see with our own eyes - 'here is a painting of a lion' – like a tour guide who cannot let her charges experience the place first hand, but must constantly place it under a contextual veil, sterilising it, removing it from the realm of the living. Also notable is the way that she constantly refers to the cave artist(s) as male - 'he stood here, he made this mark' - something her briefly-glimpsed colleague corrects (changing 'man' to 'human') – but to which she soon returns as the camera dutifully follows her around. Surely, one speculates, the assumed male-ness of the artist belies the fact that we witness statues of giant female deity-figures with enormous pubic regions in similar caves, suggesting some sort of fertility cult (cave as womb). Indeed, the one representation of a human form in the whole of Chauvet is the lower half of a female being embraced by a bull – and here one thinks of Simone de Beavouir’s notion of ‘woman’ as mediatrix between natural and human worlds. “She is endowed with mind and spirit, but she belongs to Nature, the infinite current of life flows through her; she appears, therefore, as a mediatrix between the individual and the cosmos.” (‘The Second Sex’) (If this appears too solemn, one could always counterpose the following: “For me, to recognize that so many of the preserved Paleolithic images were done casually, by both sexes and all age-groups, more often than not by youngsters, who even left their tracks under renditions of wounded bulls and swollen vulvas, in no way makes Paleolithic sites less hallowed. The possibility that adolescent giggles and snickers may have echoed in dark cave passages as often as the rhythm of a shaman’s chant demeans neither artists nor art. Instead, it opens the possibility for us to conceive, with familiar warmth and greater immediacy, the entire range of preserved Paleolithic art.” (That’s R. Dale Guthrie, from ‘The Nature of Paleolithic Art’.)

We might consider also (of course, this will remain speculation) the role of these paintings, once more using de Beauvoir’s terms: are they ‘priestly’, the work of a caste who “control and direct forces they have mastered in accord with the gods and the laws, for the common good, in the name of all members of the group,” or ‘magical’, the work of one who “operates apart from society, against the gods and the laws, according to his own deep interests”? The fact that the cave contains so few human traces, in contrast to the large number of animal skeletons, suggests that it was infrequently used, or at least, used only temporarily: small bands of people, or individuals, holding their torches to the walls and making riddles, invocations, codes apart from the main social and practical functions of diurnal life; art as cultic ceremony, with a power understood only by the few, perhaps not even by them in their own selves (instead through possession, access to some form of higher, other power, spirit); as something potentially dangerous, potentially over-spilling the limits even of primitive social structures. No system of patronage, not that kind of art-cult; but still speaking from somewhere other than the place to which people are accustomed. Are audiences invited in to witness shadow-ceremonies, shows of music and light and movement? Or are these kept as private invocations, experiments, searches for knowledge that may be applied to the other world of the everyday, but which must first be tested, fine-tuned, played with? Magic as creative act – making something happen – naming as magical act – drawing as a kind of naming (the representation of the animal as the visual equivalent of its spoken name) – or the combination of the two, the visual/totemic element alongside the sounding of the name, of magical words/spells/formulae (science today still has that magical inheritance – balancing the equation, getting the correct formula is equivalent to getting the right words, pronouncing the spell correctly).

One of Herzog’s most intriguing notions (though, it has to be said, a fairly obvious one) is that the Chauvet paintings are an early form of animation/ cinema (and, we might add, gesamtkunstwerk, or opera), combining sound, visuals, and movement. We see this most clearly in the attempt to capture motion – animals with multiple legs, drawn round contours of the cave wall (e.g. a bison chasing an ibex from out of a shadowed recess) – and they could seem to come alive when ‘animated’ by the play of torchlight on walls – shadows interacting with the paintings of animals (here Herzog rather whimsically inserts a clip of Fred Astaire dancing with his shadow). This is not merely a kind of 3-D-style wow-factor – rather, it fits in with notions of transformation and fluidity. A scientist in the film speculates that human identity was viewed as permeable and porous, rather than fixed – humans can transform into animals, animals can stand on two legs and walk about, trees can speak – thus, the play of light and shade, breaking down visual distinctions between human performers and animal paintings, is not merely play, but becomes part of an entire mode of seeing the world very different from our own. I would quibble, however, with the claim, also made in the film, that visual communication was regarded as more reliable than oral (the ‘ecstatic truth’ of an image, perhaps) – it seems presumptuous to make judgements on the predominance of the visual just because that’s all we have left from the cave (sound, of course, doesn’t survive; while certain patterns in song, music and non-written language may become traditions, tropes, repeated and passed down through generations, they are still subject to change and revision to far greater degree than solid visual marks). The Chauvet paintings, however astounding they might be, are merely traces; as if one had been left with the stage sets from a play, without the actors, the script, the director, the lighting, the audience – as if one entered this empty theatre and attempted to make judgements about what took place within. The indications, though, are that the Chauvet caves were the site of a kind of total artwork; they were a ritual space, a theatre-temple rather than an art gallery. For instance, a bear skull placed on an altar-like rock appears to have been surrounded with incense (maybe the perfumier sniffing the caves out isn’t so crazy, after all…); combine this with bone flutes and voices, and we have a fusion of ‘primitive’ light-show/shadow-play/magic lantern with ‘art’ (painting), smell and music. The attempt to privilege visual over oral, then, is not merely misguided, but part of the whole modern process of specialisation, tied to the division of labour: “As soon as the distribution of labour comes into being, each man has a particular, exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him and from which he cannot escape. He is a hunter, a fisherman, a herdsman, or a critical critic, and must remain so if he does not want to lose his means of livelihood; while in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.” (Marx, ‘The German Ideology’)

Perhaps the cave artists were already part of the process towards specialisation, acting as part of a separated cult, an elite caste akin to William Blake’s hated priesthood– the cave was not inhabited by humans (there are no human bones inside, though there are plenty of bear skeletons (and bear scratches on the wall), but instead seems to have been a secret place, at a remove, hidden, separate – a place for rites, for cults (the production of sacred objects as a dangerous task – see the Dogon production of sacred statues away from the village) – art originating as a cultic activity, secret, magic, involving hidden knowledge (gnosis) – that which binds together the elite, or the unspoken/unspeakable backbone of the social community as a whole. In Herzog’s film, the circus performer turned scientist recalls an anecdote about an aborigine artist, who touches up an old cave painting whilst accompanied by an anthropologist. The anthropologist, curious, asks him what he’s painting, to which the response is ‘I don’t paint, the spirit does’ – this of course, part of the whole notion of the ‘muse’, of creative inspiration, of channelling something other than oneself. At the same time, one does not simply abandon oneself to chance, the willing servant of a god whose purpose one cannot divine but in which one must absolutely trust; one invokes a presence (animal, spirit) through imitating it, through actively embodying it. This might take place through sound (bearing in mind theories about the onomatopoeiac origins of speech and song) – sound as invocation, with the power to make things happen – not a representation but the thing itself – one can directly channel the voice of an animal, a spirit (shaman, medium). Does it follow that sound, then, offers a more unmediated access than visual art? Well, perhaps I’m reversing that visual/oral distinction unnecessarily, for it seems that the cave paintings play their own invocatory, creative role. The Chauvet walls are drawn on in long, sweeping outline – as is pointed out in the film, one animal, over six feet in length, has been sketched out with a single, stretching gesture. Here, once more, Blake springs to mind: “The great and golden rule of art, as well as of life, is this: That the more distinct, sharp, and wirey the bounding line, the more perfect the work of art.[…] Leave out this line, and you leave out life itself; all is chaos again, and the line of the almighty must be drawn out upon it again before man or beast can exist.” (Blake, ‘A Descriptive Catalogue’) Blake’s ‘Ancient of Days’ is depicted sitting in the sky with his hand stretched out, two lightning-like streaks emerging from his thumb and fingers, tracing out that originary line of creation, “the bounding line and its infinite inflexions and movements” which enables us “to distinguish the oak from the beech, the horse from the ox.” This is not simply the original creative action of a separated sky-god, but the work of ‘The Eternal Great Humanity Divine’ (man himself, in his spiritual being) which is put into practice every single day. The act of invention and execution is a single act (no mind/body separation here – creation is the almost instantaneous flash from brain to arm); drawing a line is a continually repeated act of creation, as is our perception. All our experience depends on our creating it, in every moment – to exist is to create – we create our existence. As Merleau-Ponty puts it, “Each perception…re-enacts on its own account the birth of intelligence and has some elements of creative genius about it: in order that I recognize the tree as a tree, it is necessary that, beneath the familiar meaning, the momentary arrangement of the visible scene should begin all over again, as on the very first day of the vegetable kingdom, to outline the individual idea of this tree.” (MP, ‘Phenomenology of Perception’). Like the Australian songlines, which constantly re-enact the original moment of creation, the Chauvet paintings are not mere decoration, not mere ‘form’ into which ‘ideas’ are poured, but dramatizations, if you will, of the act of perception itself – creative acts, gestures that (once more) make something happen.

Both Blake (and, to some extent, Merleau-Ponty, with his desire to re-achieve an inalienable, “direct and primitive contact with the world, endowing that contact with a philosophical status”) were against a linear notion of time as always regular, always unfolding as a succession of points along a straight line; such thinking merely fits with the capitalist need to commodify time, to measure it in terms of pay and employment rather than in terms of human perception (or in terms of vast distances beyond the measure of human perception, and certainly beyond the reach of capital). For Blake, real value lies in the moment of epiphany, of creation, the minute particular, the “Moment in each Day that Satan cannot find”; “Every Time less than a pulsation of the artery/ Is equal in its period & value to Six Thousand Years, / For in this Period the Poet’s work is Done: and all the Great / Events of Time start forth & are conceiv’d in such a Period, / Within a moment, a Pulsation of the Artery.” (‘Milton’) Given this, the Chauvet caves, with their refusal to fit into any (art-)historical schema, any pre-ordained genre (animal portraiture? devotional image? totem? record of psychedelic experience?) and their almost unimaginable distance in time (and space, if we consider how recently they were re-discovered, and for how long they were sealed off by rockfall) prove an exemplary challenge to our neat notion of narrative; not that we can necessarily experience them with the immediacy of Merleau-Ponty’s “direct and primitive contact,” nor Blake’s “pulsation of the artery”, but that they do somehow stand outside measurable history (we can say that one drawing was executed several thousands of years after the one it overlaps, but can we really imagine, conceive of such distance except as a meaningless figure?). Twentieth-century humanity, with its eye constantly on both the future (the threat of ecological catastrophe; the need for ‘progress’ and technological development; the possibility of making more and more money; the measuring of political/imperial trends in a globalised world) and the past (constant conservative appeals to notions of empire and racial purity; a sense of generational change and loss in morals, fashions, ideas; the fetishization of historical images thought to stand for some heroic past era from which we have regressed (Churchill, the Blitz, Henry V)) loses a sense of the present moment which – we dangerously speculate – may have been much more immediate, much more accessible (because not really considered, simply acted upon without thought) by the artists of Chauvet. It’s that palimpsestic revision that does it – who now would think to draw over the Mona Lisa, for instance (and that’s only a few hundred years old) – the fetishization of historical art objects as untouchable, holy, the past as a foreign country, rather than as marks on a cave wall that exist in the present, no matter when they were originally lay down, and over which one re-inscribes another image. Herzog’s prompts us to go further, his suggestion that the Chauvet artists were somehow outside history, with no sense of the future, made explicit in John Berger’s concluding comments from his own, earlier, visit to the caves: “The Cro-Magnons lived with fear and amazement in a culture of Arrival, facing many mysteries. Their culture lasted for some 20,000 years. We live in a dominant culture of ceaseless Departure and Progress that has so far lasted two or three centuries. Today's culture, instead of facing mysteries, persistently tries to outflank them.” At the same time, it would not do to romanticise the paintings as some primitive art-ideal; life was undoubtedly ‘tough’ at a time when (Berger again), “the average life expectancy was 25”; furthermore, “the nomads were acutely aware of being a minority overwhelmingly outnumbered by animals. They had been born, not on to a planet, but into animal life. They were not animal keepers: animals were the keepers of the world and of the universe around them, which never stopped. Beyond every horizon were more animals.” Life as a short flash, in which every moment is that much more vital for not being followed by an interminable succession of lengthening moments into the dreariness and inactivity of old age? (The myth that ‘the good die young’; stone age man as a tribe of Mozarts.) And a notion of co-existence with, rather than destructive dominance over nature (this belied, as with the ridiculous notion of the Mozart tribe, by the fact that one had to hunt to survive, that animals aren’t naturally disposed to be ‘nice’ to each other, and, above all, by the ferocious physical conditions which enveloped the planet – a glacial landscape of freezing temperatures, in which fire assumes a special, almost sacred meaning (the myth of Prometheus). This, of course, actually counts for much of the vitality of the cave art – fire and warmth inside a cave are that much more precious, and thus endowed with something more than mere theatrics; there is a sense of landscape, not merely as a pretty view one looks out upon (the landed aristocrat surveying his estate) but as something one is placed within, which one is a part of – something much more interior, a sense of being literally inside the earth. As much as possible, then, we should attempt to read the paintings in their historical dimension, from their physical circumstances, as much as a more mythic and metaphysical reading suggests itself; perhaps the two interpretations can go alongside each other, at least, until we invent time travel. So the paintings can be at once the scrabblings of a cold and hairy man/woman called ‘Ug’ and something akin to the founding myth/ act of origin we cannot name; akin to Heidegger’s “question [which] has today been forgotten” – ‘what is the meaning of Being?’ A question, an act, before records, across what Herzog calls an “abyss of time” – not to reduce the paintings to a Life magazine “oo, they were just like us” platitude, but neither, perhaps, to go as far as Herzog does in the film’s coda. Most critics seem to have left analysis at the door by this stage, and simply noted this concluding segment as a delightful example of Herzog’s wackiness (rather like the way they let the hack-work of ‘Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans’ off the hook because it had such self-consciously ‘crazy’ touches (lizards! Nicolas Cage! point-of-view shots! breakdancing souls!)). That’s perhaps slightly unfair, though, and in some ways the sequence clarifies the film’s entire view, beyond the restrained solemnity of tour-guides and overdone music and ten-minute pans round the cave walls; it’s as if Herzog can say, ‘at last! back to the unknowability and indifference and magnificence of nature! (this “harmony of overwhelming and collective murder”which “I love against my better judgement”)’. So, the scene shifts further down the valley, to where (supposedly) a nuclear power plant has caused genetic mutations in crocodiles; cue footage of these small, albino creatures in a greenhouse, being followed above and below the water line by Herzog’s camera, overlaid with his speculative commentary about the alienness of other species; these crocodiles may look back at/ on us with the same confusion as we look back on the Chauvet artists, across an ‘abyss of time’. This “unfathomable depth of time” applies equally to the far distant past and to an imagined sci-fi future: “The film goes completely bonkers at that point, during the postscript. It's like we are entering pure science fiction fantasy. But it's not just for the sake of that fantasy, it has to do with our perception and the perception of the people at that time, 32,000 years ago. We cannot reconstruct it - we do not know. Of course, we can describe our perception, but what is going to happen in 20 generations from now? And how would albino crocodiles see it if they expand all the way to Chauvet Cave [laughs]? In fact, reality is much wilder than my science fiction fantasies.” The ‘abyss of time’ means that ancestry, then, is not a guarantee of stability or value; we wish to know it (hence our ceaseless wondering about the mysteries of the cave), romanticise it as a primitive, creative, originary period, and at the same time fear what it might reveal about us, the murder and hardship which exists just as much now as it did then (‘how far have we really come?’) and which existed just as much then as it does now (no backwards-utopianising to a more ‘innocent’ time (mankind’s childhood, as it were)). The reason this coda has much more power than the rest of the film’s mix of Discovery Channel/ National Geographic competency and selected moments of oddness is, perhaps, that it moves further from the straight documentary style into which Herzog had seemed to be uncharacteristically shoe-horned; now for ‘ecstatic truth’, now for fabrication in order to access some ‘deeper’ insight beyond the check-list of facts and figures. (Particularly given the fact that he appears to have made up the whole story about the crocodile mutation.) One would have thought that the entire subject of Chauvet would offer ample opportunity for this (odd that Herzog should fictionalised more about Gesauldo than about Chauvet), and the coda therefore makes the film that preceded it feel like something of a missed opportunity. Still, it’s a fascinating subject, one which raises all sorts of other considerations and provocations, and there are moments where Herzog nails this; perhaps best to view it as a one-off, rather than as part of a ‘corpus of works’ (that historicizing urge, again), enjoy it for what it is and reflect that, since you or I are unlikely to ever gain access to Chauvet, this may be our best opportunity to see those marks and shadows and recesses and contours for ourselves.


Lutz Eitel said...

I really really like this post. Two things (I do not know what I’m talking about, though). This quote from Berger: “The Cro-Magnons lived with fear and amazement in a culture of Arrival, facing many mysteries.” That may very well be true, but life's a grind, so there was a tedious everyday of fear and amazement, boring arrival and dull mysteries. Also, these cave paintings always look like stuff from a sketchbook to me. Is there a theory that says they painted their religious art proper on another, portable medium and these caves were just practice sessions by the artists? I’d immediately subscribe to that.

david_grundy said...

Yes, I guess that's Berger mythologizing / romanticising the Cro-Magnons a little bit? Presumably the culture was a mixture of the 'primitive' and the quite sophisticated (; hence I particularly like that quote about "adolescent giggles and snickers" existing alongside "the shaman's chant" in the caves.

I'm no expert on this stuff - and I hadn't really considered the possibility that these weren't religious art proper - but I suppose the fact that the paintings are done in single gestures might suggest that they were preparatory sketches. By portable religious images I guess you're thinking of something like icons or sculptures?

Lutz Eitel said...

If we take their level of craftsmanship seriously, we should expect the artists would look for a nice, smooth slab of stone to do some real work, flat enough to carry around, as maybe sort of a portable altar. Or just as some civilization to hold onto. Like I say, I know nothing about that period, but surely some loon must have developed that theory before? These paintings look so much like workshop. That the many-legged bison should be a depiction of movement seems hard to believe, even through post-Muybridge/Balla eyes, given the dynamics of style elsewhere, this just looks so awkward. In fact it looks like the bison was smaller and differently posited before, so the artist made necessary revisions and a couple of legs are still looking through the palimpsest. This is realism, realism is as much about the artist as about nature (and more about the artist than abstraction is). There would have to be an everyday to the art-making, trying to refine the repertoire of figures (see the horse heads in line) from memory, since they couldn’t very well make drawings en plein air. What would contemporary reception have been like? Dumbstruck amazement: where there was a wall, cave mozart made live animal? Or rather critical criticism: woman, the leg looks off, that horse has a rubber skeleton, try again, fail better...

Dominic Lash said...

Very nice post - just seen the film this morning. I have to say I'm not convinced by Lutz's idea of the paintings as sketches - who sketches by firelight, deliberately avoiding any intrusion of daylight? I also rather liked the female scientist's tour of the cave: I don't think I'd have spotted the lion's scrotum without her, for example. And speaking of lions I like your reference to Blake - don't you think some of the lion's looked rather like Blake's tiger from the Songs of Experience? (By the way I also think you're rather unfair on Sean Bergin's flute playing, but each to their own!)

Anonymous said...


Have you considered breaking up your blocks of text, not for "scanning over" or "fly by" reading, but for ease of readability?

It might also be easier to read with black text over white or light grey, tan, etc.

An otherwise thoughtful and well-researched post. There are many readers intimidated by such large blocks of text, myself included.