Monday, May 30, 2011

Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Saturday in Sag Harbor Paul and I saw Werner Herzog's new film about the ancient paintings in the Chauvet Cave, in the south of France. The paintings themselves are riveting and fresh; somehow they seem both haunting and surprisingly stylish-- as if they were sophisticated mid-twentieth century representations of animals instead of 30,000 year old paintings on the walls of a deep, long-sealed cavern. They are the oldest paintings in the world, and they represent only animals -- horses, bison, mammoths, antelope -- with the exception of one partial human female body.

It's too bad the movie isn't better. It feels like Herzog never figured out quite what to do with these images, besides point the camera at them and let us marvel along with him. That's sufficient for a while, but the nature of film is motion, and the nature of ekphrasis is transformation. It's never enough for one work of art to simply present another; what we require from poetry or lyric prose or film based in a work of art is a kind of active engagement which places that work in a new context, gets inside it, turns it inside out, somehow involves us in the process of knowing. We want to be involved with someone else's coming to terms; we want the work of art about the work of art to do something we couldn't do by ourselves.

And that's the trouble, finally, with the movie --you could have just as rich an experience looking at slides of the paintings in a darkened room, and there are a great many questions about the work that Herzog doesn't ask. Why are there only animals here ? What were the paintings for? Were they made to be seen, as a communal experience, or were they made by a solitary artist going down into the dark and working alone? Were they acts of art or acts of magic or of both? Do the grace and wit and power of these paintings have something to say about the notion of progress or development? And should we say that "we" made these, in our earliest history, or are the makers of this art so far from us as not to be part of a "we" at all; are they entirely other?

Of course these questions aren't answerable; it doesn't seem there's very much we can know about these pictures. But they seem endlessly provocative, and they trouble the mind like some lost part of our own memory.

Now that it's been a couple of days, I've mostly forgotten my frustration with the film, and what lingers is the memory of those images, especially the four horses lined up one behind the other, with their open mouths and wide eyes. Paul thinks that some art is made to be satsifying in the moment, and some made to resonate in memory, and that these different modes of making represent different styles and values. I didn't like Cave of Forgotten Dreams, but I won't forget it. You can look up Goggle images of "Chauvet Cave," and you'll see why.


Anonymous said...

Yes, the challenge of art. But Herzog really isn't about answering questions is he? Not in a literal way at least. He seems to want to challenge the viewer; if it works, it works. If not, then move on. Oh, isn't that called "auteur'?

Glenn Ingersoll said...

Went to this today. The 3D made husband nauseous.

I thought about 10 minutes of 3D would have been great. Otherwise? Maybe the former juggler was cuter in 3D?

I didn't like Herzog. One day a crocodile will wander through the Chauvet cave, Herzog says, what will it think? The title was dumb, too. The music could be distracting. That said, I wouldn't dissuade anyone from seeing in a form as close to the real experience as possible something one would otherwise have no access to. It is an amazing find and real art.

Mark Doty said...

Paul and I saw this in plain old 2D, in a wonderful moldy fifties theater where 3D projection isn't likely to arrive anytime soon. Didn't know it was even in 3D till a friend saw a few minutes of it in the city and just saw double everything. I don't know, maybe it's exciting to see the paintings in that format? Glenn's comment isn't encouraging.

Paul Lisicky said...

For me, the moldy smell of the theater evoked the smell of a cave: perfect sensory support. Who needs 3-D?

Mim said...

Yes, sophisticated! You may want to read Judith Thurman's article. She places the paintings in a long tradition.

Herzog is windy, isn't he? What about that music!? Schmaltz-kitsch . . .

Ed Baker said...

2-D images in 3-D ?

Pray tell bumps in the cave-walls that hold the images "pop" out at the viewer and ...
add what?

tricks and gimmicks ad nausea-um ... some solid plinth for our present Kulchur, eh?

emily said...

I thought the 3D was great. I saw it in an old theater, with glasses. It worked fine. The way the painters used the walls to create form became clear in 3D; it isn't that clear in the 2D book I have: "The Dawn of Art: The Chauvet Cave." The book has almost all of the images from the movie, and you can hold it on your lap, but the 3D was worth putting up with the creepy music and the creepy mutant crocodiles.

Gary B. Fitzgerald said...

(the Aurochs precedes the Lamb)

The mystery of the early dark,
the secret of the caves,
altar to the fear of not surviving.
What purpose these tinted beasts,
these invisible creatures seen only
in the fire light of the spirit
and imagination?
A token to the animal gods,
tithe to the hunt?
A prayer to the bear for good luck?

I don’t think so, no. These beasts
were painted with the pigments
of humility, of gratitude and wonder,
the suppression of hunger,
with the colors of guilt and regret,
after dinner.

Copyright 2010 – Ponds and Lawns-New and Corrected Poems, Gary B. Fitzgerald