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.