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Cave of Forgotten Dreams

June 19, 2011
Cave of Forgotten Dreams

On December 18, 1994, three men walked along the limestone cliffs beside the Ardèche river in southern France. Jean-Marie Chauvet, Eliette Brunel-Deschamps, and Christian Hillaire were feeling for faint drafts of air which might indicate the presence of a cave behind the rock face. A tight fissure led into a steeply sloping passage down to a large cavern; the original entryway had been blocked by an ancient landslide. It was a pristine find, filled with gorgeous formations, but as they pressed onward they found something shocking: black drawings of horses, bison, rhinoceroses, and even lions on the cave walls — images that would later be dated to over thirty thousand years old.

In 2008, Judith Thurman wrote about the careful scientific exploration of the Chauvet cave for the New Yorker. Her descriptions so captivated the filmmaker Werner Herzog that he felt compelled to document the cave itself for a wider audience. And despite his misgivings about its use in commercial cinema, he was convinced that a 3-D treatment would be invaluable in capturing both the shape of the cave itself as well as the subtler textures the ancient artists worked into their paintings themselves. The result is Cave of Forgotten Dreams.

The images in Chauvet are by far the oldest paintings ever discovered; the famous Lascaux murals, though more colorful, are a mere seventeen thousand years old. And yet they display striking detail. Many of the animals appear to have doubled legs, indicating motion; one rhinoceros’ horns are drawn repeatedly, as if they were frames in some “proto-cinema” as its head nods back and forth. One outcropping from the ceiling appears to contain a paleolithic Venus. Cave lions — which archaeologists had previously known only from fossilized skeletons — are shown clearly not to have manes.

Clearly I can’t effectively discuss the film without its use of 3-D cinematography, and here it really shines; this may be the single truly worthwhile use of 3-D techniques I’ve seen.

On the large scale, the cave environment is unlike most others, in that all lighting is artificial. Colors are surprisingly even, and offer few cue to where a nearby rock stops and the remote wall starts. It gets worse when you realize that you can’t completely trust your usual intuitions for how objects are lit, since there may be many sources of light interacting in a scene. The parallax that the 3-D technique provides adds a depth cue that really helps understand the shape of the cave. There are also a few striking scenes where the immediate foreground is lit by the cameraman’s lamp but the middle ground is pitch-black until we see a well-lit background where others are moving. Without the 3-D depth cues such scenes would look significantly flatter. Overall, Herzog manages to capture the visual experience of actually being inside a cave more effectively than any other filmmaker I’ve seen.

But the 3-D also works on a smaller scale: the cave painters used the natural bumps and ridges of the cave walls to add depth to their images. They carved into the rock face itself, or worked over claw marks from even more ancient cave bears. The 3-D helps highlight this texture and makes it pop out in a way lighting cues simply can’t.

In both cases, the technique works for two reasons. First, Herzog mostly shoots depth behind the screen rather than things popping out in front of it. He also holds the camera very steadily and moves it very slowly, giving us time to really take in the shape of the cave. Neither of these is true of the way most 3-D movies are shot.

It’s not perfect, though. Whenever something happens to be close to the camera it gets distracting, as it does in most of the outdoor scenes. There are also a few scenes from Herzog’s earlier entries which seem to have been shot with conventional cameras and badly converted to 3-D after the fact — the cave itself looks pretty good, possibly because the scientific teams have some good 3-D mapping data to use, but it looks like a pop-up book around people in the close foreground. All in all it may have been better to only shoot the cave in 3-D and only when the real 3-D rig could be used.

Still, the use of 3-D absolutely adds to the effect. While this will certainly air on the History Channel — who helped fund the movie — I urge you to not only see it in a theater, but to see it in 3-D while you can.

But as fascinating and beautiful as the images are, there are many questions which the film can only raise and can never answer. Who were these people, and what did the paintings mean to them? What stories did they tell each other about the world and about themselves? There’s just no way to know. But given that they were painted in areas where no sunlight ever shone, we do know one thing: these paintings could only ever be viewed as twisting shadows cast by a flickering light against the wall. Thirty thousand years later, we’re still telling ourselves stories in much the same way.

Worth It: absolutely.
Bechdel Test: if it even applies to documentaries, fail.

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