Friday, April 13, 2012

Cave of Forgotten Dreams

by Drew Martin
Cave of Forgotten Dreams has been lingering in my mind for the past week. Werner Herzog’s documentary spelunks Chauvet Cave, which was first explored by modern humans in 1994. A rock slide sealed the entrance tens of thousands of years ago. Cavernous chambers extend a mile underground and contain drawings and paintings that have existed for 32,000 years, twice as old as any cave art that was discovered before this collection. 

One of the personal delights of the film was that many of the images were made by one prehistoric man, identified by his tell-tale crooked pinky finger. My grandfather and mother have this same hook, so I entertained the idea that it was a distant relative whose descendants walked to England, which was possible to do at that time from this site in France.

The documentary hits a somber, if not sobering, note. You feel privileged to enter the cave but you also feel restricted in the same way the skeleton crew must keep to the two-foot-wide protective walkway. The limit complements the medium. You are given a taste of the discovery but you also want to continue the narrative on your own and explore the cave. This feeling is strongest when one of the specialists stops out of reach from the only detailed human figure, a naked woman.  You can only glimpse her left side; the rest of it is blocked by the suspended rock formation where it is drawn.

Aside from this Venus and hand prints, the majority of the images are of the animals that roamed that land at that time: horses, bears, woolly mammoths, cave lions (and other large cats) and rhinoceroses. Some of the depicted creatures have eight legs and multiplications of their heads to suggest movement. This work was created in a time when the area was also occupied by Neanderthal, but these fellow bipeds are not depicted and they themselves never created any kind of art work.