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December 4, 2011

Cave of Forgotten Dreams

by Franz Patrick


Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★

In the opening shot of Werner Herzog’s “Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” he featured the magnificent Ardèche Gorges which led to the Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave, a home to cave paintings as old as 30,000 years. Herzog and a group of scientists were allowed to explore the cave and its wonders, as long as they stayed on a metallic runway designed to preserve what was inside, and discuss what they thought and felt about being with such unique artwork. The paintings made by our ancestors was a great and humbling reminder that we, the modern man, are just a tiny piece of the Earth’s history. I admired the way Herzog slowly, patiently moved his camera over the paintings. Along with his pensive voice, he guided us to notice certain features. For instance, the wall’s unleveled surface and jagged texture highlighted the artists’ intention of movement, depth of specific angles, and definition of contours so it could look as realistic as possible. It was obvious that the director did not make the movie for himself. He made it so that people around the world could have a chance to experience, almost first-hand, looking at the paintings of the animals, most now extinct, and how the Cro-Magnons saw the world. I was especially interested in the calcite that formed all over the cave. They take thousands of years to form and, since the cave was undisturbed for so long, the calcite on the floor looked so smooth. It was like staring at a serene pond. As Herzog pondered over the paintings, I started to wonder about how the ground felt like, how it must have smelled inside the cavern, and even at how the stalagmites and stalactites tasted. But the film wasn’t just about the paintings. I believe it was also about the scientists which, in a way, symbolized modern man. They were so curious and passionate about their work, all of them aiming to provide answers to questions about how the past might’ve been. The way they explained the tools they used to generate conclusions regarding how old certain structures were was endearing to me, almost as beautiful as the various natural treasures found inside the cave. But the picture’s pacing staggered a bit somewhere in the middle. For example, Herzog interviewed a man who knew a lot about what sorts of weapons the Cro-Magnons used to hunt game. While I appreciated that Herzog wanted to provide his viewers a relationship between the act of hunting and what was portrayed on the walls, it ran for a bit too long to the point where it verged on comedy. Further, the man with the flute, although interesting, seemed like he stepped in from another movie. As a result, the film’s tone eventually felt rather obtuse instead of consistent. Still, I’m convinced that “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” has the power to move even the most uncurious man. It’s funny because cavemen are often portrayed as backwards in all sorts of media. This wonderfully ruminative documentary made me think twice.

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