In the many months since the faded afterglow of “Avatar” there has been quite the backlash against 3D. People say that it’s just a way jack up the price of a ticket, the glasses hurt your eyes and it often ruins the look of a movie (retro-fit 3D specifically). To a certain extent those arguments are all true. But one of the complaints, to which even "Avatar" can offer little retort, is that there has yet to be anything that uses the new technology to really improve film as art. We see countless movies come out with no real compelling case for the merit of that cinematic extra dimension as anything other than pure spectacle. Where’s the artistic value?
Thankfully, we have Werner Herzog. The eccentric and visionary director’s new documentary, “Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” is not just a visually stunning masterpiece of 3D but also a film that turns the third dimension into an artistic necessity. Herzog’s focus is the Chauvet Cave in southern France, an otherworldly place filled with some of the world’s oldest works of art. Yet this ancient masterpiece is not simply the collection of images on stone, but rather the experiential journey through the cave itself as light moves about the various ochre tones. A simple print of a horse or lion from Chauvet would not begin to replicate the effect of its original location. On the contrary, to attain the full artistic impact one needs to walk through the cave itself, watching the paintings seem to shift in the darkness. A few scientists, Herzog and his crew have had this opportunity, but for the rest of us to even come close we need a work of cinema shot in 3D.
The sheer age of the cave paintings is perhaps the most immediately impressive detail. These seemingly timeless works of art were created more than 20,000 years ago, and the bulk of them are estimated to have been put up onto the walls of Chauvet even earlier, around 30,000 BC. The experience of a 3D stroll through these ancient caves, in the context of the extraordinary distance in time between us and the artists, can overwhelm. Moreover, Herzog makes sure to expand the scope of his film to include other cultural elements of this quite distant past. He travels to museums in both France and Germany to peruse pre-historic musical instruments, tools and figurines. “Cave” is not an examination of a single piece of artistic heritage but rather adds in the exploration of flutes, flints and Venus statuettes to further illustrate the past.
Once Herzog has painted his own picture of Paleolithic France he can then move on to his more metaphysical ideas. The restrictions of time and the concept of past as a “foreign country,” to quote L.P. Hartley, begin to fade away. First he explains that, while the artwork in the cave seems uniformly distant to us in the 21st century, it is actually quite internally diverse. There are images right next to each other, even ones that seem stylistically linked, that were created thousands of years apart. One can find two juxtaposed paintings with a temporal gap between them longer than all of recorded human knowledge. As Herzog says, “we are locked in history, and [the caves] are not.”
Yet in spite of these epochal fissures in time, a connection between our own artistic expression and that of the cave painters starts to coalesce. The ancient flute that looks so strange and foreign turns out to be not far off from pentatonic tonality, the system we use for Western music today. More importantly, however, is a comparison Herzog makes himself. The paintings at Chauvet were intentionally placed in a remote, dark and almost inaccessible place for a reason. We can only theorize what that reason was, but the artistic purpose of the work may very well have something to do with the experiential way in which these ochre figures need to be observed. And that experience, the blend of light, shadow and movement through the enclosed galleries is highly cinematic.
With that in mind, Herzog suggests that perhaps we have always had cinema; we just didn't yet have the technology. The oldest paintings known to mankind are in Chauvet, and they can be seen as a form of proto-cinema, an art based on movement, light and the passage of time. To bring it back around to “Cave” and its use of new technologies, I would suggest that maybe a walk through these halls 20,000 years ago could be seen as the very first work of 3D cinema. And with his new 21st century cameras, perhaps Herzog is allowing us a window through which we "look back into an abyss of time,” like those crocodiles in his epilogue.