The attraction of access
Some of the finest documentaries attain their greatness in large part through the simple gift of access. They allow us to go where otherwise we could never go. They allow us to see things that otherwise we would never have been able to see. Indeed access is one of the primary and most primal attractions of the cinema. Back at the turn of the 20th Century, travelling movie showmen like Lyman Howe would advertise their sensational entertainments on these exact lines. Cinema was about wonder in all its forms long before there were screenwriters wondering [sic] why they always had problems with story beats in act two.
The lessons of cinematic wonder have never been lost on Werner Herzog, either as a narrative (Fitzcarraldo) or documentary (Grizzly Man) filmmaker. He has built a career on introducing Western audiences to worlds at the very edges of our experience and culture in films such as Aguirre: the Wrath of God and Where the Green Ants Dream. In his latest documentary Herzog takes us underground to witness an instance of human culture unseen and untouched for at least 20,000 years. In simply allowing us even mediated access to the Chauvet caves and their wonderful treasure-trove of Upper Paleolithic cave paintings he gives the most important gift to audiences of Cave of Forgotten Dreams.
The film is Herzog’s personal, expository, yet somehow hesitant meditation on the birth of recorded human culture. The filmmaker uses 3D technology to help the viewer appreciate how the paintings are designed to flow with the contours of the cave walls. Herzog and his crew deploy this most contemporary of cinematic attractions astutely, yet when attempting to approach the meanings and use value of the ancient images he offers us flashes of possibility only. We learn that the cave is clearly a ritual space. We are told that ancient cultures believed in the permeability of the real and the spirit worlds, navigated by shamanic ritual. Herzog notes drawings of animals with multiple legs and persuasively argues this is a technique to hint at movement. Here we are in the presence, he suggests, of a kind of “proto cinema”.
Inhabiting the vast chasm between Herzog’s words and the world of the paintings, the viewer has to look inward for resonance. In so doing one thing at least is abundantly clear, the Paleolithic artists who drew these animals in the firelight cared deeply about representation. The exact cultural meaning and ritual purpose of their images may be obscure to us now, just as the surfaces on which they are painted are frequently obscured in the film by Herzog’s constantly moving portable lights. Yet the images are so beautiful, so accurate, so full of individuality and animation – perhaps in multiple senses- in sum so staggeringly aesthetic that we still feel a profound and surely authentic connection with them. In the 30,000 years between our world and theirs, Herzog’s remarkable film shows us, there has been at least one cultural constant and it brought tears to my eye: the transcendent power of human talent.