Werner Herzog, again, at the edge of the world. This time 35,000 years ‘before present’ (the term archeologists designate the now with), deep into the otherworldly, pre-worldy, post-worldly interiors of the Chauvet caves in France. Let me be clear: it is really one of the best films I have seen in years. It does weird things with your eyes, and that is only partly because it’s in 3D.
My hunch is this: that Cave of Forgotten Dreams is actually a museum. Of the very best kind. That goes back to the perennial Wunderkammer all the way forward to the Unreliable Narrators in our favourite ethnographic museums of the 19th and 20th centuries. In an interview, Herzog has said that he does not dream. Which goes some way in explaining his obsession with the dreams that are ‘stored’ in the Chauvet caves as well as all the dreams that its discovery has elicited from those intimately involved in its decoding and preservation.
Of course, the caves’ nominal content is innately impressive (oldest discovered ‘wall art’ – which include Marey-esque bison, lions, horses, and one rogue female sex, appropriately out of reach and only just partially in sight). The gooey, crystalline, amorphous, coagulated surfaces depict material deposits that could be landscapes of alien planets as much as nano-photography of our own entrails. The universe ultimately doesn’t have a scale.
But it’s how Herzog tells the story, how he takes us excavating – through the earth, through time before time – and then sends us back out, often on a radio controlled disembodied camera that is unruly and unpolished and – importantly – digital technologically but undigital in its CGI-ness (compare this with the disembodied “camera” in David Fincher’s Panic Room). There’s how Herzog speaks with – and through – the archeologists and specialists who literally hear the caves’ heart beating. Included is one ardent perfumer who topologises the surfaces by smell.
Parts of the film, formally speaking, could work on the National Geographic channel. But that’s just the bare bones of it. In the same way that the Chauvet caves mark an interzone between Neanderthal and Homo Sapiens, in formal terms, Herzog’s film starts out as documentary and then builds up into a sort of pulsing montage of images of images, light and its absence – having invoked earlier on, Plato’s Timaeus through a clip of Fred Astaire dancing with three versions of himself.
Herzog sees the fore-coming of cinema in the dynamic drawings of animals. Later on, in a weird, warm pool that forms the excess thermal energy of a nuclear power station close by, Herzog introduces us to two albino alligators who mirror each other. They look like they’re made of chalk or white chocolate. Just the kind of thing that would become the centre-piece of a 16th century Wunderkammer (except it’d be nailed to the ceiling).
We know animals run all the way through Herzog’s films (dancing chicken, monkeys, bears, depressed, loner penguins) – most recently with the deviant use of “Lizard-Cam” in his Bad Lieutenant remake (thus eeking out Nicholas Cage’s latent lizard traits). But this is profoundly different, isn’t it, to the David Attenborough school of animal gazing? For Herzog, there is nothing sweet or benign about animals, as though they harbour some kind of default innocence that man crushes by being man. Herzog enumerated in very clear terms what he thought of the jungle where Fitzcarraldo was being (torturously) made:
Do animals dream?
To be human is already to not be non-human. Or, simultaneously, to be non-human too. To sort of agitatedly flicker between ontologies – which is of course not ever really “a choice”. You’re condemned to be both and enjoy the delusion that you are only ever one (human, all too non-human). Here, Zizek is onto something. So, I’ll let him have the last, spluttering word.
Go watch Cave of Forgotten Dreams.