(2010) director Werner Herzog
viewed: 07/10/2011 at Century San Francisco Centre 9 and XD, SF, CA
I am nothing if not adventurous in the films that I show to my kids. Yet Werner Herzog’s 3-D documentary about the Chauvet cave in southern France and its archeological riches was one that felt even riskier. Herzog’s slow-moving, metaphysical, reverent tone poem falls somewhere between documentary in the most literal sense (these images document cave paintings and bones of long-extinct animals exist in a cave that none of us will probably ever enter) and Herzog’s idiosyncratic approach to documentary that is deeply personal, spiritual, and over-arching in his German-accented narration.
Clara needed more convincing than Felix. She being 7, fixated on Disney Channel’s Phineas and Ferb, this was a steeper jump than her soon-to-be 10 year old brother, who is quite interested in history and archeology. The amazing thing was that they both liked it. It was certainly slow for them. Felix yawned often throughout. Clara flopped around a lot, disappointed with the 3-D for lack of effect. But toward the end, she oohed and aahed at the marvelous artwork and eventual, loosely related albino crocodile that Herzog settles upon in his parting comment about the ever-changing nature of the landscape.
The Chauvet cave, discovered in 1994, contains the oldest known cave paintings ever found. Not only are they the oldest, but due to their isolation (the cliff face collapsed at some point, sealing the cave) has kept them preserved in a pristine state, giving them a vibrance of having only been recently etched, scratched, drawn on the walls. Beyond that, they are works of great, stunning beauty. Images of cave bears, horses, rhinos, lions, and numerous other long extinct creatures are presented with fluidity and style, drawn onto the surfaces, using the spaces to offer flickering essences of motion, using the spaces to create dimension. It’s little wonder that a cinema man like Herzog sees proto-cinema in the art.
There are also a number of positive hand prints, made by a distinctly disfigured individual (his pinkie finger is uniquely wonky, thus allowing scientists to recognize his “sign” throughout the cave. But the cave itself is not just from one period but some of the drawings, overlapping like graffiti tags, were actually rendered many millennia apart. The essence of the cave, the first artifacts of human culture, resonates deeply, not just for Herzog, but for all of us. It’s the ultimate time capsule.
The artifacts are not all art, but many, many bones and skulls of creatures, namely cave bears, which indicate to scientists that man probably never dwelled in this cave (though the bears seemingly did), but that it was used primarily for this artistic purpose, which was likely much more than art but some significant spiritual purpose, which scientists can only speculate upon. Some of the most amazing images are of the calcified skulls, the multitude of stalactites and stalagmites that have grown over the cave in the thousands of years since any kind of human entered the cave.
The cave is sealed and only scientists with top clearance are allowed down there. They seek to continue to preserve everything in the cave so that it does not suffer like many of the most famous cave painting sites have, from erosion of human interaction. There is indeed something mystical and magic about Chauvet, and Herzog’s team does the literal work of documenting via film, these things that none of us will ever experience in the flesh.
The 3-D, however, is very weak throughout the film because through the bulk of it, the cameras that Herzog is allowed to take down are not high-quality ones and his team must use hand-held, battery-powered lights, while staying on the narrow walkway to film the sights within. Only toward the end, on their final plunge into the cave, are higher-quality cameras employed. And so the final 15-20 minutes of the film does give a richer view of the paintings, the interior, and the space. This was about where Clara perked up and became more interested.
I asked the kids how many of their friends from school would have gone to see this film this summer and they laughingly replied, “None.” But even afterward, considering the film, the process of documenting, even Herzog’s somewhat charming, oddball narrative mysticism, the film struck them. It’s a remarkable place.
I do want to add that the cost of going to the film at theCentury San Francisco Centre 9 and XD was exorbitant. We’d last paid through the nose for Tangled (2010) here, and while the seats are very comfortable and the picture quality was very good, it was ridiculous to pay a $3.50 surcharge for the 3-D glasses, bringing the total cost of this film for the 3 of us on an afternoon to over $30. When I say, “Not again,” I mean it. Unless something incredibly compelling comes along.