Cave of Forgotten Dreams 3D is not just about the 32,000-year-old paintings recently discovered in the cavernous abyss of France’s mountain region. No, that spectacular find is just the tip of the glacial Palaeolithic iceberg. Werner Herzog’s documentary is more concerned with the significance of human expression, art, and the way in which we communicate across the ages via portraits, poetry and performance. It is also – indirectly – about George Lucas’ ongoing tampering with the original Star Wars trilogy, and the way in which its value and meaning diminishes with each so-called touch-up. OK, the words “star”, “wars” or “Greedo” may not ever be uttered during the German auteur’s underground adventure, but it’s hard not to think of Han Solo’s neck unnaturally shifting to dodge a CG bullet as French archaeologists gape in awe at the beautiful untouched works created by Homo sapiens past.
Back to the paintings. First discovered in the 1990s, the immaculately-preserved drawings in Chauvet Cave are the oldest known pieces of art in human history. The French government has banned tourists from admiring the sights – to best protect these priceless pieces – but Herzog and his crew are allowed to spend one week capturing them on film for posterity’s sake. Armed with a (disorienting, unnecessary) 3-D camera, they venture into the chasm and share with us something spectacular: not just proof of life, but proof of spirit and imagination. It’s so difficult to envision how our fellow sapiens lived all those years ago. Although it’s still tough to relate, the gulf between them and us seems a little smaller with the knowledge that they too articulated their experiences through art. As Herzog reminds us in his typically wonderful and Herzogian voiceover, “It is as if the modern human soul had awakened here”. (Fans of the filmmaker can rest easy in the knowledge that he goes on plenty of his trademark flights of fancy here; best of all is a simultaneously bizarre and affecting monologue about albino alligators.)
The content of the paintings themselves aren’t quite as illuminating as the fact they exist (they are spectacular to observe however). They tell tales of whinnying horses, fighting rhinos, extinct creatures and half-human, half-animal hybrids. Despite their gorgeous nature, there isn’t quite enough variety in the pictures to warrant a full 90-minute examination. Herzog argues that they offer an insight into the men and women who drew them. Maybe. Of course, there’s no way of us knowing if this was even their ‘A’ material. It makes you wonder which of our artistic pieces will be randomly discovered in 32,000 years’ time (hopefully The Tree of Life or WALL-E, and not The Ugly Truth).
Perhaps it will be A New Hope or The Empire Strikes Back. But what good would that discovery be in 32,000 years time? Will those Star Wars movies even reflect the Star Wars films we know and love? Wouldn’t it be better to have a perfectly preserved version of our art for future generations to dissect, instead of a distilled edition that loses relevance with every erased imperfection? George Lucas is doing to Star Wars what not even cave bears, lions and woolly mammoths could do to mere finger-paintings. It may seem like a digression, but if Cave of Forgotten Dreams 3D imparts anything, it’s an increased value in our universal artistic output and preservation. It’s also a defence of art criticism. Whether we realise it or not, we are continually producing for future generations that with which we will forever be defined. And that’s something worth considering every time a flaccid remake breaks box office records, an Oscar goes to a lazy, baity and predictable tear-jerker, or whenever Lucas attempts to Photoshop his much-loved masterworks into oblivion.
Cave of Forgotten Dreams 3D arrives in select Australian cinemas September 15, 2011.