Thursday, 31 March 2011

cave of forgotten dreams (herzog)

The La's come to mind. There she goes, there she goes again. He's back. Only, Werner is unmistakably masculine, grizzled. An idealist/cynical bear emerging out of the Neolithic underworld, come to charm and provoke and remind us that progress is a modern invention which doesn't mean as much as it thinks it does.

Which is why his latest film, dealing with a recently discovered cave in the Auvergne, decorated with painting up to 32,000 years old, offers fruitful territory for the old irascible. At one point he observes how a horse has been painted with Meyerhold-like legs, suggesting it is really running, and claims it, as he would, as the progenitor of cinema. Werner face to face with his roots, as man, as artist, as cineaste.

In truth, The Cave, in spite of its 3-D fireworks, feels a little Werner-lite. Here's a man who's successfully carved out his own niche, documenting whichever esoteric story takes his fancy, knowing the world will take an interest. Perhaps, in the face of the remarkable, quasi-religious discovery of the cave, Herzog cannot help adopting a reverential gaze. His usual quirkiness is muted; the would be Neolithic flute-player warbling the Star Spangled Banner being one of the few occasions the filmmaker lets his guard down and offers some bona fide Herzog humour. Perhaps it was in recognition of this that he added the curious postscript about the mutant alligators, offering a sly link with his Bad Lieutenant.

It might also be that there's another intriguing cog in Werner's wheel. One of his hallmarks has been the way in which nature, far from being an idyll, is a shadowy, antagonistic force. This idea reappears throughout his work. Given his art is founded to such an extent on technology, perhaps we should not see it as surprising. Cinema is still the most modern of the arts, and in adopting it, Herzog has explored the frontier that exists between what man can achieve and what nature resists. So, when the engaging circus artist turned archeologist tells him how he dreamt of lions for days after he emerged from having spent time in the cave, it's no surprise Werner asks him if he had been scared in his dreams. To which the man replied that he hadn't been. When, at the film's conclusion, we finally see the cavepainters' lions, it's true that they look far from frightening. Their expressions seem mournful or noble, sleek heads on sleek bodies, with no hint of aggression.

It's easy to romanticise these painters and their connection with nature, which appears from their paintings to have been less fraught, more integrated with the wild creatures that surrounded them, than our own. This could be a misreading of the images. The point is that Herzog doesn't seem interested in presenting his more habitual counterpoint. There are no warning from Werner about the negative power of nature in this film. Instead, the filmmaker seems unable to do anything but adopt the most warm-hearted approach towards the painters of the Chauvet cave and the world they depicted. He is seduced and the fear is kept at bay.

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