Monday, May 23, 2011

Art as long as history, time beyond memory

I figured the last evening before Rapture would be a great time to see Werner Herzog's 3D documentary, Cave of Forgotten Dreams. The film is a lingering look at the cave of Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc, where, in 1994, a trio of explorers including the eponymous Jean-Marie Chauvet discovered a trove of paintings dating back as far as 32,000 years.

As many reviewers, including Manohla Dargis of the NY Times, have said already, "it's a blast to be inside the cave, to see these images, within 3-D grabbing reach" even if, as Dargis continues, "[t]he 3-D is sometimes less than transporting" as cinematography.

Herzog was given a few hours each day for a week, a small crew, not much equipment, and strict constraints about staying on a narrow runway laid through the cave to preserve its stone and bone from the degrading effects of human presence. Herzog worked with what he had. Bottom line, what emerged is 3D that grants anyone willing to pop for a movie ticket a chance to see these ancient, magnificent, and otherwise inaccessible relics of human culture.

One can think of it this way: Herzog made far better use of now-ubiquitous 3D film technology than filming opera singers' tonsils (as Matthew Felix Sun archly observed last month); or making patronizing propaganda about noble savages, as Maureen Jameson incisively described in her Jan 2010 smackdown of the 3D film Avatar.

That the paintings are so fully rendered is breathtaking, and being able to see in 3D how they blend with and are enhanced by the curves and bulges of the walls at Chauvet is a ninety minute inducement to reassess the meaning of "primitive." The best of the paintings are as far removed from awkward, experimental sketches as Albrecht Dürer's prints are from my own pathetic attempts to draw in charcoal (don't ask).

These works of art were created by people with sharp eyes and skilled hands and a goodly amount of practice. At the time, so far as we can tell about Europeans in the era when the Chauvet cave paintings were produced, these folks were big-game hunters, wore crudly-woven clothing, and lived in patchwork shelters made of branches, clay, and animal skins. By many of today's measures they were savages. And yet. Discoveries at Chauvet mark them as humans as noble as any, at least as one attempts to measure by the cultural relics they left behind.

But here's what made the hair on the back of my neck stand on end: at least one of the sets of animal paintings, Herzog narrates, is formed of an image applied to a blank wall of the cave, and another superimposed on it five thousand years later.

That number rocked my world on Friday night at the Landmark Theatres.

Yeah, I can blithely talk about "32,000 years ago" or "billions and billions of stars" or a "national debt of $14,000,000,000,000." But as I say them, those numbers feel empty of meaning. One loses hold of scale.

But five thousand years? That's a concrete number I can get my head around.

Why is that? Maybe because five thousand years is the entire span of recorded human history?

That is to say, cuneiform writing appeared in the cradle of civilization, between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, five thousand years ago. Nothing anybody knows about articulated human history, nothing other than what can be inferred from material evidence, originates further back than about 3,000 B.C.E.

The paintings at Chauvet are waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay older than that.

But the span of time during which they were created, during which the Chauvet artists were drawing over each other's work, was as long as the entire span of recorded human history. As long as from now back to the dawn of human writing. Imagine yourself, today, scribbling over some Sumerian's doodles from the late Uruk period. Consider your intimate acquaintance with the Sumerian doodler's everyday life, knowledge, beliefs, habits, diet, economy, and relationships. Okay?

As long ago as that is the distance separating early Chauvet painters from the cave's later artists, who had necessarily to consider their predecessors in relation to their creations on the same stone canvas.

And the most recent end of that five thousand year span is five times that temporal distance backward from now.

Moreover, for ten or fifteen bucks you yourself can see the work of these artists right there on the 3D screen in Herzog's film.

Now that's art history.

Don't let me give the impression that this film is all awe and no guffaw. Herzog is as full-blown a romantic as any German romantic ever (yes, he gave a nod to Wagner in the film). He says silly things, which one rather expects from full-blown German romantics. Indeed, a predilection for silly things might even consitute a working definition of full-blown German romanticism. Take this, for example:

"We're going to listen to the silence in the cave, and perhaps we can even hear our own heart beats."

You can experience that bit of Herzogian cornball without even seeing the movie ... it's in the trailer, about ninety seconds in:

But ... silly narrative bloopers aside, if you can find a theatre showing Cave of Forgotten Dreams in 3D before it becomes even more of an art house rarity than it is on release -- do see it.

It's the chance of a thousand lifetimes.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:

The Steins Collect at SF-MOMA
Gustav Klimt's portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer: a saga
Art bliss at MOMA
Time, History, and Human Forgetting

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