Last year the guardians of France's international treasure, a cave containing 30,000-year-old art, decided to allow a movie director to film there.
They made a spectacular choice - German genius/windbag Werner Herzog, who's made "Cave of Forgotten Dreams," a fascinating documentary that leverages Herzog's unique perspective on movies, art, mankind, and the natural world.
Unique? Some would say nutty. The Euro press dubbed Herzog "the barmy Bavarian" for his wild digressions and eccentricities, evident in his feature films (the Nicolas Cage vehicle "Bad Lieutenant 2") and recently in a string of documentaries about nature's extremes ("Encounters at the End of the World"), or man's perilous intersection with them ("Grizzly Man").
I see Herzog's nuttiness as his best feature. Any man who can handle the mystery of Cage can untangle the mysteries of ancient art.
"Cave" is quintessential Herzog - full of detours and frequently exasperating, but just as often inspired and brilliant. Add to that essential. The cave is already being slowly destroyed - the breath of admiring scientists and historians is adding moisture to the air, causing mold to grow on the walls.
Herzog's "Cave" - shot with 3-D cameras - has captured everything at the Chauvet Pont D'Arc site for posterity. The images will last, even if his musings do not. But I wouldn't bet against Herzog. The director's late-career blending of film and anthropology provides the ideal perspective from which to view the form and meaning of the cave's Paleolithic art.
He notes that the cave (judging by artifacts) was not used as living space, despite the shelter and warmth it could have provided. Its value was ceremonial - a place to gather, to paint (charcoal on limestone), to . . . see 3-D entertainment! Strange but true.
Herzog, with his director's eye, notes how the animals are drawn to fit the contours of the walls, so that moving past them creates the illusion of movement. Torchlight, he notes and demonstrates, would have enhanced this "special effect."
Herzog cuts to footage of Fred Astaire, and the comparison is funny and startling. The dark interior space, the light, the movement, the use of images as a form of communal engagement - we humans have evolved (we've added popcorn), but in some ways we have hardly changed.
Viewed strictly as static, graphic art, the drawings are sophisticated, accomplished and weirdly modernist - Herzog intriguingly compares half-man, half-animal figures to Picasso's work.
He drily notes, by the way, that primitive Homo sapiens were not alone in Europe. Neanderthals roamed the same regions, hunted the same animals, explored the same caves, but had no interest in art - liberal wiseacres will no doubt make note of this next time the debate surfaces regarding funding for the National Endowment for the Arts.
The movie's most emotionally engaging moments find Herzog speculating on the artist himself. He's transfixed by the idea that most of the artwork was drawn by one individual (supported by evidence), who left his handprints on the wall.
As Herzog describes the artist's life, his environment, his desire and need to record/interpret/display, we look at the drawings and have the sense that we're still communicating with a person gone these many millennia. Herzog's use of 3-D enhances everything - I saw the movie in that format, but you probably will not since the movie will not be exhibited locally in 3-D. For that, you'll to go to New York or suburban D.C.