May 3, 2011

"The Cave of Forgotten Dreams"

From my movie review in Taki's Magazine:
The Cave of Forgotten Dreams is the latest documentary from artiste / showman Werner Herzog. It's cinema's first look at the world’s oldest known cave paintings (c. 30,000 B.C.), discovered in 1994 at Chauvet Grotto in southeastern France and immediately locked up to protect the stunning drawings of imposing beasts. 
The French government allowed Herzog to make this first documentary about Chauvet because he is a major auteur. His long career depicting energetic lunatics includes 1972’s Aguirre: The Wrath of God, in which a 16th-century conquistador searches in vain for a city of gold amid Brazil’s fever swamps. 
You and I will never be allowed in Chauvet.

Read the whole thing there.

By the way, here's Friedrich von Blowhard's 2003 post on 2Blowhards about the mysteries behind the great Old Stone Age cave paintings. Does anybody really know what they were for?

39 comments:

Mr. Anon said...

Herzog sounds like a nut. I only ever saw one of his movies - "Fitzcarraldo". It was great. Sort of like "Showboat" if had been written by Joseph Conrad instead of Edna Ferber.

Most of those great movies by the insanely grandiose auteurs of the past, like "Fitzcarraldo", "The French Connection", "Apocalypse Now" - they could never be made now.

agnostic said...

Maybe in pre-literate societies they threatened Beware Of Dog to unwanted passersby.

Most tattoos on ancient people show large, ferocious, and fantastical animals too, not smaller prey animals, plants, or landscapes.

Anonymous said...

"Most of those great movies by the insanely grandiose auteurs of the past, like "Fitzcarraldo", "The French Connection", "Apocalypse Now" - they could never be made now."

Take in some Bela Tarr. Whatever other complaints might be leveled against the bearded sage of Budapest, smallness of cinematic vision is not one.

Wes said...

So does anyone else notice that the art done by these guys 30,000 years ago in Europe, seems more masterful than the art done by Meso-Americans just a 500 years ago?

Just saying.

Anonymous said...

Yes,I saw "Fitzcarraldo" on its release;30 or more years ago?.
The story of a lunatic Irishman (Fitgerald),who tried to transport a complete Opera house through the Amazon rain forest.

I had almost forgotten it but must get hold of the dvd.

TH said...

Here's an excellent piece on cave paintings by Pascal Boyer. Citing Dale Guthrie's "The Nature of Paleolithic Art", he argues that the paintings were mostly made by young men, and did not have religious significance. Excerpts:

Guthrie’s no-nonsense, scientifically rigorous study shatters our most cherished and deeply entrenched beliefs about rock art, demonstrating for instance that most of it was not terribly good, that it was probably not very important to Paleolithic people and to top it off that these awesomne paintings had less to do with metaphysics than with testosterone-fuelled young men’s feverish imaginations.

[...]

Parietal art is, overwhelmingly, about big mammals and big women. It shows, first and foremost, that whoever produced these hunting scenes was intensely interested in the physical aspects of hunting, in the anatomy of large animals, in the details of their gait, posture, typical behaviors and variations in appearance. Hunting is lovingly depicted, not just as the dramatic encounter of game and hunter, but in all its gory detail, with abundant representations of wounded animals, trampled hunters, broken limbs and puddles of blood. Second, the same attention to physical detail is lavished on depictions of women’s bodies, large women, large breasts, details of vulvae, as well as (often rather clumsy) sex scenes. All this is more or less familiar, but again, let us think of all that is missing, all those aspects of Ice Age life that no-one apparently bothred to represent. Women foraging or nurturing their offpsring are largely absent. Equally absent are infants, children, old folks, as well as bugs and reptiles, and actually most animals that are not big mammals. Artefacts too are ignored, other than spears and arrows.

Who would draw obsessively about these limited themes? Whose mental life is teeming with fantasies of plump women and dangerous pursuits? The themes of parietal art suggest that most artists were young men, in feverish pursuit of both girls and game, young men who would derive some vicarious pleasure from depicting in lavish detail what could be experienced all too rarely in the flesh. This would seem to reduce a lot of rock art to the level of common graffiti. Guthrie does not shy away from this conclusion. [...] In a more speculative vein, Guthrie also surmises that only young men in quest of adventure would dare to spend time in deep caves, difficult and dangerous to explore.

Wes said...

Nice article TH. So a lot of the "fertility" stuff may just be dirty pictures. I wonder if thousands of years from now, some old preserved copy of playboy magazine will be considered an religious and fertility icon?

Anonymous said...

"So does anyone else notice that the art done by these guys 30,000 years ago in Europe, seems more masterful than the art done by Meso-Americans just a 500 years ago?

Just saying."

Comments like these are why the average community college is taken more seriously than blogs.

Ray Sawhill said...

Smart and funny review (plus, hey, I reacted the same way to that Antarctica movie of his). The stalks-on-the-side-of-the-head image re movie 3D made me laugh out loud. There's nothing realistic about movie theater-style 3D, IMHO.

It's a question that comes up in the lives of suicidal-madmen type artists: what becomes of them if they (horrors) survive into middle age and later? They can't keep up the nuttiness and intensity. Like everyone else they have to ease up a bit. So: Do they ever admit that they were crazy drama queens in earlier life? Do they apologize for having inflicted a lot of high-stress nonsense on the world? Or do they just ease into jovial self-parody? Most seem to opt for the last option, which is understandable, if probably also the easy way to go.

Many tks for the link to FvB's post at 2Blowhards too.

Anonymous said...

"Comments like these are why the average community college is taken more seriously than blogs."

Taken more seriously by who? The average community college is a joke. You can learn more from blogs, easily.

munch said...

I saw some of the caves open to the public in France. I noticed that all of the pictures were of something man could hunt and nothing of things that could hunt man. They were very evocative. They just seemed like pictures of things you like, as Europeans millions of years later painted countless nude women. So I have to agree with Boyer.

headache said...

In the Drakensberg mountains of South Africa, as a student, I visited many caves with rock painting from the time when the Bushmen inhabited those mountains, i.e. before the blacks descended into southern Africa and the settlers came. Apparently it was to brag about exploits and tell others where lots of game was.

Anonymous said...

I found the guy who painted it right here. Exactly the kind of person you'd expect.

Anonymous said...

Herzog reads children's books:

Curious George: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7T8y5EPv6Y8

Madeline: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=57EDxvldLD4

Kylie said...

"'So does anyone else notice that the art done by these guys 30,000 years ago in Europe, seems more masterful than the art done by Meso-Americans just a 500 years ago?

Just saying.'

Comments like these are why the average community college is taken more seriously than blogs."


But of course. If you had an real insight, you might have figured out why that is so. And having figured that out, you might have decided not to post such a telling comment.

Ridicule, especially in its passive form of refusing to take something seriously, is a powerful weapon in the arsenal devoted to the Big Lie.

Community colleges are the dumping ground for those who not only couldn't function at a four-year college but who were given a high school diploma they couldn't possibly have earned on their own merit. And we're all supposed to keep straight faces and pretend they have the smarts and knowledge to be there. It's not enough to promulgate the Big Lie, we're also supposed to ridicule the truth. So the fiction that all races are equally competent educationally is taken seriously and it is race realism that is denied by any means necessary. Hence the disparity in being taken seriously that you so astutely noted.

Anonymous said...

Herzog is famous for being famous. He's a master of self promotion. Whether he has anything else to him is very much an open question.

Herzog also directs opera. I recently watched his Lohengrin on a Netflix DVD. It's competent in the sense that at no time do the singers bump into one another and knock each other over. Anyone else could have done as well - myself included.

His main artistic contribution seems to have been to set the action on a glacier and costume all the participants in parkas. It must be that "global warming" meme again.

Albertosaurus

Mr. Anon said...

"Anonymous said...

""So does anyone else notice that the art done by these guys 30,000 years ago in Europe, seems more masterful than the art done by Meso-Americans just a 500 years ago?

Just saying.""

"Comments like these are why the average community college is taken more seriously than blogs."

What was wrong with this comment? Is it factually wrong? Comments like yours are why snarky comments posted by anonymous trolls are considered unserious. And blogs are less consequential than a JC? Sure. Yeah, you're really plugged into the zeitgeist.

The Judgement of History said...

So does anyone else notice that the art done by these guys 30,000 years ago in Europe, seems more masterful than the art done by Meso-Americans just a 500 years ago?

Ouch.










You know, in all seriousness, I have long used the following back-of-the-envelope calculation:

{Meso-Americans separated from Pacific-Rim Asians about 20,000 years ago, when they crossed the Bering Strait}

+

{Meso-Americans trail Pacific-Rim Asians by about 20 IQ points}

to conclude that it takes a good 1000 years to breed a single point of IQ increase into a population.

But if you think about what Wes is getting at, then it might be even worse than that - maybe the ancestors of the Meso-Americans were separated from the ancestors of the Pacific-Rim Asians much more than 20,000 years ago - maybe more like 50,000 years ago? Which, in turn, would mean that you would need more like 2500 years to breed a single point of IQ increase into a population.

Although another possibility would be that the folks from that corner of the world were just never all that creative in the first place: Do they even have paleolithic cave paintings in China, Japan, or Korea?

Difference Maker said...

Comments like these are why the average community college is taken more seriously than blogs.

But I was thinking the same thing! Certain intellectual groups even today do not seem to be able to match and are surpassed by these hunters from the most ancient of times.

Florida resident said...

How reliable is the dating of those drawings ?
Fespectfully, F.r.

Kylie said...

"'So does anyone else notice that the art done by these guys 30,000 years ago in Europe, seems more masterful than the art done by Meso-Americans just a 500 years ago?

Just saying.'

Comments like these are why the average community college is taken more seriously than blogs."


And comments like the following are why we don't give a flip.

From The Grauniad CiF section:
"RedMutley
3 May 2011 8:14PM
It's a shame that a nation that has produced the most brilliantly thoughtful, dignified and heroic figures such as MLK and Rosa Parks is also a nation that acts, far too often, like a braying, thuggish jock with a big swinging dick."


The Gravitas of Academia Once Again on Proud Display

Gotta love it. MLK and Parks are not just "thoughtful, dignified and heroic" but "brilliantly so".

And the commenter profile for "RedMutley":

"RedMutley
Real name: Ed Rooksby
Age: 36
Gender: male
About me: I teach politics at Southampton University. e.rooksby@soton.ac.uk
Interests: Politics, film, second hand bookshops, coffee, hedgehogs."

Commenter Profile for RedMutley

Again, gotta love it. The inclusion of hedgehogs in his interests is just so darned twee. With competition this good, I don't know how long The Onion can last.

Wandrin said...

"Who would draw obsessively about these limited themes? Whose mental life is teeming with fantasies of plump women and dangerous pursuits? The themes of parietal art suggest that most artists were young men"

Young men would be out doing it. More likely old men painting their memories.

Anonymous said...

I read somewhere years ago that the cave surface on and around these cave paintings is pitted, as if someone had been chucking spears at the drawings. It was surmised that the paintings of animals and people (usually holding a weapon of some sort) were used as target practice. I don't know how true any of that is, and I don't care enough to research it, but it sounded like a pretty good conclusion to me.

LBK said...

"So does anyone else notice that the art done by these guys 30,000 years ago in Europe, seems more masterful than the art done by Meso-Americans just a 500 years ago?"

It is also more masterful than most of the "art" produced in modern western countries over that past century or so. The Meso-American art is also more masterful than western "modern art".

LBK said...

It seems pretty futile to speculate about the meaning of 30,000-year-old cave art. Art critics can't even agree on the meaning of works created by artists that are still alive.

David said...

Ditto Kylie. Would add only that their grandiosity is truly frightening. These mouth-breathers consider themselves top-of-the-profession geniuses (or just a few years away from being such) because they completed n units of video editing or basket-weaving. Under PROFESSOR HARVEY, mind you!

I've had awful personal experiences trying to deal rationally with cc kids. You can imagine about as well as I can tell. (No, am not a teacher.)

Alberto Wong said...

Werner Herzog is one of the worst and most overrated pretentious Eurotrash filmmakers who has ever lived - amazing given the competition presented by the New Wave French directors and people like Wenders and Fassbinder.

Bad enough that he wasted the talents of Klaus Kinski or crap like "Aguire Wrath of God", but has anyone seen his sequel to Abel Ferrara "Bad Lieutenant"? It's laughably bad - about as inept as a journeyman director's first made-for-tv special.

James B. Shearer said...

Young men would be out doing it. More likely old men painting their memories.

I believe present day graffiti artists are primarily young men.

Anonymous said...

Herzog is famous for being famous. He's a master of self promotion. Whether he has anything else to him is very much an open question.

The man himself is interesting and immensely likable, and the subject matter of his films is always compelling, but as a director Herzog seems merely adequate. He's not masterly or innovative with his camerawork the way, say, Mizoguchi or Hitchcock or Ford were. He seems to hope that throwing himself into projects with maniacal intensity and doing everything the hard way, such as actually hauling a ship over a mountain in the middle of a jungle in Fitzcarraldo, will substitute for artistry. Sometimes it almost does.

afternoon delight said...

"Community colleges are the dumping ground for those who not only couldn't function at a four-year college but who were given a high school diploma they couldn't possibly have earned on their own merit. And we're all supposed to keep straight faces and pretend they have the smarts and knowledge to be there."

And I'm supposed to keep a straight face through this?
Depends on the subject of course, (hard sciences would be one exception) but University degrees are like designer jeans. Status symbols, whose distinctive value is usually imaginary, and hardly detectable without the label in full view..

I bow to any Harvard degree a person may possess if, and only if, he can show me his grades and records.
I don't know about now, but in the early 1970s, a community college could provide a student with two years of college at 13.00 a credit. That's 39.00 a class. Some had no transportation other than busses. Some had emotional problems during their teens and simply could not concentrate on their studies until they "grew up." Some were working at 1.90 ph jobs and going part-time, including those with IQs a standard deviation higher than the average Ph.D (which average was supposedly about 120 at the well-known and major private university where I worked for several years; one of the professors had that stat on a poster on his office door, and I was never sure what message he intended.) Today a 4 yr institution charges 1000.00 for exactly the same thing, often with a professor who could care less about the student. In 1972, it would have been less money of course, but still much higher than a CC, and even then, no better. If the community college is credited, students can transfer and who cares where they got their first two years.

In the graduate records office, we looked at countless transcripts from community colleges. The departments accepted some, and rejected some. Testimony of other students and staff affirmed the courses were usually not inferior in any way. CC teachers were usually more interested in their students because they were not under pressure to publish or play status games with other professors. In fact, the teachers whose lectures still haunt me were in the CCs. They taught because they loved their subject. If the university professors loved their subject, it was more subsumed under other concerns.
One thing I noticed was that many people who went into college right after high school, then left for a few years, and then returned, often did perform at 3.5 or more. A startling number were 4.0 students. Perhaps in their teens they were just not ready for prime time. Late bloomers. A second chance. Americans used to be proud of that.
All in all, I like academia. I like working in it but sometimes I run screaming from its unreality. Too much theory, too little practice.
Even the research scientists depend on politically influenced government grants, so how "pure" even the "hard" science is, is anyone's guess.

Foresight Gaga said...

"Who would draw obsessively about these limited themes? Whose mental life is teeming with fantasies of plump women and dangerous pursuits? The themes of parietal art suggest that most artists were young men, in feverish pursuit of both girls and game, young men who would derive some vicarious pleasure from depicting in lavish detail what could be experienced all too rarely in the flesh."

I think views like this say more about our world than anything else. We are projecting FAMILY GUY and MONDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL onto a very different world.

Foresight Gaga said...

"Werner Herzog is one of the worst and most overrated pretentious Eurotrash filmmakers who has ever lived - amazing given the competition presented by the New Wave French directors and people like Wenders and Fassbinder."

Partly true. Few of his films are keepers, but the great ones like AGUIRRE are forever. And he seems to have made something of a comeback in recent yrs. Btw, Fassbinder and Wenders made their share of stinkers. Wenders has generally been insufferable since the late 70s. Fassbinder generally made films like he picked his nose. He did rise above routine sometimes.

"Bad enough that he wasted the talents of Klaus Kinski or crap like 'Aguire Wrath of God', but has anyone seen his sequel to Abel Ferrara "Bad Lieutenant"? It's laughably bad - about as inept as a journeyman director's first made-for-tv special."

AGUIRRE has problems but it's a great concept/vision. Herzog's BAD LIEUTENANT is more a retake than a remake.. and I think better than the original by Ferrara which is trash-pulp-Dostoyevsky-isms.

Foresight Gaga said...

"Who would draw obsessively about these limited themes? Whose mental life is teeming with fantasies of plump women and dangerous pursuits? The themes of parietal art suggest that most artists were young men"

"Young men would be out doing it. More likely old men painting their memories."

This is a kind of a stupid question. First, I don't think too many men lived to old age back in the caveman days. By caveman standards, 30 could be old.
Also, aint any of you heard of dirty old men? And aren't Lucas, Spielberg, and Cameron rather old-ish men who keep churning out BIG STUFF BLOWING UP movies?

Foresight Gaga said...

"Young men would be out doing it. More likely old men painting their memories. I believe present day graffiti artists are primarily young men."

Are Hugh Hefner and Larry Flynt still alive? What business are they in, btw?

Foresight Gaga said...

"So does anyone else notice that the art done by these guys 30,000 years ago in Europe, seems more masterful than the art done by Meso-Americans just a 500 years ago?"

Indigenes of the Americas created great pyramids, stone carvings, totem poles, leather art, and cave paintings too.

Anonymous said...

From a physical POV, it may not be difficult to theorize why early man were fascinated by big creatures. People are fascinated by power, and big animals are powerful. The early concept of god came from nature--thunder, storm, avalanche, floods, big animals, etc. Just like modern folks admire athletes, primitive man surely respected mighty beasts and the great warriors who could hunt them(or were killed fighting them). There must have a kind of love/hate thing between early hunter folks and big animals. Big animals could be hunted for food, but they could also kill humans for food--or kill humans who were hunting them for food.

From a psychological POV, there was prolly a kind of psychic-spiritual union between man and animals. Even if the cave paintings are not consciously spiritual or religious, the need to represent, ponder, study, admire, and idealize animals prolly tapped into a kind of proto-spiritual need. It's like hunter folks wear claws and fangs of big animals to partake of beasts' great strength. African tribesmen wear tiger claw necklaces. Indians wore stuff made of bear claws. And of course, men in cold climates wore animal fur as dress. And Indians wore feathers in their hair. To wear the stuff that enabled birds to soar through the air prolly made Indian chiefs feel spiritually connected to the world above them.

Though we generally speak in terms of man vs animal, civilization vs nature, order vs chaos, society vs the wild, it's prolly true that the concept/ideals of humanness owed much to man's admiration and imitation of animaldom. No creature is as capable of creative/imaginative mimickry than humans. When humans see beautiful fur or feathers of animals, it gives them ideas about the kind of dress they wanna wear. Hairless man is essentially a naked ape. Animals, in contrast, are naturally clothed. So, it's possible that much of man's idea of dress came from observing how animals are 'dressed'. And when man saw birds, they wanted to fly like birds. And when man saw fish and dolphins, they wanted to swim like sea creatures. Kids very often imitate and identify with animals.
Consider a quality/essence like grace. Are humans NATURALLY graceful? I don't think so. But cats and some other creatures are naturally graceful. Even an alley cat moves with grace. It could be early man appropriated certain qualities that we consider to be 'human' by observing animal behavior. And this goes for warriors and hunters too. Humans probably honed their hunting skills by observing other hunting creatures. And humans prolly picked up fighting skills from animals too. Notice how sports teams are named after animals. And a school of Kung Fu takes many of its moves from snakes, birds, monkeys, etc.

Though we associated primitive people with nature and animaldom, even high civilization has roots in man's relation to animals. Much of Chinese medicine--though of an advanced culture--relies on lots of mystical hocus-pocus about energies, essences, and potencies of animals. This has taken a terrible toll on tiger, bear, and rhino populations, but the concept of animal spirits is very important to chinese culture. And high civilizations in ancient Persia and Iraq worshipped bull gods which were made into great monumental sculptures. And Egyptians had hippo gods and etc. And many gods were a combination of human and animal forms, like the Sphinx.

Anonymous said...

It could be Jews and Greeks were among the first peoples to create a barrier between the spiritual world of humans and the natural world. All Greek gods are human and half-animal creatures tend to be evil in Greek mythology, and Judaism forbade idolatry, which generally meant stuff like the Golden Calf and other mega-mythic-beasts so sacred to other civilizations. Even so, the Bible attributes the fall of nature to Adam and Eve, and Greek mythology has a very intimate relation to nature. And certain gods are closely associated with animals, like Diana the huntress and Athena with her owl. And Hera the mother-wife goddess is said to be like a cow.

Today, kids grow up with personified animal creatures like Winnie the Pooh, Dumbo, Snoopy, Bambi, and Babe the Pig. On the one hand, it's just fun. But on a psychological level, there is an initimate connection between man and beast. We didn't learn to become human only by separating ourselves from animal-kind but by observing, imitating, and learning from them. I'll bet the first man who wanted to fly got the idea from birds. And I'll bet the first gay fashion designer was a birdlover too. And I'll bet man learned some lessons about loyalty, devotion, and sacrfice by living and working with dogs. One of the great things about Germans is that they are among the biggest animal lovers in the world. Paradoxically, a close connection with animals make us more human. Chinese may be part of high civlization and all that, but their vile cruelty toward animals make them less human, in some ways even less human than animals. Even animals don't boil cats alive or torture dogs for days on end and then skin them alive.

Anonymous said...

Why did primitive man paint more pic of big animals than small ones? They lived in hunter-centric societies more fascinated with big animals. And I suppose it's like more people prefer blockbusters to art films.

But the other reason could be the rule of 'art supply'. Procuring painting material was probably time-consuming in the caveman days, and so cave folks didn't wanna 'waste' their precious paint on 'trivial' stuff.
If we only had enough paper to print 100 books a year, we'd probably save it for 'important' books. In the old days, when paper was valuable and scarce, most of it was used to make Bibles and
grave 'official' stuff. How many dime novels were there in the middle ages?

And when photography was expensive, it was mostly used for big events and portraiture--and families wore their best to take pictures, which is why so many photos of the 19th century are family photos or big important events. But once photos became cheap, people began taking pics of just about everything.

Anonymous said...

"African tribesmen wear tiger claw necklaces."

I meant lion claws. No tigers in Africa.