Werner Herzog’s forehead peaks into the haze of his own imagination; he could be called an old soul. In Cave of Forgotten Dreams he traces that lineage back 1,500 generations to the Chauvet Cave in Southern France, where paintings twice the age of any found before were discovered, drawn with a proficiency that went unmatched until just a few ticks back on the anthropological stopwatch: the Renaissance. He spelunks through our collective soul.
There is perhaps no higher mark of civilization than art, precisely because it isn’t a necessity in the way that government, technology, and even religion are; and one of the criteria for great art is that it pierce time like an arrow, communicating some sort of essential truth long after the artist’s natural life has ended. But what can we make of art that precedes civilization as we know it? Duuuuude. Essentially, Cave is the kind of this-shit’s-crazy documentary that stoners download from servers in foreign countries and gather round to watch in their dorm rooms on Friday nights, amid puffy psychedelic brumes. Except that it’s endorsed by the French Ministry of Culture and the History Channel—and perfumed by Herzog’s parietal effluvia. The director often sets his focus on more-or-less civilized people—if one is able to call Klaus Kinski or Nicolas Cage “civilized”—who are de-civilized by that great blunt object known as nature. In this respect, he’s at odds with 19th-century romanticists, whom he identifies with. But these cave painters, who counted neanderthals as contemporaries, used animals, rather than themselves, as subjects; they seem to have forged a peaceful symbiosis with the natural world. (Perhaps this helps explain why Herzog thinks of Godard as “intellectual counterfeit money”; perhaps he does not, or cannot, accept the iconoclast’s modernistic breakdown of form, his ability to depict chaos from an insider’s point of view.)
What I’m trying to say, without letting my shallow thinking fall off the deep end, is that Cave sees civilization as the icing on top of the human cake; Herzog’s using these paintings to reverse-engineer what Terence McKenna called our “cultural operating system.” With his casual, gentlemanly comportment, and roofied-Strangelove intonations, as well as the testimony of even-more-casual experts, Herzog is trying to find the direct metaphysical line that connects his own artistic impulses with those of the cave painters—whose works, but not biographies, have been preserved. (His phone-book metaphor is apt, if obsolete.) The word salad he tosses in the voiceover has a plaintive sense of wonder for dressing; it’s as tasty as the frosting. Never one to duck posterity’s gaze, Herzog’s greatest feat here, however, is to defer the spotlight to the paintings, which fade in and out like the flashlight glow that illuminates them. Tourism is verboten in Chauvet, lest it fall prey to erosion like Lascaux; even Herzog’s team was only allotted a week inside. Rendering what they saw in 3-D was a stroke of genius. Just as earlier audiences accepted black-and-white movies as more sincere and realistic than the candy-box coloration reserved for big-top spectacles—an effect that newsreels and photojournalism inculcated them with—audiences today, accustomed to depth perception only as far as superheroics or ursine martial artists are concerned, take 3-D’s more accurate approximation of our inborn eyesight as fantasy. Cave is more document than documentary. But in a summer of high gas prices, and overfamiliar forays into sequelhood, it may be the most fantastic staycation one could take.