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Laramie Movie Scope:
Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Amazing prehistoric cave paintings best seen in 3D

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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September 1, 2014 -- I've wanted to see this film for years, but I particularly wanted to see it in 3D, which is difficult where I live, since the local theaters only show a few of the most popular Hollywood movies, not independent documentaries like this one. However, I finally got my chance.

It turns out through the generous bequest of of William O. Van Arsdale IV and family (who donated a large collection of DVDs and Blu-Rays to the University of Wyoming Libraries) I was able to check this film out of the library a few days ago and watch it in my home theater, which is equipped to play 3D Blu-Rays on a big movie screen. Seldom have I seen a movie where there is such a huge difference between 3D and 2D (both versions are on the same disk).

I ended up watching the film in 2D first, simply because I had so much trouble finding the 3D option in the menu. The 3D option disappears completely from the menu in some circumstances, and can be tricky to work even when you do find it.

The cave art of Chauvet Cave in France, which is the subject of this documentary, is stunning in 2D, but it is spectacular in 3D because of the way the paintings and drawings are sometimes drawn on rounded surfaces and around corners and in alcoves. The depth and shape of these paintings can only be seen properly in 3D.

I had heard of the stunning prehistoric cave art in France before, but I didn't realize that this film was about a newer, better-preserved cave than I was aware of. Like the Cave of Altamira in Spain, the Chauvet Cave was closed in prehistoric times by a rock fall, which sealed the cave entrance and preserved the paintings, but unlike Altamira and Lascaux Caves in France, the Chauvet Cave was discovered much more recently, in December, 1994, and its paintings are older, dating back some 30,000 to 33,000 years ago.

Because this cave was discovered more recently, it was well known at the time of its discovery what happens to these kinds of paintings when there are too many visitors breathing too much carbon dioxide in this closed environment. Mold and fungus start growing in the cave and the art can be destroyed.

Access to this cave has been very limited from the time it was discovered, so the art has been preserved in pristine condition. But this also means very few people have had the privilege to see this astonishing artwork in person. This 3D movie is the closest thing most people will ever get to actually being there. It should be noted, however, that a facsimile copy of the cave, along the lines of “Faux Lascaux,” is due to open to the public in 2015.

Famed director Werner Herzog got permission from the authorities to film in Chauvet Cave, near Vallon-Pont-d'Arc in southern France, along with a very minimal film crew for a few hours over a short period of time. While he makes the most of his brief time in the cave, about half the film contains scenes shot outside the cave. A few of these scenes are filmed using a remotely-controlled aerial drone as a camera platform. The drone's propellers can be seen kicking up debris in a field of grape vines early in the film, and later, the cameras on the drone fly under the nearby natural rock arch (called Pont d'Arc) over the Ardèche river, which is close to the cave.

Although Herzog, who narrates this film, apologizes for not being able to use “professional” equipment in the cave, and not being able to hide his camera crew from sight because of the narrow metal walkways they were confined to, he nonetheless got some remarkable footage in the cave during the brief time he spent there. The cave paintings are in charcoal and red ochre, and some are engraved or scraped to reveal lighter colors underneath in the stone, or etched into the stone.

Those familiar with prehistoric art may not be as surprised or as impressed as I was with the quality and realism of this art, which is quite different from the petroglyphs in my part of the country and in the southwestern U.S. I've personally seen. These paintings are realistic, revealing an artist's eye for detail and a keen knowledge of the animals depicted. Some look like modern art. These are not awkward childlike scribblings and etchings, these are drawn by people of great skill and artistic talent. This is art of the highest order. The is art that speaks to us directly from across great spans of time. Here is a link to the Bradshaw Foundation site, related to this cave art.

There are remarkable paintings of horses, cave lions, bison and mammoths, as well as 13 other kinds of animals, many of them long-extinct. I found it remarkable that scientists did not know whether or not cave lions had manes, until they saw these paintings, which show they did not have manes. These paintings are a remarkable link to our past as humans. To see them in three dimensions, to see how the ancient artists cleverly used the shape of the rocks on which they were drawn to create 3D images is to more fully appreciate this remarkable artwork. These ancient artists also used techniques that Herzog fancifully calls “proto cinema” to show motion. Herzog uses moving lights in the film to attempt to simulate what the paintings must have looked like by firelight.

Herzog uses light motion (he was limited by authorities to the use of “cold light,” probably LED panels) as well as camera motion to highlight the spacing and depth of the paintings in some of the later shots seen later on in the film. In those later sessions, he had access to the cave for up to four hours at a time, and when the scientists were not using the cave for their own research. The light panels, held by members of Herzog's film crew, are used to pan slowly across the paintings, as the camera pans, sort of a double reveal technique, accompanied by haunting music (original music for the film was composed by Ernst Reijseger).

In addition the cave art, the film includes interviews with some scientists and artists exploring various aspects of this site. Herzog and some other people in the film try their best to give us their artistic impressions of the site, including imagining the sound of the bisons crashing together and the smell of bears and other animals long departed. There is also some attempt in the film to explore the spiritual aspects of the cave art.

One of the more interesting musings along these spiritual lines comes from a young researcher who relates a story about a Australian aborigine who said he wasn't the one actually doing these cave paintings, but rather he was just a vessel being used by those in the spirit world. So, for a trip to another world and another time, see “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” and see it in 3D, if you can. This film rates an A.

Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in digital formats, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

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Copyright © 2014 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at my last name at lariat dot org. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

(If you e-mail me with a question about this or any other movie or review, please mention the name of the movie you are asking the question about, otherwise I may have no way of knowing which film you are referring to)