May 04, 2011

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The level of craftsmanship in public-TV science documentaries has become so high that the genre doesn”€™t need a famous auteur. Herzog’s goal is to be more trippy than informative, but his film falls in the middle.

On the plus side is the eerie, emotionally occluded modernist classical music score by Herzog’s usual collaborator, cellist Ernst Reijseger. Cave paintings raise more questions than they answer. For instance, why did cavemen paint so many pictures of large animals and so few of small prey, plants, landscapes, and”€”most notably”€”people? Reijseger’s music emphasizes the mystery.

Herzog’s artistic stature adds resonance to his musings on these Cro-Magnon paintings”€™ spiritual side. Echoing the opening chapter on cave paintings in G. K. Chesterton’s 1925 book, The Everlasting Man, Herzog asserts, “It is as if the modern human soul erupted here.”€

On the minus side, Herzog fails to include basic information that a NOVA crew would have covered. What did cavemen use to make paint? Did they use brushes?

Moreover, he is sometimes stumped by the severe limitations on filming: only a four-man crew and no straying from the metal walkway. Herzog is fascinated to hear of a half-woman/half-bison painting, which he asserts shows that the Minotaur legend is vastly old. But in contrast to James Cameron, who filmed his 2003 3D documentary Ghosts of the Abyss in the wreck of the Titanic 12,500 feet down, Herzog can”€™t figure out how to get his camera in position to film it.

In The Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Herzog persuades an archaeologist to admit he had previously pursued a career as a unicycle-riding circus performer. Most Chauvet researchers, though, would rather talk about their research. Eventually, Herzog flees their earnest erudition for a roadside tourist attraction featuring albino crocodiles.

Perhaps, Herzog muses in his last lines, global warming will cause Europe to be taken over by mutant crocodiles. When these futuristic reptiles lumber into Chauvet cavern, what will they make of the paintings of Ice Age mammals?

Uh, good question, Werner. Let me get back to you on that one.


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