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Review: See 'Cave of Forgotten Dreams'

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 13, 2011 - For those of you who have waited and waited for a 3-D movie that was actually worth the effort (silly glasses, yes, but no pointless train engines screaming out at you), you probably won't get a better opportunity than "Cave of Forgotten Dreams," now playing to surprisingly large audiences at the Hi-Pointe Theater on Clayton Road.

Even better, you can take grandpa and grandma and non-surly children of any age without a worry. The closest thing to sex is a display of Venus of Willendorf-style figures. The only violence is in a pictured fight between a pair of woolly rhinos.


If you also happen to like nearly unique experiences, or ancient cave art, oddly informative documentaries, or any of the weirdness that might attract director Werner Herzog ("Encounters at the End of the World," "Grizzly Man"), you'll find additional enjoyment.

The essence of the movie is a closely observed study of an ancient cave in France, hidden and sealed for millennia, with 300-plus paleolithic paintings, widely considered to be the oldest artworks known to exist, and possibly twice as old as previously discovered drawings such as those in the Lascaux caves.

The deep and twisting Chauvet Cave, over a quarter-mile long, was sealed by a giant rock slide, an estimated 32,000 to 28,000 years ago. As a result, the pictures, many covered with thick but transparent calcite seepage, have been preserved in detail.

Discovered in 1994 by a team of three professional speleologists out exploring during Christmas vacation, the cave is named after Jean-Marie Chauvet, the leader of the small group, two men and a woman, who were searching for unknown caves by following air flows in apparently solid rock.

Only the woman in the group was able to squeeze through a thin passage that led to a huge "room" that led further to a 20-foot drop into darkness, where they found hundreds of pictures made with black charcoal and red ochre.

Uniquely, the cave paintings depict predators including cave bears and cave lions (both now extinct), woolly rhinos, a leopard, mammoth elephants, ibexes, horses and more. Other cave art has only included pictures of animals then hunted for human food.

Other astonishing images include handprints of a single individual (identifiable by his crooked finger), a boy's footprint and nearly perfect circular designs made with dots of red paint. Disconcerting features abound in this unsettling film.

The movie may feel bizarre for several reasons. Because it's shot in 3-D and in close quarters, constantly supervised by French officials, all of the usual movie-magic is taken away. The filmmakers were not allowed to touch any of the drawings, not allowed to leave a two-foot-wide metal walkway, not allowed to stay more than four hours at a time and then only for one week. The crew of only four, with hardly any equipment, couldn't even get out of the shots.

The result is a nearly unique movie, so straightforwardly presented that you can almost imagine you are seeing the practice of moviemaking being invented as you watch.

Appropriately, a woman sitting behind me told the girl beside her how she used to come to the Hi-Pointe to watch silent movies long ago -- "and we sat in those seats right over there." (I was skeptical and studied a little history. Sure enough, the Hi-Pointe was built in 1922 exclusively for showing movies.)

Even stranger, the old lady announced that this movie would be shown in 4-D. That claim was too much for one man in the group who asked, "OK, smart person, what's the fourth dimension in the movie?" She ignored his question, but I remembered it halfway through, when Herzog pointed out in his zany German-accented English that some of the prehistoric pictures were apparently painted right on top of pictures from 5,000 years earlier. Just try to consider that point. Egypt flourished 4,000 years ago. Imagine someone with no recorded "history" available, tracing over a picture made five millennia earlier!

If time is the fourth dimension, maybe this movie really is in 4-D. Let's concede that point to Grandma, shall we? However you consider this movie, it may lead to some strange new thoughts, even some previously unimaginable ones.

Of course, being at a Werner Herzog movie, you still get clips from other movies that you would never expect (Fred Astaire!) plus some of Herzog's trademark bizarre questions about the soul, the meaning of "human" and even ideas about what you cannot learn from a Manhattan phone directory.

Werner Herzog was invited to make this movie by the French government, and he has served them and all of us well, whether we are art lovers, movie documentary lovers, or simply lovers of the weird twists of history and nature. (Did I mention the perfume expert? The ex-circus juggler? The story of the Australian aborigine? Never mind, you'll see.)

While this movie does not tell the entire story of the Chauvet Cave, which will be explored for a few more years before being sealed off, you are not likely to have a much better chance to see history newly discovered and in the making.

Nick Otten is a freelance writer, who has written on movies and books for the Beacon.