12 May 2011
It took me longer than usual to get around to blogging this one, so my reactions aren't as fresh or as sharp as I like, but sometimes that's how it goes. There's a lot to recommend about this film, but most of it you can almost guess before going in. It's a gorgeous and unusual (and totally beautifully appropriate) use of 3D. It's narrated by a madman poet who is singularly able to remain completely unironic and earnest when asking scientists if numbers in a phone directory have souls, or if we are all mutant albino alligators staring at our own doppelgangers through glass. It's profoundly moving and, honestly, a little existentially shaking to be in the presence of 32,000-year-old art and religion. And I think Herzog is completely right to ask bold and awkward questions about the soul: art and religion are inarguably the arenas of the soul, they are our expression of the soul today and their birthplace, whenever that happened exactly, would be the soul's birthplace as well. At least in any meaningful way, as far as this atheist/secular humanist is concerned.
But all of that feels like what almost anyone would say after seeing this film. Some more personal thoughts/reactions I had are to two of the little Herzog tangential thoughts, the notes and anecdotes on the fringe of the cave story. One: I'm surprised, somehow, to find that musical scales haven't changed in 32,000 years -- that the flutes found in other caves use the very same notes and scales we use today. I don't know, I'm not a trained musician but I've taken a class or two, and I know that Eastern musical scales for example are (or were, historically) very different from Western (which I believe is "pentatonic," but rather than look it up I'll just expose my ignorance and half-education here -- I'm just that lazy). I think a lot of people just thought it was a very silly moment when the archaeologist played "The Star-Spangled Banner" on the caveman flute, but the very fact that you can kind of impressed and amazed me.
And two: the story of the aboriginal cave-wall painters touching up thousand-year-old art, and the European anthropologist who asked him why he was painting. The man's answer was that he wasn't painting, that a spirit was painting. It was difficult to determine (or maybe: it is difficult for me to remember) if he literally meant the spirit of the original painter or not, but I took it more as the spirit of the art, or the spirit that inspired the first art, or "the spirit" in a more holistic, non-individualistic sense of spirits -- and that idea I found kind of profoundly moving. In a weird way, that's all (we) artists do with art today, with paintings and narrative and mythology and religion. We see a piece of The Same Old Legends in disarray -- atrophying from lack of attention, from cultural entropy or whatever -- and something moves us to revive it, and paint new lines to fill in the old. Sure, there's more to it, there's that western individualism kicking in, and we feel the vital imperative to season the stew just a little bit, and I'd be lying if I didn't say that adding my voice to the grand story isn't an appealing part of why (we) artists make art. In fact, the ego-centric drive to create art is so strong that I think (we) artists need moments like the aborigine story in Caves to reminded of something grander and far simpler -- that all human art could be viewed as a single tapestry being continually touched up by new hands channeling old spirits.
What struck me strongest in the film was simply the presence of the walls, the caves, the freshness of the art, the profoundness of a window into ancient human history, Herzog's mad-poet voiceover with his matter-of-fact exposition sprinkled with stark humanistic philosophy, and the exciting and justifiable-beyond-merely-dazzle use of 3D, but that all seems like everybody's reaction. Commonalities with our ancestors in music and a connectedness in our storytelling and art that makes me go all Jungian -- those reactions were smaller, more compartmental, but they felt more specific and more fun to rant about.
Seen (in 3D!) at Cinema 21.