Second & Girard, Sunday 11:01 am by JONATHAN VALANIA
THE GUARDIAN: In Grizzly Man (2005), partly as a counterpoint to the saccharine, Disneyesque view of nature held by that movie’s bear-loving hero, Herzog glumly declares: “I believe that the common denominator of the universe is not harmony, but chaos, hostility and murder.” It’s no surprise that one of the last things Ian Curtis of Joy Division did before hanging himself was to watch Herzog’s Stroszeck (1977). In overview, his movies can look like a series of Graham Greene novels rewritten by DH Lawrence. Just as Greene had Greeneland, Herzog has Herzogland, and the two realms, at the very least, share a border. Like Greene, Herzog would presumably assert that the place of his films is no invented country, but simply the world as in fact it is. The richness of his interests is amazing: ecstatically devout pilgrims; prehistoric cave paintings; fast-talking American auctioneers; ski?jumpers; TV evangelists; Siberian trappers; the blind, deaf and dumb. He has made more than 60 films, both fiction and documentaries, and, in total, they look like the life’s work of several directors, yet all maintain the spirit of one man’s view of this disparate planet. With their eye for the strangeness in the world, the unaccountable in human beings, these films can haunt you.
There are few film-makers less interested in the everyday world of supermarkets, mortgage payments and Sky Sports. Herzog does not despise the “ordinary person”, for it is hard to picture him believing in such a rare creature and to imagine him despising anyone. Yet in the background of his films lingers a sorrowing contempt for the blithe, banal member of “the public” – that hypothetical person who accepts society as it is, who believes bread will always come ready-packaged, and who is too busy updating their Facebook page to notice how at any moment nature might sweep us all off the Earth. Thankfully, this putative character rarely appears in person in his films.
For all Herzog’s people – as much in the documentaries as in the feature films – are instead shown in relation to a moral or existential abyss. Hence his recent interest in the murderers on death row. In the most disturbing Herzog films, human life is a beleaguered property, a flicker of consciousness sustained within an equally flimsy civilisation. The experience of being a child of the ruins in Germany after the second world war perhaps injected him with this sense, living as he did in the moral and physical collapse of a culture. His God is nature – but not a gentle-Jesus-meek-and-mild tree-hugger’s nature, but a terrifying, unappeasable Old Testament Jehovah. Perhaps with Terrence Malick, he is one of the last film-makers to have a feeling for the sublime. His moral landscape emerges from this space – frail, plucky humanity holding the gap between an indifferent nature and a punishing God. MORE
NEW YORK TIMES: What a gift Werner Herzog offers with “Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” an inside look at the astonishing Cave of Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc — and in 3-D too. In southern France, about 400 miles from Paris, the limestone cave contains a wealth of early paintings, perhaps from as long ago as 32,000 years. Here, amid gleaming stalactites and stalagmites and a carpet of animal bones, beautiful images of horses gallop on walls alongside bison and a ghostly menagerie of cave lions, cave bears and woolly mammoths. Multiple red palm prints of an early artist adorn one wall, as if to announce the birth of the first auteur.
Surely there were other, previous artists — those who first picked up a bit of charcoal, say, and scraped it on a stone — but the Chauvet paintings are among the earliest known. The cave was discovered in December 1994 by three French cavers, Jean-Marie Chauvet, Éliette Brunel Deschamps and Christian Hillaire. Following an air current coming from the cliff, they dug and crawled their way into the cave, which had been sealed tight for some 20,000 years. After finally making their way to an enormous chamber, Ms. Deschamps held up her lamp and, seeing an image of a mammoth, cried out, “They were here,” a glorious moment of discovery that closed the distance between our lost human past and our present.
The French government soon took custody of the cave, and ordinary visitors were barred to protect it, as Mr. Herzog explains in his distinctive voice-over, from the kind of damage done to other prehistoric caverns. Being not remotely ordinary, he persuaded the government to allow him and a tiny crew to join the researchers who visit the cave to plumb its secrets. It’s a blast to be inside the cave, to see these images, within 3-D grabbing reach. As the smooth-handed director of photography Peter Zeitlinger wields the camera, Mr. Herzog walks and even crawls for your viewing pleasure. He’s an agreeable, sometimes characteristically funny guide, whether showing you the paintings or talking with the men and women who study them. As evident from his other documentaries, like “Encounters at the End of the World,” set in Antarctica, he also has a talent for tapping into the poetry of the human soul, finding people who range freely in this world and others, like the circus performer turned anthropologist here who night after night dreamed of lions after visiting the cave.
In archaeology circles there has been debate on whether the earliest Chauvet paintings date from 32,000 to 30,000 BP (or “before present,” in the charming parlance of archaeology) or are actually somewhat younger. Whatever the case, even one of the critics of the earlier dating, a German archaeologist, Christian Züchner, has agreed on their beauty, enthusing in one 2001 paper that, “Even if Chauvet Cave is not as old as assumed it remains one of the outstanding highlights of cave art!” Mr. Herzog doesn’t address the conflict, which partly turns on whether the radiocarbon dating was sufficient, but then again, he isn’t a journalist. As the wistful title of the documentary indicates, he moves in a realm beyond empiricism, in a world of dreams and stories. MORE
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GIZMODO: There’s something undeniably surreal about early cave paintings, something otherworldly or even psychedelic. And according to a team of international scientists, that’s because the cave painters were doing mind-bending drugs while painting them. Researchers Tom Froese, Alexander Woodward and Takashi Ikegami from Tokyo recently published a comprehensive study of over 40,000 years worth of cave paintings and found some pretty telling patterns. The spiral-like and labyrinthian designs that pop up in paintings from locations that are thousands of miles away from each other didn’t just pop up by coincidence. Since these patterns are consistent with those that many humans see after taking hallucinogenic drugs, the scientists think that ancient cavemen had more in common than previously thought. They all loved to get high. Specifically known as “Turing instabilities,” these hallucinations are common after ingesting a number of different plants with psychoactive properties. The patterns resemble “neural patterns” that mimic the structural makeup of the brain and are as meaningful as those that initially experienced them perceived them to be. “‘When these visual patterns are seen during altered states of consciousness they are directly experienced as highly charged with significance,” the researchers suggest. “In other words, the patterns are directly perceived as somehow meaningful and thereby offer themselves as salient motifs for use in rituals.” This isn’t the first time we’ve heard that hallucinogenic drugs may have played a role in early cave paintings—though it’s the most scientifically rigorous evidence yet. A couple of years ago, a 6,000-year-old cave painting in Spain ignited a small buzz after scientist identified what appeared to be images of psychedelic mushrooms in one of the murals. This finding was consistent with earlier hypotheses drawn from similar paintings that suggested cavemen knew about the special powers some plants possessed and possibly used those plants to inspire some of the earliest works of art known to man. MORE