Science With Grandpa3/10
I went to see this movie over the weekend, and it was really one of the most amazing, and bizarre things I've ever seen. Werner Herzog takes a tiny camera crew into the famous Chauvet caves in France, giving us a glimpse of the amazingly preserved cave paintings I've only seen in text books up 'til now. Audiences get to view, en masse, a very famous location that they will almost certainly never be able to see in person because of the tight restrictions put in place by the French government to protect its pristine condition. And, better yet, if you see it in the theater like I did, you can see it in 3-D. This sounds like a really cheesy gimmick, but I assure you that the effect really enhances the experience, allowing us to really appreciate how the painters incorporated the natural curves of the wall into their drawings.
All this is pretty cool. But, then we have to endure Werner Herzog's own, particularly zany presentation of the material. He's got a pretty big reputation as a director, but I get the feeling he's getting a bit more eccentric as he ages. First of all, the film is about fifty percent too long. Everyone in the audience was squirming in their seats at about the sixty-minute mark. I understand that one's film needs to be a certain length in order for it to be taken seriously as a feature film, and Herzog achieves this length in one of the most amusing and tedious ways possible. There's only so much footage you can show of the actual cave and the art inside before the footage starts to become a bit redundant. So Herzog calls in a fleet of various "experts" to weigh in, and comment on various aspects of the cave. He's tracked down an assortment of the most delightfully odd, local crackpots. There's an "experimental" archaeologist, who gets into the sciency mood by dressing up in anachronistic and geographically inaccurate fur pelts. There's the master perfumer/spelologer, who looks for new caves by sniffing cracks in the ground for that "cavey" smell. The vintner/anthropologist who enjoys speculating on Paleolithic behavior and mythology, and favors historical reenactments. And, all these experts are pretty visibly pleased with themselves, grinning into the camera after giving us little demonstrations of their "science." It's all pretty endearing. And, these characters are all so very French.
The images of the cave are all pretty amazing. We really get to appreciate how perfectly the artwork has been preserved with the cave being sealed off for so many thousands of years. We can almost ignore all the strange "authorities" Herzog has marching through the film at such regular intervals. But, the tone of the movie was finally set in my mind by Herzog's wonderfully insane postscript. It's a meditation on humanity and culture, nuclear power and albino alligators. The moral conclusions he draws are pretty questionable, and the science is pure quackery. All you can really do is sit there with that wide-eyed stare, wondering if this guy is really serious, or if he's playing some big joke. Either would kind of be wonderful, but of course, for very different reasons.