The Paris Review’s John Jeremiah Sullivan interviews filmmaker Werner Herzog and archeologist Jan Simek about cave paintings in the south of France (subject of Herzog’s new 3-D documentary) and middle Tennessee (Simek’s area of expertise):
SULLIVANOn the subject of the lighting in this film, Dr. Simek, you made an observation, which is that the light tends to be in motion …JAN SIMEKThe light never rests. Every time he changes the picture, it goes through a light sweep. The film is clearly concerned with how the moving light causes the images themselves to change. This is not inaccurate at all. The original impression that this artwork made was in some ways dictated by how it got lit by the people who made it, with torchlight.HERZOG
What we did was very simple: we walked with the light, so that the source of light would make the shadows move slightly, like curtains of darkness rising. Or, for example, a fade-out would be done by just physically removing the light. So it was never a purely technical thing; it was always something human, as if somebody with torchlight were just leaving or coming in.
When you try to imagine how these images looked for Paleolithic people, in the flickering shadows, the animals must have been moving, must have had a strange life in them.
I was also struck by Herzog’s reaction to Sullivan’s observation that Cave of Forgotten Dreams largely departs from the heroic-discovery mode common to movies about cave explorers:
I’m suspicious of that notion of adventure. It belongs to earlier centuries, and somehow fizzled away with, let’s say, the exploration of the North and South Poles, which was only a media ego trip, unhealthy and unwise, on the part of some individuals. The Polar explorations were a huge mistake of the human race, an indication that the twentieth century was a mistake in its entirety. They are one of the indicators.
While researching a story I wrote not too long ago about spaceflight and radio communications, I was surprised at how central the polar expeditions were to that story:
In 1929, Richard E. Byrd made history — not for reaching the South Pole, but for bringing on his Antarctic expedition 24 radio transmitters, 31 receivers, five radio engineers, three airplanes and an aerial camera. Unlike Ernest Shackleton’s trans-Antarctic expedition, who 15 years earlier spent 17 months fighting for their lives after being trapped in the polar ice, Byrd’s team was able to stay in constant communication with each other and with the outside world. It was the beginning of modern technology-aided exploration, and arguably the model for human spaceflight.
Also, I think Werner Herzog may be the only living human being who is still allowed to say things like “the twentieth century was a mistake in its entirety” in semi-casual conversation. The rest of us lack the prerequisite voice, record of achievements, and enormous balls.