American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
In 1994, French archeologists, searching for air plumes that might reveal the presence of a cave, found it again. They had to descend a narrow opening to its floor, far below on the original entrance level. It is their entry route that Werner Herzog follows in his spellbinding film, "Cave of Forgotten Dreams."
Herzog filmed in 3-D, to better convey how the paintings follow and exploit the natural contours of the ancient walls. The process also helps him suggest how the humans of the upper Paleolithic Era might have seen the paintings themselves, in the flickering light of their torches.
Access to Chauvet Cave, named for one of its discoverers, was immediately closed off by the French government, and a locked steel door now bars the way to the air shaft. Behind that door, the cave's guardians enforce a strict regime. Herzog is allowed a four-man crew, including himself. They are limited to four cold-panel lights, powered from battery belts. They dare step only on two-foot wide aluminum pathways that have been installed. They are allowed four hours each day. If anyone has to leave for any reason — even to get a screwdriver — that day's visit is over; the guardians want to shield the cave's air supply.
Surely men must have been painting somewhere before these cave walls were covered. It is hard to believe that these confident lines and shapes came into being without prelude. Or was there something innate in these forms? Accurate carbon dating suggests that other artists returned to the cave at least 2,000 years after the first ones arrived and continued the work in the same style.