Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 29, 2011

Cave of Forgotten Dreams; Into the Abyss

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 7:53 pm

IMDB lists 62 works by Werner Herzog going back nearly a half-century, most of them documentaries like this year’s “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” and “Into the Abyss”. After viewing them recently as screeners submitted to NYFCO members for consideration by our yearly awards meeting on December 10, I concluded that Herzog deserved some kind of lifetime achievement award. When you compare his body of work to some under 30 year old graduate of the NYU film school whose Sundance entry gets turned into the second coming of “Citizen Kane”, it dawns on you how degraded the Hollywood star-making business has become.

Over on Facebook Counterpunch co-editor Jeff St. Clair warned me that the only way to watch “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” is in 3D, but unfortunately I never got around to see this highly regarded documentary about 25,000 year old cave paintings in Chauvet, France when it was in the theater. (Update, I just discovered that it still playing at the IFC Center in NY.)

That being said, I found the experience of seeing these paintings totally riveting and am grateful to Herzog for committing himself to a project that at first blush might appear to conform to PBS’s dry as dust “educational” fare.

Not long ago a friend asked me to contribute to an online symposium about whether the left has a future. He was feeling rather gloomy at the time but has picked up noticeably since OWS. I tried to frame my contribution in terms of the long view of history. When you consider that our ancestors were executing such beautiful works 25 millennia ago, you tend to have much more confidence in our possibilities as a species. Of course, they had a leg up on us since they were not bound by the need to produce commodities for the market.

Just by coincidence I turned on the John Batchelor show on WABC radio the same day I watched “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” in the middle of an interview with Michael Balter, a science journalist who I have had friendly correspondence with over the past few years, especially over our shared aversion to some of Jared Diamond’s excesses, particularly his infamous New Yorker article on the supposedly bloodthirsty nature of Papuan New Guinea tribesmen.

Batchelor, who is an amazingly erudite fellow despite his extremely backward Republican Party politics, was discussing cave paintings with Balter, who is something of an expert in the field. Fortunately, you can listen to the podcast here, with Balter entering 10 minutes into the clip.

Since the interview is far too short (Batchelor usually gives someone from the Israel lobby a full half-hour), you can get a longer version in the Balter article that was discussed on the show here.  Interestingly enough, Balter told Batchelor that when the artist painted spots outside the horse’s body, this was not a sign of his or her incompetence but rather an exercise of artistic license. When you look at the amazingly representational techniques of the cave paintings in Herzog’s documentary, you will have to agree. These people knew where to put the spots, even if they chose on occasion to put them where they didn’t belong just as Picasso chose a higher level of “realism” through his cubist works, or for that matter, the African works that inspired them.

Looking a bit deeper into Balter’s two articles, it turns out that they have more in common than you would think at first blush. Jared Diamond is just one among a number of evolutionary psychologists who views the modern state, with its gendarmes, courts and prisons, as a Hobbesian protection against mankind’s worst tendencies, which were virtually given free rein at the very time these luminous wall paintings were being made. Somehow, I would feel safer among the people who made such paintings than those who are launching drone attacks on civilians in Pakistan.

Jared Diamond’s co-thinker Stephen Pinker got the usual reverential treatment in the mainstream press today in a New York Times profile titled Human Nature’s Pathologist  that repeats his hypothesis uncritically: “Human violence started dropping thousands of years ago with the formation of the first states, Dr. Pinker argues. For evidence, he points to archaeological studies and observations of stateless societies today. With the birth of the first states, rates of violence began to fall, and they have dropped in fits and starts ever since.”

For an alternative to this hogwash, I can’t recommend highly enough Douglas Fry’s review of Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature that appears in the latest issue of Bookforum, one of the few print publications I subscribe to. Fry, like Brian Ferguson whose work I have reviewed here, is a critic of evolutionary psychology’s Hobbesian impulses. He writes:

For most of humanity’s existence, humans lived in nomadic bands and did not suffer from the chronic warfare, torture, slavery, and exploitation that Pinker, trailing Thomas Hobbes, imagines to be our species’ nasty and brutish natural state. For one thing, the very nature of nomadic-band social organization makes warfare, slavery, or despotic rule well-nigh impossible. The small social units lack the ability to engage in large-scale slaughter—and since positions of authoritative leadership are also lacking, there is nothing to plunder, tools and weapons are rudimentary, and population density is extremely low. For another thing, the archaeological facts speak clearly, showing for particular geographical areas exactly when war began. And in all cases this was recent, not ancient, activity—occurring after complex forms of social organization supplanted nomadic hunting and gathering. Pinker ignores this evidence. He also makes a big deal about the recent rise in gender equality and human rights, but turns an unaccountable blind eye to the highly demotic character of nomadic hunter-gatherer societies.

There’s a well-established body of literature chronicling early humanity’s egalitarian and peaceful past. In The Foraging Spectrum (1995), for instance, Robert Kelly offered this summary of the salient features of hunter-gatherer social life: “small, peaceful, nomadic bands, men and women with few possession[s] and who are equal in wealth, opportunity, and status.”

After watching only a few minutes of Werner Herzog’s luminous documentary, you too will come to the conclusion that our ancestors existed as “peaceful” bands “equal in wealth, opportunity, and status”. Our goal, of course, is to re-establish these conditions on the basis of modern technology—socialism, in other words.

Now playing at the IFC Center in New York, “Into the Abyss” is a denunciation of capital punishment centered on a sensational murder case in Conroe, Texas involving two deeply disturbed youths named Michael Perry, who was executed on July 1, 2010, and Jason Burkett, who is serving a life term. The jury decided to spare his life after Burkett’s father, a long-time criminal serving a lengthy term in the same prison as his son, begged it to have mercy on Jason.

Herzog’s interviews with Perry took place just 8 days before his execution and have the same harrowing quality as Nick Broomfield’s documentaries on Aileen Wuornos, the prostitute and serial killer also dramatized in the film “Monster”. Broomfield’s films have an exploitative character in which his refined British persona is in stark contrast to Wuornos who mixes profanity and Christian pieties often in the same breath. Herzog’s interviews with Perry and Burkett come close to having the same voyeuristic quality. When European film-makers visit places like Florida and Texas, especially their seamier locales, there is a risk that they are hosting a kind of rarefied freak show.

Militating against this danger is Herzog’s obviously deeply-felt conviction that the death penalty is unjust. In the most telling interview in the film, he interviews the former head of executions at Huntsville prison in Texas, where the orgy of killings have been taking place since the Supreme Court gave the green light to capital punishment. In a gripping testimony, the man describes his horror over the execution of Texas’s first female prisoner. From that point on, he was no longer capable of going forward in his post and was haunted by memories of past executions. When he quit his job, he was forced to give up his pension. In the period we are living in, there is no greater testimony to a man’s willingness to act on his beliefs.

Although Herzog focused more on the dysfunctional families and hardships that turned Perry and Burkett into murderers, there are images of Conroe, Texas that will convince most people that poverty was to blame for their anti-social behavior and that of many of their peers, who appear to accept drugs, alcohol, petty crime and violence as normal.

Conroe is just north of Houston, where I spent two years in the mid-70s as an activist in the Trotskyist movement. It is clear to me that something of the same process that has turned places like Detroit and Newark into a post-apocalyptic landscape is occurring in Texas as well. Despite its reputation as a get-rich frontier state bastion, Texas is obviously sinking into the same pit as the rest of America. With conditions such as those that obtained in Conroe, we can certainly expect murders, both sanctioned and unsanctioned, to continue unabated. Werner Herzog’s movie is a strong voice against that trend, even though a major social movement will have to come into being to eliminate both poverty and the senseless crimes that grow out of it.


  1. The European directors often do so much with much less $ than American counterparts. It’s like having your eyes and ears washed when you view something like “Aguirre, the Wrath of God”. Herzog has always been a daring fellow: he expropriated his 1st camera and ate his shoe with great panache.

    I’m surprised about Texas – I have family in the Dallas area who often tell me how it is booming. I can’t feel much sympathy for a downturn – I used to drive the corridor through Texas when I was over-the-road…godawful place. Except Austin.

    Comment by dagoered — November 30, 2011 @ 4:44 pm

  2. Those displaced spots on the cave paintings may represent more than artistic license. Archaeologist Alexander Marshack hypothesized that they represent the earliest examples of written language. Of course this cogently argued and well documented albeit forgotten evidence disrupts all the evolutionary sociobiology hogwash put out by Pinker and his ilk.

    http://cryptoforest.blogspot.com/2011/01/alexander-marshack-and-prehistoric.html (You can download the NatGeo article here.)

    Comment by Robert Dannin — December 1, 2011 @ 2:46 pm

  3. Awesome post, you managed to bring up a favorite subject: the egalitarianism and autonomy of nomadic hunter gatherers, and most of humans’ time on earth –

    and a least favorite subject: the extraordinarily despicable Pinker.

    Comment by radical psychologist — December 1, 2011 @ 7:54 pm

  4. on a lighter note, here is “Herzog” reading a favorite children’s book Curious George:

    Comment by pete — December 1, 2011 @ 11:36 pm

  5. Karen, one of our sons, and I spent the past two weeks exploring the area near Moab, Utah looking for petroglyphs and pictographs. We found a good many that we hadn’t seen before. None are in caves but are on canyon and cliff walls. Half the fun is climbing up to see the works. The age is nothing like the Chauvet art, probably the oldest are a few thousand years. Bighorn sheep, elk, bears, snakes, a magnificent owl, a mountain lion, what may be a mastodon, odd-looking men, including the famous Moab Man, all sorts of what might be symbols of one kind or another, hands, elaborate lines that might be maps, ghost-like painted figures, etc. I like to think about what these ancestors of ours were like, what they thought about, why they pecked into the rocks or painted where they did and why they did it. Moab is a harsh place, but there are mountains nearby, and the Colorado River goes through the canyons. So they had adequate food and water here. You can’t help but feel a kinship when you see their art.

    Much of what the ancients did in this region has been destroyed or stolen. Bullet holes often mar the petroglyphs. One man actually destroyed some wonderful pictographs on the outskirts of Moab on a cliff above the Colorado River because his former girlfriend loved them.

    We saw the Cave of Forgotten Dreams in Tucson a few months ago and were blown away. Some on the left have criticized those of us who think the ancient peoples have a good deal to teach us. Well, look at these amazing pictographs and get back to me. And Louis, get out west and see some of these things for yourself. A single petroglyph of a hand on the desert varnish of a huge fallen boulder will stay in your mind all your life and fill you with wonder. And hope too.

    Comment by Michael Yates — December 2, 2011 @ 4:00 am

  6. As far as voyeuristic qualities and freak show content are concerned, those elements figure in Herzog’s dramatic films. Certainly Kaspar Hauser and Stroszek have this character, Woyzeck and Aguirre too, if not to the same degree. Even Heart of Glass. His documentaries display greater respect for his subjects. If there were ever a film that could have succumbed to voyeuritic exploitation it is The Land of Silence and Darkness,which instead remains for me a deeply moving tribute to human dignity.

    Comment by Chuckie K — December 2, 2011 @ 4:00 am

  7. There’s voyeurism perhaps, but I found Bruno S utterly mesmerising as an actor. ‘Wrong’ for movies, but two of the most distinctive performances in post-war cinema. Herzog had a lot of respect for him, and really worked to with/around Bruno’s “difficulty” on set. A Lars Von Trier would have ruthlessly exploited him for ‘ironic’ use and cheap notoriety – don’t think that’s the case with Herzog (although there’s various examples of him getting close to that elsewhere, even if it was hyped as far more sinister than it actually was).

    As for Herzog’s documentaries, he usually excels at that – but Land of Silence and Darkness may be his best.

    Comment by W.Kasper — December 2, 2011 @ 11:34 pm

  8. Herzog’s documentaries belong in a category of their own. My top spot goes to 1974’s The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner, my favorite film of his might be the hallucinatory The Wild Blue Yonder with Brad Dourif as an alien contemplating the earth and space travel with otherworldly footage from own earth. Amazing.

    Comment by Rustbelt Radical — December 4, 2011 @ 3:40 pm

  9. I grew up in the midst of Ohio’s native earthworks (my grandfather had a farm only a few miles from Serpent Mound in Highland County) and have only grown increasingly fascinated as I have learned more and explored more. As a Marxist, one of the tings that really gets my imagination moving is to think about how labor was mobilized to create some of the truly massive, sublime spaces in the Ohio landscape. There is no evidence for anything like class division (though a hierarchy of some sort did exist- probably meritocratic) and very little for anything like endemic conflict and warfare that would come later (it is interesting to note that the change to defensible structures coincides with the abandonment of the great earthen geometrical structures) with the Late Woodland and Mississippian, which can only mean to me that the labor was uncoerced. Generations of people built some of the most sophisticated and magnificent manifestations of culture in concert with the natural landscape around them without ever hearing the crack of the whip. If comrade have never visited the Great Circle at Newark or the causeways and mounds of Marietta they could do worse for a road trip.

    Comment by Rustbelt Radical — December 4, 2011 @ 9:50 pm

  10. I’ll have to check out Broomfield’s films, but what surprised me about Herzog’s style is his restriction to footage he took. The only visual images he uses that he didn’t take himself or from the interviews was from the crime scene video or stills of police evidence. I don’t recall any narration either. The result is little explanation of the events and no pronouncement or suggested answers. I had to come here for that. I have poor comprehension so I quickly lost track of things. However, the format fits the material it covers — crimes by people and by the state. His interviewing style is very good and documentaries often omit the interviewer’s question. I have a guilty pleasure in watching Dateline and 48 hours occasionally but wish they were more like Herzog’s film.

    Comment by Aaron — December 5, 2011 @ 11:39 pm

  11. The problem with Broomfield’s films (especially the later ones) is that they’re ultimately about Broomfield himself.

    An unlikely teen idol of mine was Frederic Wiseman. Would be interested to see a post on his awesome documentaries here sometime.

    Comment by W.Kasper — December 6, 2011 @ 10:53 pm

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