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Alexandra Juhasz

Alexandra Juhasz

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Men Shooting Films in Caves

Posted: 06/ 2/11 03:10 PM ET

It's like reality TV for famous filmmakers: wacky games with ridiculous rules bring out the real man. In this episode, our intrepid directors don't have to eat maggots but they do have to shoot almost an entire feature film within the tight, murky confines of a cave. There's no vistas in reach, the set is all set, the actors can't do much, and it's often really dark. Then, the French Ministry of Culture ups the ante for German master, Wener Herzog: consumer camera, four man crew who can only walk on small metal pathways, and very very tight shooting schedule. Meanwhile, Danny Boyle seems to unleash all of Hollywood's glitz (and even one of its rising stars) into the tight crevice that is his canvas. Despite these differences, both Cave of Forgotten Dreams and 127 Hours use the strictures of extreme, if confined filmmaking (think Dogme 95) as both metaphor and inspiration for the macho and masochistic, exposing a ritual set of beliefs that underline much of filmmaking culture (think Fitzcaraldo or Apocalypse Now): it is this film that will either bring out the man in me, or kill me, or both. As if filmmaking itself is war or torture; as if shooting in caves is mountain climbing or spelunking itself.

Representation becomes the thing and the action -- especially as suffered and achieved through the hands of a worthy man. More on this soon.

In an earlier post I consider how Boyle's strenuous and splendid effort becomes a postmodern ode to duration via acceleration, music, mise en scene and narration. Meanwhile, Herzog's gauntlet propels him to seek movement in stasis. Even as the wall paintings have been entirely still for 32,000 years (with a small addition occurring at a 5,000 year interval) Peter Zeitlinger's camera always moves, as do his hand-held light sources. And thus Herzog suggests that the paintings not only anticipate cinema, they already are and always were. His inner caveman shares and anticipates the urge to document space in time: and this he suggests is what makes us knowing men, or homo sapiens.

There's an amazing moment in Caves where an honored French art historian's junior colleague attempts to correct her esteemed Professor, suggesting that we can not know whether the painter of the Chauvet Cave was male or female. Madame disdainfully disregards her student, and continues to discuss the profundity of "his handprint's signature crooked finger." The explicit signatures of both (post)modern men mark their efforts in this definitively human project. All the men admirably succeed in their quest: to use the confines of a cave as allegory for understanding cinema as human history and existence. But the small place left for women in the current representations of this cosmology leaves me questioning the perception of our role in contemporary tellings of technology, narrative, nature and art especially because primitive man put the Venus at the very center of theirs.