Monday, January 16, 2017

Sunrise, sunset Civilisation?

I had the opportunity to watch a number of Werner Herzog's films and documentaries over the holiday period, and many of these provided moments of marvel during a not-so-merry-or-marvellous Christmas! Herzog has a deep appreciation of the Earth and its inhabitants and presents such a humane, yet no-nonsense, unsentimental view of Man and beast alike. I really do think of him as a genial genius; one who appears just as willing to voice concerns and considerations about Life as he is to lend his voice, with its distinctive accent and precise, Herzog-unique intonation, to TV shows such as The Simpsons.
Any supposed boundaries between film and documentary, fiction and fact, appear blurred in Herzog's work as recurrent themes thread their way throughout, The forces, fascinations and fears that drive the vision of the film-maker/documentalist are the same that frequently obsess his protagonists. Directly, or indirectly, there is the depiction of Man's steely will to achieve against all odds, to break free from pre-determined rules, to throw off the constraints that life imposes, namely those of the greatest law enforcer of all, Nature. Man may wish to fly - The Great Ecstasy of  Woodcarver Steiner (1974) - just as Herzog had himself sought to do during his ski-jumping days. However, the length and duration of  any flight will be set and challenged by natural limits, not least the laws of gravity. Any elevated, quasi-spiritual endeavour will invariably hit the buffers at ground-level, with greater or lesser impact. Man can never outdo Nature, but will never abandon the mission to do so. Just like infamous rages of Herzog's leading role actor, Klaus Kinski, Man's megalomaniac ragings may be taken for the wrath of God, but will inexorably be silenced by the impassive, implaccable authority of Nature as in  Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972). Whatever the human enterprise, the forces of Nature will close ranks and crush the recalcitrant being with the greatest indifference, in scenes of monstrous beauty.

Perhaps the art of film allows Herzog to inch up to the very brink of all these boundaries as the filming and content intertwine to create another narrative, both literally and figuratively, as in Fitzcarraldo (1982) or Into the Inferno (2016).
The Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010) seems to cross the abyss of time with Paleolithic cave paintings that were created 32,000 years ago. Looking at these, the boundaries of time seem to be momentarily lifted. Situated above the meandering river of the gorges in the Ardèche region of France, the Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc Cave in the limestone cliff  had lain undiscovered until 1994. The collapse of rocks had obscured the entrance to what the BBC referred to as the  "prehistoric Sistine Chapel", effectively sealing off this stone vault, and thus preserving cave art that pre-dates the paintings of Lascaux - formerly the reference in such painting.

Although carbon dating has indicated that an interval of some 2,000 years separated some of the painting in the Chauvet caves, the work was carried out in the same style, using similar techniques. Animals that were commonly hunted - horses, reindeer and cattle -  vie for space alongside predatory beasts such as lions, rhinos, bears etc. We are thus offered a glimpse of the ancient ancestors of creatures commonly associated with modern animal husbandry today, running aside those we only ever see in the enclosed spaces of zoos or in remote wildlife reserves.

The most moving aspect in these paintings is the artistry in the animals' expression and posture. Just looking at the varying position of the horses' ears or the snarling jaws of the lions, you can sense the very essence of the beast. We feel the artists' effort to convey this, and their endeavour to communicate it to us. And indeed, here we are, millions of years later, fully able to recognize the animal depicted on the cave walls and yet are left without the slightest notion of the person who created this work. Just how primitive was primitive man? We can feel the undeniable 'horseyness' of the Przewalski's equines, but can we feel the 'human' in their artistic creators? Do these painted creatures appear more familiar to us than their artistic creators? Would we consider these men to be just as bestial as the wild beasts they portrayed?

Perhaps we cannot feel the common human ground that links us back to these ancestors of modern Man, beyond a shared desire to depict and communicate through art. Is creativity, and representative creation - the Arts - one of the foundations of human civilisation, perhaps as much as human emotion? If such a real-time encounter were possible, would these ancestral artists be able to meet and exchange with their artistic descendants today, using creativity as common domain?
Finally, if they were capable of such fine skill in such brutal times, what would they be able to achieve today, given the tools and gadgetry we freely dispose of? Furthermore, given this Millenium's breath-takingly extensive, ever-expanding access to information, education and entertainment, is our intelligence, creativity and culture growing exponentially?

While pondering over this question and busily teletransporting artists backwards and forwards throughout the millenia, in my mind, I remembered the film that I had loved as a child - The Time Machine. Actually, it was the shop window scene that caught my attention at the time, rather than the more important considerations of the film...

 H G Well's gloomy dystopian view of the future civilisations underlined concerns that had already preocupied the great late Victorian thinkers for some time; namely decadence and degeneration. Charles Darwin had elaborated the theory that Man's progress was "no invariable rule", and that a downward evolutionary path could be envisaged, given suitable conditions. Well's image of "humanity on the wane" in The Time Machine is the precursor to the "Sunset of Mankind", when human form ultimately gives way to butterfly and crab-like shapes.

In Well's civilisation of AD 802,701, Man's descent is portrayed by the decadent existence of the disappated Eloi. The Time Traveller stumbles upon this beautiful, torpid race which, freed from the ardours of labour and productivity, languishes in a life of idle, meaningless pursuits. Lack of mental and physical exertion has engendered an anaemic, insipid species which seeks nothing beyond simple enjoyment and ease, frivolity and facility. The traveller draws the conclusion that “Strength is the outcome of need; security sets a premium on feebleness." Mankind does indeed define and maintain itself through struggle and effort; civilisation cannot grow from simple indolence and inactivity. Basic curiosity and enthusiasm have been stifled in the feeble and effete Eloi. In this futuristic garden of earthly delights, all forms of vitality have been made redundant. Proof abounds here in this nightmarish paradise that creative and intellectual stagnation has resulted in decay. The fruit born to this garden of Eden is rotten. -  “I grieved to think how brief the dream of the human intellect had been. It had committed suicide.”

Perhaps this cultural self-dealth was more alarming to the Traveller than the actual killing of the Eloi, ever-vulnerable to the marauding Morlocks for whom they serve as fodder. The perceived superiority of the civilised, chattering Eloi over the bestial, grunting Morlocks is soon swept away. These privileged Haves - the Eloi - fall easy prey to the brutish, lurking predators that toil for them, Moreover, the power system at play is not all that it seems since this is a relationship of co-dependency between the 'civilised' Eloi and these base Have-nots (being devoured by the other party cannot really be described as being of mutual benefit; the definition of symbiosis!). In this manner, laws of natural authority and ascendance are overturned; civilisation  does not necessarily lead to a civilised society.

Well's fin-de-siècle vision presents the inherent dangers of an over-civilisation that leads to its own decline and ultimate demise. This image of entropy is complete; the transformation, or turning away from ordered to disorder, formed to formless, as the degradation of mass and energy leads towards a state of statis and homogeneity. The traveller disparingly acknowledges this entropic society. He exhibits exasperation at this indolence, and disgust at the general indifference towards the cultural and intellectual achievements of earlier civilisations, his own included. The future has failed to deliver the ascent it had promised for civilised Man.

All that lead me to think about where we stand today. Huge advances in technology have brought about social, cultural, intellectual seachanges over the past few decades, sparking a revolution just as momentous as the Industrial Revolution in the late 18th century. The transformation of communication has had an unprecedented impact on the way we lead our lives, our very conception of life itself, and our expectations thereof. We may witness the sun rising over a new connected era, that will certainly herald a braver new world. But how far will it be a better. more civilised one?  Will this lead to a further disconnect from the elements that are fundamental to existence - Nature itself, for example? Or others that form the basis of civilised society - considerate behaviour and tolerance? Smartphones have given rise to a global population of chatterers and twitterers, constantly communicating. But what are we saying? Is this bringing us closer to one another? Won't these twitching fingers, continually darting over screens in the search for sensation, stimulation and simulation have ever-less time for other activities?
I don't know the answers, but I know of someone who asks the appropriate questions concerning this brave, new digital world in his 2016 film Lo and Behold..... Werner Herzog! He has taken us from the obscure, hidden world of the Cave of Forgotten Dreams to the glaring, globally-accessible networks that feed the "Reveries of the Connected World"...

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