Dear Cave of Forgotten Dreams,
Art is an ellusive, hard to understand aspect of human existence. We are compelled by a deep internal impulse to create things that have no meaning or use outside of that which we impart to them. We write poems, carve sculptures, and make movies for our souls, our minds; the parts of us that make us human, the pieces of us which animals do not possess. Who is to say why this trend of creation began? And what does the genesis of art tell us about ourselves as people? Does art’s enduring power preserve the soul of those who created it?
You are a film that valiantly tries to answers these questions, and that you even bother to pose them at all is a wonder. That you fall slightly short of the profundity and depth that you seek both to be expected, and to be lauded. It takes a lot of courage for a fiction film to raise questions without answers, and even more courage for a documentary to do so. You are not a film meant to inform. Rather, you are made to nurture in the viewer a sense of curiosity and wonder at the through-line of humanity that has existed for almost 35,000 years.
You do this by granting us access to one of the most remote and closely guarded secrets of the art and archeology world – Chauvet cave in France. Here archeologists found the world’s oldest set of cave paintings, made over 32,000 years ago. These paintings and the caves they are in have since become a Mecca for art scholars and archeologists. But not cameras were ever allowed in the cave until now.
What we see through your eyes are clusters of drawings that look strikingly modern. They are so removed from what we are used to seeing in cave paintings that their authenticity was challenged at first. Now they are carefully guarded, and the environment they were found in has been meticulously recorded and catalogued.
But unlike other documentaries, you seem almost disinterested in the cave as a site of discovery. Through the voice of Werner Herzog, your director, we are told brief facts that blossom into greater investigations of humanity and art. For instance, many of the animals in these scenes – none of which involve humans – have been painted with multiple legs, to give the illusion of motion. Soot and charcoal can be found, meaning that these drawings were viewed by fire light, which would flicker and aid in the illusion of motion. The contours of the cave walls also were used as a means to heighten the reality of the illustrations.
What does this mean? What were these people trying to do? What was this cave meant for? There are no signs that people lived within this place, and all of the drawings appear in places that the sun, at the time, would not have reached. There is so much to learn from the cave, but as Herzog says, “you cannot know their soul. Did they cry at night?” He, and you, wonder about the face of these people, the soul at work in them and if that humanity is the same as within us.
They are unknowable to us, but their art remains, and we strive for reason and meaning in it. We want to know that when we pass on our art will remain as well, carrying the same weight and life as it did to us. But when our society is gone, when our cultural touchstones and moors have abandoned the world, won’t the future civilizations who see our art be just as removed? Will they know how we felt creating it?
The time that will pass before this situation can come to play is almost inconceivable. Yet the questions remain. Your lack of focus, the ethereal nature of your ideological heart, works as a detriment to you. Your narrative, such as it is, is scattershot and uncharted. Sometimes Herzog’s questions and musings stray too far into the realm of the surreal and bizarre, but at the heart of his prose is a question that anyone can find worth asking: how long do we stay within our art? How long will it endure before we cease to endure with it?
I do not know the answer, and neither do you it seems, but I am glad you made me ask anyway.
Thinking of you,
Brian J. Roan