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Summer Viewing: Why cave drawings might make you proud to be a human again

"Werner Herzog" by erinc salor is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
File:29 Panneau Des Chevaux (Vue Générale) by Claude Valette

Unlike most summers, the movies we will watch won’t be big-budget blockbusters in cinemas, but whatever has remained unwatched on Netflix. After this year, our battered and bruised psyches need a film that will allow us to regain some faith that humanity is solely characterized by its shortcomings and predilection for incalculable mistakes. It is with this in mind that I recommend Werner Herzog’s 2011 documentary, The Cave of Forgotten Dreams, to your summer roster.

Although the film investigates the Chauvet Cave in France, the documentary is not really about the ethereal cave, but about the oldest-surviving drawings that were etched onto its undulating stone walls over 30,000 years ago. Cloistered away for thousands of years by a rock slide, its rediscovery was promptly followed by a governmentally regulated metal door; it is only by these means of conservation that part of our past can be part of our future. Therefore, it was an exclusive privilege that Herzog, the legendary director, was permitted into the cave with a crew, and he himself acts as tour guide and narrator, with his German accent and staccato cadence keeping calm in this claustrophobic space. Occasionally, his voice breaks off to give way to choral music while the camera pans the walls, letting us admire the drawings without explanation or interruption.

The drawings themselves are the camera’s focus, and they possess a mastery that calls to mind Picasso’s bull drawings. The Paleolithic animals depicted are outlined in single, continual strokes, impressively depicting their anatomy accurately. Woolly rhinoceros, buffalos, mountain lions and horses have been captured in motion by our ancestors, with a multitude of legs in sequence that make a considerable amount of 20th century art seem more inventive than previously thought.

"Werner Herzog" by erinc salor is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Director Werner Herzog by Erinc Salor

The title of the documentary seems to come from Herzog’s notion that the discovery of this cave has reminded us of dreams we have collectively forgotten. An archeologist, Julien Monney, tells Herzog that after each day of his initial investigation of the cave, he would go home and spend his nights dreaming of lions, both drawn and real. (At least lions are something most of us don’t have to worry about in 2021.)

While being reminded of the resiliency of our species is undoubtedly soothing right now, the fact that art is what proves the existence of our ancestor’s humanity long ago is particularly reassuring to artists, and maybe to anyone becoming cynical of human nature.

Before the end of the film, we are provided with an anecdote about a North Australian Aboriginal man retracing a rock drawing to prevent it from fading. When a bystanding ethnographer asked why the man was repainting it, he replied that he wasn’t, but that the ‘spirit’ was. Being reminded that the creation of art is a collective historical process, and not just an individually motivated practice meant to demonstrate uniqueness, is something I am going to consider as I paint alone in my room for another year. I just hope I don’t have to dream about lions.

J.M. Laycraft


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