I can’t say that I thought much of Werner Herzog’s documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams, about the Chauvet Cave paintings, which at over 30,000 years old are among the most—if not the most—ancient works of art yet discovered. The film disappoints because Herzog appeared to have more of an opportunity to photograph this astonishing art than an actual film in mind. Still, it is visually engaging, and I can’t shake one moment that is set up early in the film but gets its greatest visual payoff toward the end.
The idea that underscores this moment is established when Herzog discusses the ways that the images on the cave walls almost move as he recreates what he imagines would have been the shifting light of the torches inside the cave. As he does so, Herzog singles out a picture of a bison drawn with eight legs, theorizing that the artist was trying to represent the animal’s movement, “almost a form of proto-cinema,” he says in one of many voiceovers that veer toward self-parody. At this point, the idea is unconvincingly staged as flashlights pan across the art like klieg lights in a prison yard, the camera moving restlessly over the paintings as if trying to force them to come to life.
Later, though, Herzog and his crew don’t try as hard, and the light shifts more subtly. At that moment, for me at least, the art indeed started to move. It was quite magical. I couldn’t help but wonder: if I took such pleasure in the effect at a movie theater in Minnesota, what would it be like to sit in that cave surrounded by torches? And what would that have been like over 30,000 years ago, before our sight had been dulled by commonplace impossibilities rendered in CGI?
As I thought about the pleasure the shimmering pictures gave me, I began to wonder what motivated the artists to paint them. I don’t think it’s sufficient to say they were intended to help the artists understand the world in which they lived, and I’m not convinced that they memorialized some particular event, especially since the paintings spanned thousands of years. I definitely don’t think it’s useful to wonder if they are the “birth of the modern soul,” as Herzog did, not once but twice, in his film.
I understand that I’ll never find an answer, but I could imagine the artists enjoying creating and sharing the paintings as much as I did getting caught up in their shadowy undulations. I wasn’t swept up by any sense of verisimilitude, though. That is, I wasn’t moved because the paintings moved in a way that seemed particularly accurate; their motion wasn’t like the modern counterparts of the animals they represented. Rather, they moved in their own fashion, just as a line in a great drawing, the splicing together of two images or moments of time in a film, the stylized turn of a foot in ballet, or the liquid arc of a lyrical melody move, which in turn moves me, and then I bring the work of art to life. Art isn’t apart from life, a pale substitute for reality. It’s a part of life, and if it stirs its audience, it successfully captures the wonder of the continual blossoming, the ceaseless opening up, that is reality, not by mimicking reality, but by showing us how reality reveals its splendor and inviting us to participate.