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The Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Posted by on May 11, 2011

Last night, I went with Mary, Eric, S/A, Vroman and Xtina to see the movie The Cave of Forgotten Dreams. When Eric mentioned it at work, I was sorta leery about watching a documentary on cave paintings, but after watching the trailer, I had a feeling I would really like it.

This movie absolutely exceeded my expectations. It was breathtaking, informative and moving. The story goes, in 1994 a couple hikers/explorers found a cave entrance high on a mountain in France. They had to move some stones aside to even get in. Once inside, they discovered a treasure trove of ancient cave paintings. They knew the significance of what they’d found, and the cave was immediately set upon by a group of researchers with proper reverence for a cave used by humans over 30,000 years ago, sealed off by a landslide 25,000 years ago. The filmmaker calls it a “perfect time capsule.” Over the course of the movie, they interview anthropologists, paleontologists, archaeologists and art historians working directly with the cave, as well as other related researchers and interested individuals. We learn about the climate and fauna of the era, as well as how the people most likely lived.

The thing that touched me the most about the movie was how accessible it made ancient people seem. We can never communicate with them, and we can’t witness their lives first-hand, but this is the closest we can come to finding a box of their polaroids (an analogy already dated by technological growth). At one point during the movie, a more apt analogy occurred to me: this is like finding someone’s stupid myspace page and glorifying it. I didn’t dwell on that though, for a couple reasons. One, this is all so old. It predates agriculture by a longer period than agriculture predates this blog post. Wall art that old is nonexistent anywhere else in the world (that we’ve found) and this art is comparable in age to the oldest art of any kind that has been found, such as bone carvings.

The other reason I didn’t dwell on that analogy is something I learned from the movie. The cave is littered with bones of cave bears, and horses and antelopes, but no human remains. This is one reason why the current theory is that the cave was not used as a dwelling, but was ceremonial. That theory cast the whole place in a new light for me. It’s a pre-historic cathedral, complete with what may be depictions of religious stories, that we see merely as beautiful and nuanced sketches of rhinos, cave lions, antelopes and horses. Also, the 3-d really enhanced the movie as you get an excellent sense of how the cave painters used the contour of the surfaces on which they painted to enhance the images.

The film spends a lot of time with lingering shots on the cave paintings, and even though the cave is quite large (1300 ft from start to finish), there aren’t paintings throughout the cave — they are clustered in a few areas. There is a properly calm, almost religious score as the lights dance and the camera plays off the paintings, which would have been made by torchlight 30,000 years ago. Carbon dating indicates that some of the paintings were made thousands of years apart, though they occur right next to each other on the wall.

One of the oldest drawings is more than 8 feet off the ground, so it is assumed that it was drawn with a long stick. Another area near the entrance has a collection of hand prints from one person, who had a crooked pinky finger and was estimated to be six feet tall. The evidence presented in the movie paints a vivid portrait of people who lived long before history began and yet seem as real and as present as anyone you might meet on the street. Pretty much the whole movie is this evocative and thought-provoking.

Perhaps the best part are the many scenes that linger on the art so that you can contemplate the significance of the people who lived so very long ago. The movie has lots of interesting information that I didn’t include here, and because it’s somewhat meditative and properly reverent, you sorta get out of the movie what you put in. If you think you might like it, you should see it. If you aren’t so sure, watch the trailer and you will probably change your mind. This movie speaks to anyone concerned with the nature of art and the commonality of man that stretches across eons.

It was excellent. 10 out of 10, can’t wait to watch again. And everyone I went with really enjoyed it as well, with the exception of Vroman, who has written his thoughts here.

UPDATE: I intentionally avoided reading Vroman’s review before I wrote my own so that I would be writing what I thought of the movie, instead of what I thought of Vroman’s thoughts on the movie. Now that I’ve read it, I think I should respond at least somewhat:

Filler is relative. I enjoyed the local color and unprovable theories about how folks lived. I have a Hayekian desire to defer to the people who’ve spent their lives immersed in the local information, while at the same time I don’t mind contemplating my own take on human nature and how it may have impacted life back then. I imagine this cave, and some people who lived near it. It was treated with great respect and awe, since it depicted things you see around you with drawings placed by people who lived so long ago as to be beyond imagining. Perhaps there was a tradition of ceremonies performed inside and in order to earn the privilege to paint in the cathedral, you had to prove your mettle by drawing on logs and stones outside the holy place.

Also, that movie routinely blew my mind. That guy in the costume that played the flute that Vroman mentioned? He points out that the scale of the flute is pentatonic. This is amazing to me. He plays the star-spangled banner on the flute to show that the music we listen to now could absolutely have been produced by these people. Totally amazing.

And as for building walkways in other parts of the cave to get a better view of the art, I totally understand the desire to leave as much intact in the cave as possible while still doing steady research there. The more time passes, the better our technology gets. In a few decades, we may have computers that can do a better job of piecing together what went on in that cave than any “rambling elderly Frenchman” so long as we leave the evidence intact. There’s a tradeoff between gathering information today and leaving clues in place for tomorrow. I was very happy with what the amount they were able to get into this documentary, especially given how limited their access was.

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