Last Friday I went to see the most recent Werner Herzog documentary, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, at the TIFF Lightbox. To say that it left me with a lot to think about would be a bit of an understatement. The focus of the film is the exploration of the Chauvet Cave in France which houses the world’s oldest known art, drawings on the cave walls dated to be around 30,000 years old. However, the film goes deeper than just a pure documentation of this location, and asks questions about culture, religion, and the overall birth of humanness. What makes humans humans and is this art a time capsule of sorts capturing a significant moment in time in our evolutionary path?
I have not seen many Herzog films, so I am not sure if this is a typical trait in his documentaries, but I absolutely relished in the emptiness of the film. There are long pauses throughout it in which no one is talking, the shots are long and continuous, the music complex yet familiar. The audience is allowed to absorb earlier-presented information and questions while gazing over the art work. On a few such occasions the music is replaced or overlapped with a heart beat. A thread is established between modern life and the sprawling span of our kind reaching far back into the depths of history.
Herzog’s voice recounts the sensation experienced by himself, his film crew and the research scientists allowed in the cave, of intruding on something private. On invisible eyes observing their movements. Even while watching this film I felt a sense of not belonging, of being witness to something private. It was touching and disturbing at the same time.
The main dichotomy in my thoughts that has haunted me since I saw the film is the preciousness of human life and the insignificance of it at the same time. Humans are remarkable beings and I sometimes have a feeling of deep humbleness when the legacy of what I belong to is revealed to me. Although I am not exactly the same as them, the people who created the art in Chauvet Cave are my ancestors, my kin. At the same time, one human life is just a fleeting thought, a grain of sand in the grand scheme of things.
I believe it is in the film Grand Canyon one of the characters describes seeing the natural wonder of the same name, as feeling like one is being laughed at by the abyss, the feeling of the canyon being amused. A natural formation forged over hundreds of thousands of years by wind, water, the sun now bearing witness to the absorbing minute problems we humans obsess over. In the eyes of the world, we are here and then we are not. Whether that person was nice to us, whether that guy called us back, whether our children are making the right choices, these are all minuscule events. Sure, they are important in the lives that we lead, but I think that there is always room to step back and zoom out. See Life as an endless mountainscape of which we are just a small fragment. I find that such reminders in my life serve an important function of reminding me to not take everything, including myself so seriously. Live in and enjoy the moment, kind of thing. I wish the same for you.
This does not do it justice, but the trailer of the documentary is below. The screenings at the Lightbox are presented in 3D and I would highly recommend seeing it in this way.