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Jocelynn Coyne

Writing the Essay

Prof. Daniel Menely
Fall 2018

Erotics of Experience
A stone face peers from darkness, rash-like and blotched red. Sanded smooth and

illuminated by the focus of artificial light, the cave wall glows from beneath its unkempt

stalactite tresses. Before it stands two archaeologists, Valerie Feruglio and Dominique Baffier.

They face away from the camera, engrossed by the dappled panel. The camera slowly sneaks up

and frames the scientists mid-conversation. Startled, the scientist turn around and prepared to

disclose their conversation. The camera peaks again at the blurred dots, which Ferullo's Ferrari

jumpsuit happens to playfully matches. Those blotches--her college reveals--are not primordial

freckles, nor are they accidental color left by the drips of time. They are the handprints of the

world’s first artist.

An original man is remembered. He was six feet tall, had a trademark crooked pinkie, and

led his curious patrons through his gallery with that misshapen handprint. This man wanted to

showcase his work of galloping horses with shaded eyes, and rhinoceros's with many moving

legs. Being the oldest known Master, he seemingly took great pride in his signature as well; he

lurched low, stamping his mud-dyed hands on the face beneath him, and slowly worked himself

up, until he leapt to reach the highest points on the panel. Unfortunately, his passion and the

actualities of time and audience here in contradict. With no self-portrait and no alphabet for him

to have wrote his name, we know nothing more about this artist than what lies within his work

itself, and his red handprint. We are stuck, struggling in the dark looking to mere imprints and

shadow for blurs of original intention and feeling.

Werner Herzog’s ​Cave of Forgotten Dreams ​entralls itself with capturing this abyss. The

audience, made comfortable by souring shots of the French countryside, is plunged into the

depths of the Chauvet Cave where the oldest art on earth was discovered. The filmmakers
traverse the cave poorly equipped, but nonetheless as intent to capture every tableau. A plethora

of stampeding horses, bison, and even a minotaur grace the screen nearly 30,000 years after they

were first imaged somewhere in that darkness. The film emerges, now and again, to fill itself

with background and research, but it always returns to the cave, and back to Herzog’s objects of

fascination. While the film is a documentary in practice, its fascination lies within Herzog’s

objects, and within storytelling. Scientists are prodded for their personal backgrounds and

beliefs; the film pauses, silently and sightlessly, to listen to beat of human hearts. Humanity is

consistently depicted as thriving in representation, and in our near compulsive need to interpret

our surroundings. Feruglio and Baffier turn to face the camera, framing the handprints they’ve

devoted months, maybe years, to understanding. Feruglio holds a picture of the prints proudly for

the camera, Baffier points at them, consulting them for accuracy. Why did these scientists bring

this recreation into the cave, when they could stand before the real thing? Herzog questions this

as well, and cuts off most of the photo from his shot, favoring the scientists and the blotches


Interpretation does not interest Herzog, and by extension, has no place in ​Cave of

Forgotten Dreams.​ Herzog interviews his subjects with a sense of scientific ambivalence as to if

they are speaking of the types of bones found in the cave, or if they have dreamed of lions.

Herzog’s self-assumed role is merely to ask the questions on which his process of filmmaking

have landed him. He has no interest in clarifying correlations between the film’s thematic

elements. He cuts, cleanly recorded, into most of his interviews, even occasionally sermonizing

his own meditations over lofty shots of beautiful landscapes, and arches carved by water and

time. He does so not out of a need for plot or to explain the film to his audience, rather, it seems
that these moments are inarguably a part of the film’s soul. When Herzog asks; “Will we ever be

able to understand the vision of the artists across such an abyss of time”(​Cave of Forgotten

Dreams, ​22:53), a living soul cannot possibly answer him. He poses questions for no one to


This unruly and unjustified existence of elements renders ​Cave of Forgotten Dreams

difficult to digest for some. As New Yorker columnist Anthony Lane vocalizes: “Herzog is so

keen to batten into the deep and the high that he neglects, now and then, to level his gaze at the

practical.”(Lane). Lane’s comments are aimed at Herzog’s reluctance to develop a specific

reason why the cave artist decided to paint in the first place, or even how the artist painted with

charcoal. He refutes Herzog’s persistent existential perspective, claiming “Is it also not

conceivable that they are the record of a good day’s hunting?”(Lane), inferring that the painting

may solely be ritualistic, or decorative l’art pour l’art. Although the idea of hunt, ritual, and

decoration were all brought up at certain points of the film, they were never followed through,

abandoned once Herzog’s curiosity was relinquished. Herzog’s focus flits, chaotically, gaining

and losing traction as he places immense weight into the questions he asks, while never finding

the impetus to relieve the strain. What, then, is the purpose of Herzog leading us down a line of

questioning which ends without resolution?

Shrugged in reindeer pelts, holding a vulcher bone which had been carved and hallowed

into a flute, stands an imposer. This is Wulf Hein, an experimental researcher and the result of

one of Herzog’s line of questionings originating from the discovery of ivory flutes in South

Eastern Germany (​Cave of Forgotten Dreams, ​53:00-55:04) . He stands upon a sloping hill, lined

by gnarled trees and large boulders, and describes the cold climate in the area 30,000 to 40,000
years ago. He is uncanny. From his pelts, to his description of the climate, to his flute. He is

struggling against what he knows to project something he seeks. He feels zapped from our world

and placed into the next. This scene might be straight out of ​2001: A Space Odyssey. ​Herzog, not

unalike Kubrick, targets our senses in such a way we are nearly pushed to believing that Hein

may channel our ancestors. Where Kubrick used pulsing lights, a minimalist color scheme, and a

droning orchestral score, Herzog merely used his interviewee. But does it work? Are we able to

feel a primordial person as easily as we were able to feel Dave Bowman’s fear? Herzog’s lines of

questioning appear attracted to this intimacy; ​what did they see, what did they use, what did they

feel​. Perhaps his ceasly questioning is a way to place us in a headspace. A second look at Hein,

however, betrays the impossibility of this headspace. Hein looks down from his salon cut head,

past his perfectly groomed beard as his choice of song ends up being the Star-Spangled Banner.

Though he may have wanted to be ancient, and like the cave artists, the aspects Hein can’t

customize compromise him. The headspace is not complete. Fragmented, still Herzog chose to

accept this scene which draws the impossibility of audience submersion in on itself, he

understands there’s something to say here.

Hein’s interpretation of life 30,000 years ago may have fallen unrealized for the mere

reason of distance, and the sheer abyss of time can be blamed for the audience member’s

inability to enter the artist's headspace. Time in ​Cave of Forgotten Dreams ​is an obstacle to be

fought and overcome, both for the scientists trying to bridge it and the filmmakers trying to milk

their limited amount of recording time. When Herzog was confronted with the opposite problem

in his 2005 film ​Grizzly Man​, the headspace he presented was significantly more sympathetic,

but nonetheless as elusive. The film features the mind, and footage, of Timothy Treadwell, a
conservationist with an unparalleled adoration for grizzly bears. While Herzog, once again,

frames the audiences absorption of the film, it is Treadwell’s found footage which deepens the

film’s emotional intelligence. The found footage attempts to reach as far into Treadwell’s

headspace as possible. One of found footage scenes depict a grizzly bear fight (​Grizzly Man,

54:00-58:17). The two massive creatures claw savagely at each other, pulling out tufts of fur and

chunks of skin. The fight becomes so intense that one bear, out of fear for it’s life, defecates mid

fight. Afterwards, Treadwell appears where the bears fought, scattered among the tufts of hair,

blood, and dung. Not the least bit shaken, he is enthused as he describes what the fight was over,

and even what the bear’s names are. At this instant, we see right into Treadwell and his

borderless love for these bears, and it is at this point where the headspace can no longer hold. No

one besides Treadwell is capable of feeling this depth, and this ostracizing love. This is

specifically Treadwell. To gaze too long or to remain too deep in this headspace would be an

intrusion onto his very soul. Treadwell is far more lost to us than perhaps even the ancient cave


Red lines blur into palm, the touch of the artist has not left the cave walls. His charcoal

bulls now live between artificial sunrise and sunset, made permanent by photograph and

research. Herzog and his crew pan meticulously over the cave, giving every figure it’s due

recognition (​Cave of Forgotten Dreams,​ 1:08:51-1:13:13). This point in the film is nearly silent,

save an orchestral score and the light sound of the heartbeat. Before us is the unadulterated

simplicity of the cave paintings, unprovoked and perpetual. Herzog wants you to look, and

remember that you are there as well. The camera lands on a bull, it is distant, but the camera has

zoomed in enough so that the figure spans the screen. It pans from left to right, it’s hind is dark,
the lines crisp. In moments like this, Herzog’s questions no longer seem asked, only

remembered. The film becomes more experiential than documentary. Confronted with merely

what you see before you, and what has struck you within the duration of the film, freely one can

experience the weight of the paintings. The lines flow from the legs, quickly, and indicating

movement, yet the blacken the neck and breast with the ease of a sophisticated hand. Hand

movements so vivid one could mistake them for their own. This intimate moment asks us to not

only see ourselves there, but intimately feel ourselves there as well.

The headspace in which Herzog places his audience is an impossibility. It may be an

impossibility to bridge the gap of time and space between modern and prehistoric man, but this

unattainability does little to devalue the act of asking the question in the first place. For Herzog,

the very act of asking and bridging the gap between one contemplative headspace and another is

more revealing than seeking the actual answer to his question. Susan Sontag writes in her

reactionary essay ​Against Interpretation​: “Transparence is the highest, most liberating value in

art-and in criticism today.” (9). For Herzog, the transparency within his questions and his footage

prove more valuable than any research could have. Isolated from what the paintings could have

been in the culture of the people, or from answering banal truths about how exactly the original

artist could have worked, Herzog granted himself the ability to explore the eroticisms of what he

was capturing. The touch of the palm, the many legs of running horses, the facial expressions

and personalities of the researchers. All aspects overshadowed if the emphasis was placed

answers, rather than experience and headspace. Sontag continues her claim for simplicity

through stating: “Our task is not to find the maximum amount of content in a work of art...Our

task is to cut back content so we can see the thing at all.” (10). Herzog embarked on his lines of
questioning, not in hopes to realize truths that would pile on top of eachother, but to peel down

the cave to it’s humanness. To be able to see that 30,000 years ago humans crafted art with

shapes, and lines, and movement, and the intimacy this produces.
Works Cited

Herzog, Werner, director. ​Cave of Forgotten Dreams​. Lions Gate, 2012.

Herzog, Werner, director. ​Grizzly Man.​ Lions Gate, 2005.

Kubrick, Stanley, director. ​2001: a Space Odyssey​. MGM, 1968.

Lane, Anthony. “In the Dark.” ​The New Yorker,​ The New Yorker, 19 June 2017,

Sontag, Susan. “Against Interpretation.” ​Against Interpretation​.23 Oct. 2018,