In “Into Eternity”, the architects of the underground nuclear bunker must try to future-proof their cache for an unimaginable 100,000 years of potential climate change, war and technical devolution. The designs they have come up with for “markers” to alert future generations to the poison buried beneath them are absurd, unworkable. Visual representations of “nastiness” that attempt to predict and supersede current cultural and environmental contexts point only to an event horizon of legibility: there is no way of knowing how people that far in the future will talk, write, draw or perceive the world … not even whether they will be at all. One of the project managers describes with a straight face that the set of variables they are dealing with include “known-knowns, known-unknowns, and (most tricky of all): unknown-unknowns”.
“Cave of Forgotten Dreams”, on the other hand, sees archaeologists attempt to glean information about the lifestyle and culture of people who lived 40,000 years ago, from the exquisite cave paintings they left behind. It is an equally impossible task, which sees various interviewees lamely applying their own reference points in various ways to untangle the mysteries they are confronted with: a cave bear skull on a big rock is “like an altar”, so it might be religious; a rhinoceros is painted with twice the number of legs, so it is ‘proto-cinema’. None of this is particularly convincing, and much of Herzog’s poetic speculation seems just as plausible as that of the scientific experts, and vice versa: many of them are far more convincingly poetic than him. The film fails to establish a hierarchy between its sources, placing some truly stupid analogies on the same footing as many of its more profound revelations, and the point is, at this distance, who the fuck knows what these people were thinking? Anyone’s guess is as good as anyone else’s.
And yet, across this insurmountable temporal divide, these images still affect us, causing us to reinvent them in our own likeness again and again, and ponder what of our own culture will remain universal? Do these things need to last forever when the culture that has literally lasted forever—compelling and moving though it may be—is often indecipherable to us now?
Photo by G. Rieke, Royal Tyrrell museum