Glimmers in the Dark

Cinema, Religion, and Paleolithic Cave Art

Anthony R. Mills


A current trend in the interdisciplinary field of religion and film is to identify ways in which movies function like or even as a religion in contemporary Western culture. While some scholars garner the support of anthropology, psychology, and other social sciences in articulating the religious dimensions of film, no one has yet ventured robustly into what studies into human origins may offer to the conversation. One way of doing so, which I take up in this essay, is to explore the parallels between contemporary cinema and ancient cave paintings in an attempt to understand their common religious significance and thus what it might mean about being human.

The earliest evidence for religion is disputed among archaeologists and paleoanthropologists and revolves chiefly around ancient burial of the dead (King, 2007; Mithen, 1999; Tattersall, 1998). Similarly, while there is some debate about where exactly to place the origin of human artistic creativity, the consensus among researchers is that cave painting in southwestern Europe emerged during the Upper Paleolithic period (hereafter UP) among modern humans about 45,000 years ago and ceased with the advent of farming about 11,000 years ago (van Huyssteen, 2006; Lewis-Williams, 2002; Klein, 2002). While in other parts of the world uniquely human behavior seems to have emerged sporadically and over a longer period of time, in Europe all of the aspects characteristic of humans alone appeared more or less simultaneously somewhere between 45,000 and 35,000 years ago as Cro-Magnons from Africa displaced Neanderthals. This “Creative Explosion,” as it is sometimes called, includes the phenomena of spoken language, self-consciousness, symbolic thought, creative imagination, artistic expression, advanced tool-making, religious awareness, elaborate burial practices, and complex social differentiation (van Huyssteen, 2006; Lewis-Williams, 2002; Wade, 2009; Klein, 2002; Mithen, 1996; Tattersall, 1998). No matter what we make of the older discoveries, it is certainly the case that art and religion were intimately connected by the time of the UP.

The evidence which most clearly attests to this connection is the cave paintings themselves. The earliest images, such as those at Chauvet in southern France , are from about 31,000-32,000 years ago and consist primarily of predatory animals which humans would have no doubt feared in real-life encounters. Most of the paintings, however, are from the Magdalenian period of roughly 18,000-11,000 years ago and include images so deep into the caves that getting to them requires crawling for nearly an hour (Klein, 2002; Leakey, 1994; Tattersall, 1998). This fact alone has suggested to some a religious meaning in the creation and viewing of cave art. Jean Clottes, one of the foremost authorities on the paintings, observes that going so far underground into the dark of the caves “is an exceptional occurrence in human history.” It does not seem to be tied to any practical necessity, but for it to persist so long “it must have entailed the powerful constraints of beliefs passed on from one generation to the next” (Clottes, 2006:142. Cf. Tattersall, 1998; van Huyssteen, 2006).

We can come to the same conclusion regarding movie-going in our own time. Why do we venture out every so often away from home and into a darkened room with friends and strangers? Are we passing on beliefs over the generations or mindlessly proliferating a recent cultural practice? The fact that we have sought the creation and continued viewing of so many different kinds of images, of glimmers in the dark, suggests that evolution has hard-wired into us a cinematic imagination which functions to meet deep emotional and existential human needs which can be regarded as religious in nature. But what exactly do these human behaviors share besides a manifest penchant for seeing in the dark? And why should they be considered religious?

The first commonality between cinema and cave art has to do with the altered states of consciousness, including dreaming, which many believe are the root cause of religious belief. Although paleoanthropologist David Lewis-Williams cites recent neurological findings which suggest that dreaming and hallucinations occur on two different levels or streams of consciousness, that distinction is unimportant for our purposes here (Lewis-Williams, 2002). What is notable is that both dreams and hallucinations offer visions alternate to reality which some think led to the idea of a spirit world and thus religion (Bulkeley, 2006; Knight, 1999; Clottes, 2006; Wade, 2009).

Within UP culture shamans were the persons who specialized in these altered states and in communication with the spirit realm. Since the shamans were largely the rule-makers of religious ritual, and since the cave art seems to have been chiefly a part of such ritual, cave art was closely linked to shamanism and the insights they gleaned from trances and dreams rather than a manifestation of a romantic or Bohemian idea of lone artists expressing themselves, as was taken to be the case in earlier interpretations of the images (van Huyssteen, 2006). Rather, because of the central place of shamanism in UP culture, religion and social differentiation have been connected since the beginning of modern humanity (Lewis-Williams, 2002; Bulkeley, 2006). Lewis-Williams interprets the available evidence in terms of a stark stratification between the privileged and disenfranchised in UP culture, chiefly as a result of what he sees as the inherent inequality of religion (Lewis-Williams, 2010). While his unadulterated hatred for religious belief may skew his objectivity as a scientist, there is some merit to the idea that early human societies were differentiated from their onset, if the scantiness of elaborate burials vis-à-vis more numerous unadorned graves is any indication (Tattersall, 1998).

In any case, we might not be going too far in calling today’s directors, writers, producers, and especially executives the shamans of contemporary cinema. This is not as much the case for independent film where filmmakers are more and more able to create according to their visions unfettered by studio control, but with regard to the overwhelmingly more popular Hollywood system certain social assumptions are portrayed and repeated ad nauseam to a generally less critical public. The racial, sexual, aesthetic, and moral positions of the dominant group continually prevail in the movies most marketed to and seen by audiences, even if there now exists more diversity of political agendas. Only those filmmakers with enough earned clout can push the envelope here, lest potential profits are seen to be threatened by the studio financiers.

This shamanistic aspect of film as religion—in the sense of the social importance of cinema and the powerful influence of its producers—is usually overlooked in the field of religion and film, largely because of contemporary resistance to the psychoanalytic notion of audiences as passive receivers of subliminal messages (e.g. Mulvey’s theory of the “male gaze”). In their tendency to eschew what I agree is a simplistic view of audiences as mindless drones absorbing these messages in toto, Clive Marsh (2004), John Lyden (2003), and others have gone too far the other direction and have not taken seriously enough the psychological power of the incessant bombardment of viewers with problematic cultural positions. If a poll of viewers does not reveal any criticisms of the messages in popular movies (racist, sexist, classist, etc.), that is hardly evidence of their absence (as Lyden seems to think). It may be evidence that such messages are doing exactly their job, and have been for years. To the extent this is true, the phenomenon of film as religion cannot consider the audiences alone in their role as laypersons who partake in the cinema-ritual at the theatre-temple. It must also consider the producer-shamans as creators and rule-makers of the tradition, as was the case in the UP and with most of its cave art.

Another aspect of the importance of altered states has to do with the fact that rituals tend to be held around dusk and the early evening (Knight, 1999), the same time that our ancient ancestors were dreaming and that we tend to watch movies (McGinn, 2005. Cf. Bulkeley, 2006). Film even has its narrative origin in theatre, which in turn developed out of religious rituals, at least for the Greeks (Knight, 1999), which suggests that film may be in a specific way the reification of dreams. For their part, the unrealistic nature of many cave images suggests the possibility that they are the material representation of images seen during dream sleep. Lewis-Williams suggests, on the other hand, that they were created shortly after the hallucinatory experiences which would have been facilitated by lack of oxygen in the small spaces of caves, among other things (Lewis-Williams, 2002). In either case, the origins of creative imagination as expressed in ancient cave art and contemporary cinema owe much to what our minds see during altered states of consciousness.

Of course, the visions of dreams and hallucinations do not exhaust the subjects of artistic production. Just as cave painters and filmmakers create more than mere imitations of reality, so they also do more than simply record images seen during altered states. They actively and consciously create other, often ideal, worlds. Indeed, upon reflection on their para-conscious experiences, the shamans concluded that they had communicated with a spirit world, negotiation with which was (and is) the real point of religious ritual. The caves were so significant to UP religion precisely because they were seen as themselves entrances into the supernatural domain (Lewis-Williams, 2002; Lewis-Williams, 2006). The painting of the images on the walls therein was then considered an integral aspect of that communication. Even more, the art “shaped and incrementally created that world. Every image made hidden presences visible” (Lewis-Williams, 2002:210).

This is a very common way of talking about movies as well. How many trailers have a voiceover which begins with “In a world where…” or “In a time when…”? Part of the appeal of films even before we see them is the awareness that we will be psychologically transported elsewhere for their duration. Because of the eschatological nature of theology, religious studies scholars and theologians are arguably more attuned to this dimension of film-going than materialists. Gerard Loughlin suggests that cinema extends our vision and compassion precisely by the creation of other worlds (Loughlin, 2004). Brent Plate suggests that the “promise of cinema” is precisely this viewing of other worlds, allowing us to catch “a glimpse of ‘what if?’” (Plate, 2003:155; Plate, 2008). John Lyden observes that both movies and religions deal with the chaos of the real world by creating ideal worlds, not so much as escape but as hopeful visions which inform and model how we ought to live in the daily, natural world (Lyden, 2003). This way of thinking is not altogether lost on secular humanists, however. Philosopher Colin McGinn, in his insightful analysis of the parallels between movies and dreams, asserts that “film is not the dream unfiltered, neat, but the dream as it is in our dreams—films are the dreams we dream of having” (McGinn, 2005:169, emphasis his).

The eschatological/otherworldly aspect of both cave art and cinema is intensified by three other parallels which the two media seem to share exclusively. The first is the darkened womblike setting in which they take place. This is clearly linked to the ritual significance of the cave images, as opposed to the portable art created by UP peoples, which is largely not considered religious, at least not in the same way (Clottes, 2006; Tattersall, 1998; Lewis-Williams, 2002). Film as well is most like religion when it involves the gathering together of friends and strangers into the cinema-cave of the theatre, most often after having traveled miles from home for this express purpose. As with our darkened rooms at night, the dimness of caves and cinema numbs our sensitivity to all else but the dream/vision awaiting us.

As the rest of the world fades away in obscurity, our attention is turned, secondly, to the screen-wall of the cinema-cave where the only light is projected. Just as the ancient parietal was “a sort of thin permeable veil between the world of supernatural powers and the world of humans” (Clottes, 2006:146), so is the movie screen the transparent curtain between the profane and sacred worlds, between the world we know and the world for which we long (Deacy and Ortiz, 2008; Plate, 2008). Yet we do not simply look at the screen-wall, but in both cases it is part of the ritual experience of the other world. Lewis-Williams explains that the cave images “were not so much painted onto rock walls as released from, or coaxed through, the living membrane…that existed between the image-maker and the spirit world” (2002:199). Similarly, McGinn argues that unlike television screens, we do not look at the movie screen, but rather look into it, the way that we are stricken with wonder when we look into the sky, and are thus immersed into the film in a way impossible by home viewing (McGinn, 2005).

Theologians sometimes consider this immersive, almost tangible quality of cinema in terms of iconography. In Eastern Christian thought, the icon of, say, Jesus or Mary is not merely a representation, but a sort of window to Heaven, and in veneration of the icon the viewer is understood to be experiencing the other, ideal world (Detweiler, 2007; Gilbert and Zelenksy, 2005). The screen-wall of the cinema-cave does not simply show us this world at a distance, but manifests it in the very presence of the viewer-painter, offering “a glimpse of the invisible in the visible, in the depths of the seen” (Loughlin, 2007:289, emphasis mine), not at the exclusion of what is seen.

This experience, thirdly, is neither merely visual nor tactile, but thoroughly aural as well. The importance of sound, especially music, for religious ritual is well-known and witnessed even in the most austere traditions, and this is no less the case for our UP ancestors who created images on cave walls. Lewis-Williams suggests that shamans not only saw visions during hallucinations, but heard voices and communicated verbally with the spirit world (Lewis-Williams, 2002). There is also evidence for the presence of flutes and drums during the experience of altered states, perhaps even to the point of stimulating those states. Most remarkably, studies of the caves have shown that the most sonically resonant areas are more likely to contain images than non-resonant ones (Lewis-Williams, 2002). The power of music to effect changes in brainwaves and emotions is part of our nature, a discovery which no doubt helped to legitimize early human religion and to facilitate the creation of cave images.

Sound and music are also largely responsible for the psychological impact of film. Robert Wood observes that whereas in operas and musicals the music is central, in film it is subsidiary and auxiliary (Wood); present, yet in the background just enough to permeate the mood of the visual story and both convey and instigate emotions (Taylor, 2007; McGinn, 2005). We should bear in mind, however, not simply how music works in the context of any given film or even in film generally, but also how it mediates for the audience the immersive presence of other worlds as music did in the caves. After all, what the melodies and beats would have created in those depths has its modern cinematic analog in the digital surround sound of state-of-the-art theatres. The feeling of transcendence, of being caught up even for brief periods in something bigger than oneself, is certainly exacerbated not only by music, but chiefly by its ubiquitous presence which attends our gazing at the screen-wall of the cinema-cave, a fact recognized by our ancient ancestors and then largely forgotten for millennia.

As we discover our past more and more, however, we learn not only what makes us different but also what makes us similar, which gives us hope that we may have the same dreams of the world as it could be; the same visions for new life as our strange and unexpected neighbors. That contemporary cinema and ancient cave art share so many features despite their vast gaps in time, technology, religion, and culture does not strike me as coincidence. Rather, it speaks to the inescapable embodiment of the human condition, the psychological power of our dreams and visions seen in the dark, and our desire for a world which makes those dreams reality.

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Anthony R. Mills, 2011