37. Alexander Marshack

Were caves our first movie theaters?”

Whether we call it film, movies, cinema, video, or whatever, Marshack’s theories could well support the notion that the root idea for a dramatic sound and light presentation in a darkened room may go all the way back to our human beginnings; that it actually fulfills humankind’s earliest artistic, religious, and storytelling cravings. What Marshack outlined made me wonder if cinematic presentation may actually have its roots as early as 35,000 years ago!

Alexander Marshack, the well-known researcher into the origins of written notation, was a friend of mine from the time I lived in New York during the 1950s.  His theories about the beginnings of human notation, which eventually led to written language, seemed completely believable to me. (Alex told me that no one could actually prove him wrong!) What interested me, as an animation filmmaker, is what he discovered and postulated about the cave paintings of Europe. First of all he reminds us of the weird feeling we have when inside a cave… If you’ve ever been inside a large cave, you’ll know this feeling. And if you’ve ever been deep inside a cave and turned off your light, you will know what dark is!  It is a total blackness and quiet we can experience in no other way, especially with the deathly feeling of being under tons of rock.

Marshack pointed out that all those beautiful paintings we know of have been made maybe a half-mile deep inside the caves. Why did those early artists do that when it must have been enormously difficult for them? It certainly proves that they were able to produce light. Hollowed stones have been found inside the caves, which were probably oil lamps. They also had to be able to bring in drawing and painting utensils, to make scaffolding, and to mix colors on the spot.

Flattened areas of stone have been found with enough residues to indicate they were used as palettes. But it can be assumed that they did not drag all those animals in there to use as models! Yet these paintings are marvelous examples of observation and drawing skill by any standard.  These were trained artists!  What is especially fascinating to an animator is seeing that many of the drawings were attempts to convey an image of motion!

But this was a time of primitive and exceedingly difficult life, when just staying alive and hunting for food was the predominate need.  But yet they felt it necessary to support “professional” artists!  From this we have to assume that these so-called cave men had a more advanced social organization than we might have thought, and that they were able to bring in a surplus of food, and that not every man or woman had to spend full time scrabbling for existence – that a society 35,000 years ago could support and train artists!!! Again, why? All of these deductions by Alexander Marshack got me to thinking that these people had a culture and a lore they wished to preserve, to pass on –  a need to tell stories!

It struck me:  What more imprinting way could there have been for those people to inculcate their youth with the legends and lore of the community than to lead them into the icy vast darkness of a cave, to a deep, forbidding gallery, always the one that was the most sound resonant, (Cave-age Surround sound?), and in flickering oil lamp light, illuminating wondrous images, tell the tribal tales, in an atmosphere of guaranteed attention?  The first “animated movie” presentation?

So we can see that though the technology of animation has changed a bit in the last 35,000 years, the aim is the same: to tell stories in the most dramatic, riveting, and attention-holding way we can.  Technical advancements come thick and fast in our times, but we musn’t let them rule our work as a thing unto themselves.  Technology is an ever-evolving tool, but our use of it must always be the same: to tell our story!

When I told Alex my wild thought that the cave paintings were the first manifestation of cinema, he said to me, “Gene, no one can prove you’re wrong!”

Was this a scene from one of the very first “Picture Shows” in dark caves?

Marshack discivered “decorated bones’ that were Realy inscribed maps and planting information!


7 thoughts on “37. Alexander Marshack

  1. Gene, I only wish Alex could have read your words about cave art. He would have been delighted, as I was. Elaine Marshack

  2. Personally I wouldn’t relate the cave paintings to movies, but more to illustrated books. I imagine that they were indeed used to iniciate youth into the stories of the tribe (or whatever social unit they actually lived in) by means of sort of an early form of theater combined with successive graphic images. These images were not early movies, but early comic strips in my opinion.

    Popularly, the cave paintings are assumed to be very specific to a small band, but those caves in France should lead us to another conclusion. That place was inhabited for a long time by people of the same culture. It might have been a meeting place for several communities that was used for centuries, perhaps even millennia. It hints at a broader culture than most people think of for “cave men”.

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