Stop the Wheel, I Want Off
Samsara (2011) is director Ron Fricke and producer and co-editor Mark Magidson’s follow-up to the infamous Baraka (1992). In the film we traverse twenty-five countries and one hundred different locations. Samsara, like its progenitor, is a documentary with no dialogue: a ‘cinematic essay’ that invites the viewer to invest his or her own ideas into the exotic, beautiful, and seemingly alien images.
Fricke spent four years filming on massive 70mm cameras and another year piecing the footage together. The editing for the film was done during silent meditations (not unlike being on the set of a David Lynch film). The meditation reflects using the Sanskrit word “samsara” for the title of the film: a word that’s meaning points to the wheel of life or cycle of birth and death via reincarnation. Moreover, this East Asian concept seems more or less mirrored by an abundance of footage from Asia throughout the film. However, I will leave the exploration of Eastern philosophy for a theologian.
Music director Michael Stearns and handful of artists performed and recorded the music to the edited film (two of which are from New Mexico, where Stearns also currently resides). This process is the opposite of Baraka, which was constructed around its soundtrack. This creates a very different temperament in Samsara: the ambient music underpins the first slew of remarkable images, but does not drive the film forward like in Baraka. This is good and bad because some of the images are quite intense and could use a heavier motif to pull them forward, but at the same time the sound ghosting the image is kind of calming.
Some of the first imagery in the film comes via aerial shots of Pagan in Burma; the quality of light from the sunrise makes the images appear alien or computer generated. Moreover, the landscape is more reminiscent of René Laloux’s La Planète sauvage (1973) than it is of planet Earth. The film rapidly ascends into what later become cyclical images of dancers and a statue of Buddha; no doubt punning “samsara” once more. By the time the opening credits hit, we are likely enchanted by the exotic filmic world and therefore incapable of escape (even if we already have to use the restroom, as was my case).
The film quickly gains momentum and we are blasted off into a world of sensory overload. We struggle to capture the fleeting images of the many beautiful places: Kaaba in Mecca, Monument Valley in Arizona, northern India, and a myriad of other striking places. The film accelerates until we finally hit a crescendo half way through. All of the sudden we find ourselves in an uglier world: one of consumerism and overpopulation (oh man, let me off this ride). We see robots, performers, food and mechanical processing plants, and even sex toys. Wait, we ask ourselves – what just happened – and where the heck did all of that fluffy eye candy go? Oh right, we are in “samsara” and experiencing suffering and imbalance: the human experience. Okay, I get it. However, it feels forced and unnatural. How did we go from the abstract concepts of architecture and nature to the forced images of a man’s breasts before liposuction and a rubber vagina? (at least I think it was rubber). Why have you forced us into your gaze so completely?
Samsara is an absolutely dazzling movie, but some of the choices that reinforce its theme are just too darn obvious. No one wants to feel like you are telling them what to think or question, and although I understand the connection to theme, I still have to ask if some of the shots were really necessary to drive it home. After all, is it not the job of a good filmmaker to tell people what to think without the audience knowing? Okay, if not that, what about giving me that feeling without pushing it so far it loses some of its power? Whatever the case, this is still an amazing film and though the staged quality of many of the scenes was quite distracting, the film still managed to pile on some rather intense concepts that weighed heavy on my mind after leaving the theatre (luckily my bar tab after decompressing was slightly lighter).
The cinematography is amazing: Fricke blows me away every time. The time elapses via mechanical jib and crane were amazing, as was the lighting in many of the deep-focus shots. The highlight for me was definitively the extraordinary shots of the erupting volcano, Pagan, the group Shaolin Kung-Fu practice, and Kaaba. I can’t imagine what it would be like to go through so many hours of footage and then only use a few magical seconds. The music does a great job following the narrative flow; there are some magical moments with the imagery and the haunting female vocals in particular. Ultimately, the film really does deserve a watch and in the highest quality you can find, whether that is in its native 70mm format (amazing I’m sure) or HD on a large television, it will be well worth it. It was not quite as life changing as Baraka was for me, but it still definitely did the job. At a running time of a mere ninety-nine minutes, it is a worthy investment. However, it might be smart to have a couple drinks waiting on standby for when you’re finished because it is a wild ride.
I would love to hear your comments below.
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