By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 8, 2012)
Though the Christian view of the world has paled for many people, the symbolic treasure-rooms of the East are still full of marvels that can nourish for a long time to come the passion for show and new clothes. What is more, these images — be they Christian or Buddhist or what you will — are lovely, mysterious, and richly intuitive.
In 1982, an innovative, genre-defying film called Koyannisqatisi quietly made its way around the art house circuit. The piece (directed by Godfrey Reggio, photographed by Ron Fricke and scored by Philip Glass) was generally received as a transcendent experience by admirers and dismissed as New Age hokum by detractors. The title is taken from the ancient Hopi language, and describes a state of “life out of balance”. There are likely as many interpretations of what it’s “about” as there are people who have viewed it; if I had to make a generalization, I’d say it’s about technology vs. nature. Reggio followed up in 1988 with Powaqqatsi (a more political entry illustrating Third/First World disparity) and the slick yet curiously uninvolving sequel Naqoyqatsi in 2002.
Cinematographer Fricke has since become a director in his own right; most notably with his 1985 IMAX short Chronos, and the 1992 theatrical length feature Baraka. The latter film is frequently mentioned in the same breath as Koyannisqatsi; while it shares some themes and (obviously) a very similar visual aesthetic, Baraka stands on its own. The title is a Sufi term that roughly translates to “a blessing”, and indeed, this globe-trotting cultural/anthropological journey was more pan-spiritual in nature than Reggio’s film; proving that Fricke had his own unique vision. Taken as a whole, all of the aforementioned films form a sub-genre I have dubbed the “Jungian travelogue”; a narrative-free collage of mesmerizing and thought-provoking imagery (natural and man-made) that jacks the viewer directly into humankind’s collective unconscious (or…not).
For those familiar with the director’s oeuvre, Fricke’s latest film, Samsara (currently in limited release) may initially unfold like a “greatest hits” collection of somewhat familiar imagery. Languidly paced scenes of Buddhist rituals? Check. Joshua trees silhouetted against a time-lapsed night sky? Check. Hyper-accelerated time-lapse sequences mirroring the dizzying pace of a mindless consumerist society going nowhere fast? Check. And so on. The title is a Sanskrit term signifying “the ever turning wheel of life”. And appropriately, Fricke plays “pick up sticks” with the spokes, leaving it up to each individual viewer to reinvent their own wheel, as it were. In other words, if you just “turn off your mind, relax and float downstream” (as a great English poet advised) there is as much here for a thinking person to ponder as there is to savor.
Or, if you prefer to enjoy it on aesthetic terms, I think the film (much like its predecessors) works fine as pure cinema; a visual tone poem that intoxicates all the senses. Be forewarned, however, that it isn’t all soothing images (animal lovers in particular should be advised that there are scenes filmed in a Chinese poultry processing plant that are potentially upsetting). If you have an opportunity to catch it on the big screen, I would highly recommend you do so; this is one of the most beautiful looking films of 2012. Interestingly, it was shot in 70mm, but the 65mm negative was scanned to DCP, enabling exhibitors to project it in hi-res 4k format. The results are stunning.
And again, don’t feel pressured to “connect the dots”, because there will not be a pop quiz afterwards. At the end of the day, whether you interpret the film as a deep treatise on the cyclic nature of the Omniverse, or see it merely as an assemblage of pretty pictures, doesn’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. I think the director drops us a clue early on in the film, as we observe a group of Buddhist monks painstakingly creating a sand mandala. At the end of the film, we revisit the artists, who now sit in silent contemplation of their lovely creation. This (literal) Moment of Zen prefaces the monks’ next project-a ritualistic de-construction of the painting. And yes Grasshopper, it is a very simple metaphor for the transitory nature of beauty, life, the universe and everything. But, as they say, there’s beauty in simplicity. Take the wheel, for example…