Friday, October 26, 2012


A round of applause is due to any documentary that makes it into general distribution. Hence, our hats go off to Samsara, a non-verbal film shot in 70-mm by Ron Fricke and Mark Magidson. It’s part documentary, part cinematic coffee-table book, on the order of Baraka and those films of our youth, Koyanasqatsi and Powaqqatsi.

If you haven’t seen at least one of these films, you should. And to get the full effect, you really ought to see it on the big screen. That leaves you with only one option: Samsara.

But if you have seen one of the films mentioned above, do you really need to rush out and see this one? I think not.

Samsara offers a long string of gorgeous scenes, beginning with a Thai landscape littered with temples, seen from above in the evocative light of the setting (or rising?) sun. There follow extended sequences of Balinese dancers with immobile, doll-like faces; Tibetan monks crouching over sand paintings; African tribes-people staring angrily into the camera, their faces dotted with leopard spots; lovely sand dunes stretching to the horizon; moonlight penetrating an abandoned pueblo dwelling as the stars streak by; and so on.

The Sanskrit word Samsara refers to the wheel of life, the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth, and the film does have an “arc” of sorts. As it progresses, the images get more troubling: A heavily-muscled man, tattooed from head to foot, cuddles a little baby. Instead of the windswept emptiness of Tibet, we get the raging highways of Los Angeles, filmed at night. The camera looks down on the bizarre millionaire housing developments on the fan-shaped ocean dunes of the United Arabic Emirates. Before long we’re deeply immersed in Asian chicken factories, milking operations, and the assembly lines of massive manufacturing plants.

All of these images are interesting. And nearly all of them are lovely. The inmates in the Filipino prison have a great dance step. Even the slum-dwellers scavenging the dumps in Mumbai seem to have hired an art director, just for the day.

One spiritual blog wrote of the film:
“Experiencing Samsara, we are challenged to leave behind our passive and isolated role of spectators and to step into the incredible energy streams of the wheel of life. For each of us, in our own way, is caught up in the cycles of life, death, and rebirth. And our journeys are connected to those of the people on the screen: we are rich and poor, happy and sad, hurried and at peace, open to change and locked in service to authoritarian leaders, filled with lust and dutifully spinning prayer wheels, searching for security and coming to terms with impermanence. Samsara shows us in no uncertain terms that the movements of creation and dissolution never stop.”

Yet watching the film, I came to the conclusion that the individuals who made it don’t know much about life…they just happen to have a very nice camera. There are no births or deaths in the film, at least none that I can recall. (Yes, there is a funeral and a baptism sequence.) Worse yet, there is no dialogue, and little interaction between people. The rendering of natural phenomena exposes almost no familiarity with natural processes or forces, or the inter-connectedness of things. The soundtrack carries an atmospheric, New Age portentousness that sweeps us up in anticipation of a cosmic enlightenment that never quite arrives, thought the ride is a nice one.

Yes, Samsara remains a worthwhile film. It’s interesting to see how a modern chicken-factory works—though it would have been more illuminating if they hadn't sped up the film. And the views of Mecca during the Haj, seemingly taken from a blimp hanging over the city, are remarkable. Watching the LA highway at night (once again in fast motion) I had a sudden urge to watch Ironman II again. Perhaps I wasn’t getting properly into the spirit of the piece.

I can admire a film where the director asks you to connect the dots (Babel?) even if the result is feverish and out of balance, but in Samsara, I’m afraid there aren't enough dots to connect. Between the timeless religious imagery and the pell-mell portrayal of industries, poverty, and firearms, we need more of a middle ground. 

Watch the trailer here to get the effect.  

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