Samsara (2011)

Honest to God, I did not care for the 80s. That was a decade of tough lessons and truths for yours truly, a bona fide  horror show. But a decade is ten years long, and surely some good has to come from a period that long, right? I liked narrow ties. I liked the music. I liked the movies. There’s one in particular that I knew I was going to want to see, even though it was so far away from what I normally watched, my friends treated me like I had asked to see a film from Mars. It was playing limited engagements at art houses, and luckily I had access to a couple in Houston, back in those days. It was playing at the River Oaks Theater and that movie was Koyaanisqatsi.

koyaanisqatsi_teaserKoyaanisqatsi is a “narrative-less documentary” which is to say a movie engineered to knock your eyeballs out with awesome in every scene. The title is a Hopi word meaning “Life Out of Balance” and the movie starts with epic shots of national grandeur gradually segueing into man screwing this natural beauty up. It was stunning in 1982, and remains so today.

The cinematographer and a credited writer on Koyaanisqatsi is Ron Fricke, and I really have to fall to my knees and worship him like a graven image. He’s made three movies since: Chronos which is a shorter movie – around 45 minutes – which really showcases the camera systems he invented for time-lapse photography. If you’ve ever seen one of those nature shots where the time passes from day to night and back again and at the same time, the camera moves, that’s Fricke’s system. He probably made the shot himself. There’s some of that in his next movie, Baraka, which is another personal favorite. It travels all over the world, provides breathtaking footage of things light and incredibly dark in the human world, and always – most impressively for me – comes back to prayer, in all its many forms, in all its many cultures.

I started watching a movie after midnight every New Year’s, and I want that to be something beautiful and edifying, transcendent. The first time I did this, it was Baraka.

Samsara-695x1024It takes Fricke years to make these movies; Baraka came out in 1992, and it was almost twenty years before Samsara was ready to be seen. Like Baraka, it was shot in 70mm, then transferred to a 4K file for digital projection, then an 8K transfer for Blu-ray.

My God, just at the frickin’ menu I was saying “Wow!” and picking my jaw off the floor.

Look, I’m not a good enough writer to convey to you just how incredibly gorgeous the photography is in Samsara. I don’t have the Adjective Treasury rich enough. It is frequently stunning, mind-boggling, and very often prompts the question “Where is that?”

I think the flow here is better than it was in Baraka, and as I say, I consider Baraka a near-flawless movie. This may be due to an inversion between how the two movies were edited: Baraka was cut to an existing soundtrack, and Samsara was cut silently, and the soundtrack written later. This probably enhances the flow aesthetic I was referring to, but it also pushes the music way to the background. That has its pros and cons – I’m in the against camp, but obviously Fricke and the other filmmakers disagree, and it’s their movie, after all.

SAMSARA_1000-Hands-DanceWatching Samsara also allowed me to put fingers on a couple of things that bug me about Fricke; that they were evident in both Baraka and Samsara cemented it.

1) Fricke’s juxtaposition of imagery can get too cute, too obvious; in Baraka it was footage of chicks moving through processing, whirled into funnels and eventually winding up battery hens, intercut with sped-up footage of people in subway stations. In Samsara it moves from animals in a factory farm to meat processing plants to check-out counters at warehouse clubs to obese people eating several burgers each at a fast food joint.

One man’s meat, et cetera. What I find obvious and jejune, someone else may find profound. It doesn’t mean it isn’t worth saying.

2) Odd intrusions of performance art. There are several in Baraka, and only one in Samsara. I also recognize this is a fundamentally stupid complaint on my part. That I, of all people, should grumble that art is being presented is… well, ridiculous. And selfish, because I just want more pretty pictures.

And if those are the worst things I can say about something – I even forgive the one obviously staged shot, so powerful is the image – then we are truly dealing with something special.

Sand-mandala-still-from-SAMSARAIf I had to choose a favorite in this gorgeous field, I’m still going to give the nod to the Fricke-less Powaqqatsi, the sequel to Koyaanisqatsi, for glorious photography married to an astounding Phillip Glass soundtrack – again, the movie cut to the music, Glass collaborating with Godfrey Reggio.

But that’s me playing favorites in a purely nostalgic manner, I think. All the while I was writing this, I have had an insane urge to watch Samsara again, to take that trip, to marvel and be struck speechless again. Koyaanisqatsi, Powaqqatsi, Baraka and Samsara are the movies we should send into space to show what Earth is like, both good and bad. The past year has given me the opportunity to own them all on breathtaking Blu-ray transfers, and if I ask for anything else from life, I am just being plain greedy.