dir: Ron Fricke
How do you even review something like this? It ends up saying more about the reviewer than the movie reviewed.
Samsara isn't a sequel to Baraka, the amazing, awe-inspiring 'documentary' from the 1990s that I've watched a billion times and whose soundtrack I've listened to even more. It's a continuation of Baraka, same director, same incredible 70mm film footage, same globe-trotting footage and same blissful lack of narration.
While I've seen Baraka so many times that it's become like the wallpaper of my skull, it exists in a pre-review time, before I was ever presumptuous enough to start thinking critically about films, about film as a medium, and, even worse, before I had the gall to start writing about them.
Samsara supplies me with a curious opportunity: How do you write about something that has no (obvious) narrative or story, which isn't really documenting anything other than how awesome-looking some bits of the world are, and which it's almost impossible to describe beyond saying stuff like "And then there's a shot of the Pope's arse, and then there's a narwhal, then there's a glacier, then there's a guy picking his nose at Roppongi Station, then there's a massive sand dune and then" which I could do for thousands of words and still get no closer to capturing its point or essence?
Well, the first thing I can comment on is that even with the lack of a clear narrative, without some voice telling us what to think, there are obviously decisions that have happened, thoughts thunk and put into action and themes put into play by both what was filmed, and how it was edited together. We, being humans, at least most of us, can see something random, something with elements that are not connected, and our minds seek to connect the dots.
We draw comfort from there being a meaning, from there being a connection. I know, schizophrenics do it all the time and it's horrible, because they can somehow connect a curious mark on the side of an apple with a cloud in the sky and a word spoken by a character in a movie, and it all points to how a taxi driver is trying to kill their hamster. Being able to imagine a connection, or hallucinating connections, doesn't mean those connections are valid.
Wow, long prelude. What I'm getting at is that I see connections between the elements here, and they're not that hard to figure out, but it's all up to the individual, I guess, because it's going to mean different stuff to different people. You also assume a lot of stuff too, because no-one's going to tell us what to think, at least, not during the film. We either decide it's a random mess illuminating what a sporadic and bizarre planet we live on, or it's a summation, an agglomeration of sights and sounds that shows how everything in the world is inextricably linked in the repeating cycle of death and rebirth, which the film takes its title from.
In case I haven't belaboured the point enough: the visuals are stunning, thoroughly stunning, because they're filmed in 70mm, which is the Cadillac of film formats, and because Ron Fricke spent years getting all the shots he wanted.
These days, though, we have no shortage of beautiful images to delight our eyeballs with. With digital projection, Blu-Rays and HD TVs, everything looks stunning and breathtaking, even utter crap. You've never experienced how pointless it is that technology has advanced solely to make terrible stuff still dazzle us til you've watched one of the Alvin and the Chipmunk movies in all of their eye-tormenting glory.
Also, with Terrence Malik still making the movies he's always been making, we have plenty of films with stunning and sometimes disturbing imagery coupled with nonsensical, obtuse and unhelpful voiceovers.
So what does Samsara bring to the table for us? Well, a lot of stunning imagery filmed in a majestic way, with powerful, overwhelming music, and a way of looking at the world that is seriously humanistic but also incredibly Olympian, from a god-like remove and a great height. And there's also, perhaps, an intention to remind us of how transient our own lives are in the face of, uh, the infinite?
Beginnings and endings... at the start, there are these exquisite Balinese dancers, going through their cosmic dance, looking freaky, childlike and alien. There are another set of Thai dancers at the very end, dancing a strange dance which makes it look like the lead dancer has more arms than the many arms of Vishnu. Between those artificial bookends (artificial because I picked them) there are these strange themes about humanity and the absence of humanity. What nature photography there is, is mostly devoid of humans, with the curves and peaks of the natural world contrasting later on with cathedrals and mosques, with 'artificial' centres of worship.
The admixture occurs when ancient places are shown to us, in the deserts that seem like they're straight out of the Shelley poem Ozymandias, where the great works of some ancient civilisation lie crumbling in the dust. We have images from Cappadocia, the dwellings of the extinct Anasazi, but then a house, a more recent house into which encroaches the desert sand, in some places as high as the ceiling. We assume, with other imagery of sand dunes taller than skyscrapers, that the sand eventually wins.
But then, we get the images from what I can only assume is New Orleans, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, of a child's bedroom, looking like Time has decided we, as a species, have had long enough.
Is that what the flick's actually saying? I have no idea, and I don't want to pollute my experience with some kind of intelligent explanation, possibly from the director, possibly in the form of a commentary. It would be so deflating, for actual knowledge to intrude upon this process and into my brain.
What I described could be what the images are saying, or it could be saying something completely different, and that's one of the beauties of such a film. Even more than usual, audience members are free to project their own meaning onto all these images and derive their own understanding.
As long as they can stay awake, of course.
There are sections somewhat more sopoforic than others, but then the 'story' transitions to a more energetic set of imagery and music, perhaps waking the older members of the audience so that they say out loud "I wasn't sleeping, I was just resting my eyes."
There are some moments where I wonder whether the point was to remind us that we are becoming, through technology, through consumerism, post-human. Images of humans are juxtaposed with human-like robots, disturbingly life-like. And, more disturbingly, images of anatomically-correct and eerily realistic sex dolls are juxtaposed with Thai bar girls writhing for the camera's entertainment.
It's natural that we might be slightly horrified by this, but there's even more disturbing stuff available. There's the image of long dead but preserved people, a mummified child under glass who looks either asleep or like a human turned into a doll by black magic, and a chap being buried in a gun-shaped coffin, apparently with his family's approval.
That was probably the sequence I found the strangest, including the other custom coffins. This stuff can never bring comfort to the dead, so why's it done? Speaking of those who receive no comfort in death, there are long sequences dedicated not only to factory work, but the mass production of animals for food consumption probably trumps even the images of the dead. Pigs and chickens being annihilated and sectioned into neat packages, humans doing it at a hellish rate, machines designed for those annihilations operated by people dressed up like robots.
Watching that sequence made a vegetarian out of me, at least for a day.
I don't know if it means what I think it all means, the thing is, it probably doesn't matter. How it all interweaves is probably banal, but it's probably profound as well, but I'm the one that gives it its profundity. Compare it all with the depictions of Muslim pilgrims travelling to Mecca for the annual hajj, with millions of people in one place, for one purpose, and then it's even more potentially obscure in what it all really means. Are we truly individuals, are we really no better or more special than the ants, massed in our conformity for both great and terrible purpose? Does our humanity derive from the divine (whatever that means) or from our collective actions?
Writing about it all now makes it seem like it's a philosophical exercise, like it's dense and weighty, and really, it's nothing of the sort. It's what it is, and I implore people who like watching this kind of stuff (like stoners, and pretentious gits like me) to watch it. Anyone who loved Baraka would love this too, anyone who hates Baraka and hates the wet humanism of flicks like this and Koyaanisqatsi, Powaaqatsi and Naqoyqatsi (many of the same people are involved) is, of course, going to hate it.
And that's it. The dance continues whether we want it to or not, with us or without us. It's a sobering realisation I didn't really need, thankyou very much.
8 it's a sad and beautiful world out of 10
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away - Ozymandias - Percy Bysshe Shelley