Wednesday, September 26, 2012

JIMBO GOES TO THE MOVIES: "Samsara" Review

Arguably the most beautiful movie ever filmed?


Samsara (2011)
Director: Ron Fricke

Way back in 1992, this guy named Ron Fricke directed a movie called “Baraka,” and it was awesome (despite, unfortunately, having nothing to do with the “Mortal Kombat” character of the same name.) Roger Ebert hailed it as the “most beautiful” movie he’d ever seen, and after checking it out for myself, it’s a notion that’s pretty hard to argue against.

Admittedly, I’m a sucker for non-narrative features. Anybody can string together a couple of images and imbue them with literary worth via dialogue, but what about the expertise it takes to tell a grand thematic WITHOUT a structured, decipherable plotline or symbolic cues in the form of language? A lot of people have tried, and pretty much most of them all falter. Taking on a project so challenging requires the hand of someone extremely sure about what he or she wants to do with the cinematic art form…and when it comes to non-narrative, non-language features, I really don’t think there’s anybody on this planet that does it better than Mr. Fricke.

“Samsara” is the film it took Fricke 20 years to make. Technically, it only took him four years to assemble all of the footage you find in his latest flick, but you can just tell that the stuff you see in this movie had to have been marinating in his mind for the last two decades, at least. Alike “Baraka,” “Samsara” is a beautiful, visually captivating motion picture that you experience more than you watch…and being able to see it, in full, digital 70mm film makes me feel like an extraordinarily lucky individual.

There’s no real “storyline” in “Samsara,” and the only message you’ll find is the one you string together yourself. Granted, one may be able to piece together some sort of greater statement within the film by examining the juxtaposition of images in the movie, but at the end of the day, Fricke’s latest film is precisely what you make out of it…and in that, there’s no way any two people will have the exact same explanation of the film’s ambitions and intent.

The film begins with a bunch of Indian kids doing this wide-eyed interpretive dance, before transitioning to a shot of Buddhist monks working on a gorgeous sand painting. The camera zooms in up close, as we can see every painted granule of sand tumbling out of their makeshift tools. And from there, we transition to massive panorama of sand dunes - an oceanic wave, really - rippling across the desert. That’s our cue to check out an exploding volcano in Hawaii, which quickly cuts into footage of mummified remains and pristine, European churches.

It’s pretty pointless to do a scene-by-scene recap of the movie, so I’ll just touch upon a few segments from the film that I thought were particularly outstanding:

- There’s an absolutely amazing montage that begins with a young African man being buried in a coffin shaped like a handgun. The film then cuts to a firearms factory, where the frames of the weapons are cast and assembled. This segues into images of artillery shills being dropped into boxes and other manufacturing containers, which then transitions to a shot of an American family - a dad and his two children - holding miscellaneous guns. The “sequence” concludes with footage from a national cemetery, where a severely burned veteran gazes into the camera. More footage of sparkling and twinkling bullets follows, which neatly transitions to a brief scene displaying military marching procedures from across the globe.

- There’s a really fascinating sequence that shows a bunch of Chinese workers filing into their manufacturing plant - all wearing matching regalia - as the assembly line workers begin piecing together parts of an iron…an object which will no doubt find itself in the home of some American oblivious to where all of that stuff he or she owns “comes” from. This leads to a really great sequence in which chickens are harvested in this massive combine (think, a lawnmower, if it were made by the tribe of Australian dog-people in “Beyond Thunderdome”) which leads to a scene where we see pigs suckling on these bloated hogs, which are then seen halved on meat hooks and being processed through another assembly line, somewhere on the east coast of China. From there, we see footage of overweight Americans dining at Burger King, which is capped by footage of a morbidly obese man being marked up for a liposuction procedure.

- A majority of the footage of America centered around time lapse footage of motorists passing through what appears to be the Los Angeles area. The entire nighttime cityscape - with its blinking, glistening features - resembles the motherboard of a computer, and perhaps not coincidentally, one of the next images we see are a bunch of poor, third-world workers rummaging through the plastic hulls of discarded, CRT monitors on a mountainous junk heap.

- The juxtaposition between the “Western World” and the “Third World” is handled excellently, as we see images of sulfur mine workers (one of whom has discolored and scarred shoulders) and Asian seaboard dwellers living atop what is, essentially, manmade islands of garbage. This is merged with footage of what appears to be telecommunication workers, all bored out of their skulls, typing away on their laptops.

- Although the film is mostly a straight-up photojournalistic essay, that’s not to say that it doesn’t have some truly excellent WTF moments in it - such as the scene in which a lugubrious “suit” begins caking his face in mud and straw and starts stabbing himself in the mouth with an ink pen (trust me, it makes more sense in motion than it does as a written description) and ESPECIALLY this one sequence where prisoners at some southeast Asian prison partake of this incredible, thousand-man dance that’s better choreographed than most Black Eyed Peas videos.

- Five story golf courses in Japan, and indoor skiing slopes in California are contrasted with images of the Grand Canyon and the African hillside. The message there, I guess, is that we’re totally oblivious to the irony that we’re destroying nature in order to better replicate nature itself. And just wait until you see all of the apartment buildings - all glutted with satellite dishes - standing in front of the pyramids of Egypt.

- This movie contains some of the most beautiful destruction you will ever see on film. Yes, the time lapse footage of cars and boats getting smashed will bring out your inner Beavis, but the way the camera is able to capture a sense of “beauty” from people picking rubbish out of massive garbage heaps is just utterly amazing. The movie also contains footage of devastated housing in the wake of Hurricane Katrina - as weird as it is to imagine, there’s something hauntingly peaceful and pretty about seeing the mud-caked churches and completely devastated Dollar Tree buildings, as if nature and human nature have once again reconnected - albeit, on less than harmonious terms.

- After watching this movie, I REALLY want to visit Dubai in person. There’s some time lapse footage of the Burj Khalifa being constructed, which is partnered with footage of housing being built upon the sandy, tentacle like beach real estate that was literally terra-formed around the building. It’s amazing to see what humans can do when the have all of the money in the world, and absolutely no ambitions of doing anything truly fruitful with it.

- There’s a really detailed sequence examining some extremely creepy Japanese “robots,” which is linked up with images from a factory that produces blow-up dolls. This is then teamed with footage from a tranny strip club somewhere in Asia, where the bulging wing-wongs of Thai lady boys beat against neon pink bikinis…in crystal-clear, digital quality, no less!

- The juxtaposition of Judeo-Christian imagery with Muslim imagery in the film is utterly fascinating. All of the Christian images are scenes of empty, European cathedrals, while a majority of the Islamic imagery is vibrant, colorful and extremely vivid. We see the “wall” that separates the Jews from Muslims in Jerusalem, which is capped off by an absolutely riveting, time-lapse scene in which thousands upon thousands of travelers revolve around the Kaaba at the Masjid al-Harim.

And while there isn’t as much as a single spoken word in the entire film, you can just sense that the movie is touching upon a multitude of issues facing 21st century humanity. Pollution, technology, consumption, religion and even the philosophical question of what is human - clearly, the makers of the film are saying something about all of these issues within “Samsara,” but it’s up to us - as individual viewers - to make heads or tails of what that central message really is.

If you’re wondering if there is a truly central message behind the film, perhaps the title is our biggest indicator of what that statement may or may not be. “Samsara” is a Sanskrit word meaning, loosely, “continuous flow,” which in a number of Asian religions, symbolizes the never-ending cycle of birth, life, death and renewal. The concluding image of the film is a throwback to the Buddhist monks from earlier, who, upon completing their “wheel of life” painting, sweep it off the floor and empty it into a bowl of swirled, multi-colored sand. And what’s the absolute final image  of the film before the credits roll?

A lengthy shot of that oceanic sand mass, sweeping endlessly across the planet. I suppose it’s up to you to determine whether that spells out “life” or “death” in this, our modern era of humans, being

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