Planetary poetry, woven into a movie

Planetary poetry, woven into a movie

Portrait of the globe

With exotic imagery fit for the cover of National Geographic, the new film Samsara ranges across the globe: there are fantastical tiered temples in verdant Myanmar and glorious Japanese mohawks, the natural wonders of Namibian sand dunes and orderly production lines of modern agribusiness in China and Europe.

The locations are unnamed, and a rich, varied score is heard instead of political or social commentary. One striking image flows into the next, loosely organised according to the cyclical Hindu notion of birth and destruction that gives the film its Sanskrit title.

And that is just as Ron Fricke, responsible for the critically praised cinematography on his own Baraka (1992) and the earlier Koyaanisqatsi (1982), prefers it.
“When images go together, they want to start telling you a linear story,” Fricke, who directed and shot Samsara, said by phone, “That’s not what you want to do. If it makes too much sense, then you’re back into making a documentary.”

But in an era when the Internet and television overflow with eye-popping imagery from around the world, Samsara raises the question whether there is room anymore for the kind of global symphony for which Baraka and Koyaanisqatsi were celebrated. Indeed, Samsara is a twofold throwback. For one, it is shot in grand, rarely used 70 millimetre, a medium invented for delectation in cinemas. This comes at a time when the most popular recent panoramic project, BBC’s Planet Earth, from which Fricke garnered ideas for locations, was unabashedly a small-screen project.

In its mission, too, there is something old-fashioned about Samsara. Though touched with a certain spiritual mindfulness, the film is not intended to send a message. That’s a departure from similarly expansive, globally conscious nonfiction films in vogue now, like the critically acclaimed work of Michael Glawogger (Workingman’s Death, which depicts the same sulphur mines as Samsara) and Nikolaus Geyrhalter (Abendland) that also serve as probing sociological critique.

And though Fricke views the ambitious chronicles of Samsara as beyond documentary, audiences may approach that global tour with expectations moulded by the flood of recent films that present earth and its diversity as something in need of saving, not just gazing.

The perspective of Samsara could instead be called cosmic, and its goals primarily aesthetic. “Our film is more about feelings and an inner journey than an intellectual experience,” Mark Magidson, who produced and co-edited the film and also worked on Baraka, said from Los Angeles. “We’re not trying to say anything.”

As a visual artist, Fricke said, he was influenced by a cinematic tradition of spectacle, sometimes wordless. “I grew up on David Lean films and Fellini films,” he said. “And the end of 2001 was a life-changing moment. It was all nonverbal.”

The more immediate lineage for Samsara can be traced to the trilogy that began with Koyaanisqatsi, followed by Powaqqatsi and Naqoyqatsi. These energetic portraits of modernity were directed by Godfrey Reggio, but they relied on the visual standards set by Fricke in the first installment and propulsive scores by Philip Glass for their full splendour.

Reggio spoke of Koyaanisqatsi in terms of sensation, as a kind of apotheosis of second-unit photography. “The point of the view was to see that which is hidden in plain sight,” Reggio said by phone from his Brooklyn, office. “That which by virtue of its ordinariness is not seen, by virtue of how present it is, is unseeable, and that’s ordinary daily living.”

Human hyperactivity, a familiar feature of such global symphonies, makes its sped-up appearance in Samsara in shots of crowds in Japanese subways and Americans at exercise machines. But these do not press a polemical point, even alongside the aftermath of floods in New Orleans and an Iraq war veteran in uniform, his face scarred from burns. Fricke said the veteran sequence was “about rebirth.”

By contrast, Geyrhalter shows an array of occupations and activities across an ultramodern Europe in Abendland: police officers in training, actors in pornographic productions, revellers in a warehouse-sized beer hall. The HD imagery is relentless, a vision of fearsome order. Likewise, his earlier film Our Daily Bread covered factory practices similar to those in Samsara.

In an e-mail from Austria, Geyrhalter said his work belonged in a broader category in film history. “It could be seen as part of a much longer tradition, dating back to the very beginning of cinema, when the main goal was to capture images and make them accessible to an audience,” wrote Geyrhalter, who happily shoots his own work for television, adding that films that patiently record panoramas have a way of remaining timeless.

The question of the endurance of Samsara as a visual record was a concern for Fricke and Magidson. Before filming began, in 2007, they considered but decided against lighter, more portable digital cameras because of the rapid pace of changing digital standards. Besides, in their view 70 millimetre is the highest quality way to capture images.

“It was important to bring the material back in a format that was going to stand the test of time,” Magidson said, even as he noted the toil involved in lugging the 70-millimetre camera around the world. He added later, “I didn’t want to go to 25 countries and come back with something” that would soon be outdated.

Though the world they depict is in flux and sometimes in turmoil, it is presented in an unbroken, immersive string of pictures intended to transport, in all senses of the word. “We’re just trying to keep it flowing,” Fricke said, “so you don’t pop out f the flow when you watch.”