Review by Ken Burke
The worldwide visual imagery is astounding but the indictments of the failures for our species and our planet are all to familiar while the subtle imploring to turn to spirituality for salvation feels a bit too little, too late, but it’s all heartfelt documentary.
If a tangible object can define the concept of a labor of love, certainly Samsara would seem to be the manifestation of that idea. Directed, shot, co-written, and co-edited by Ron Fricke, along with producer, co-writer, and co-editor Mark Magidson, this film took 5 years to come to fruition, constructed with its spectacular 70mm footage from 25 countries. In that some of its images were clearly staged for the camera—mostly the portraiture of various global representatives quietly displaying their faces, tattoos, ceremonial body paint, etc. but 1 clearly staged performance where a seeming businessman covers himself in paint in an office setting—it may not be considered by some to be a pure documentary. (Although if you trace the concept of the feature doc back to Robert Flaherty’s 1922 Nanook of the North you’ll find that he staged most of what you see, not so much to create a false reality of the lives of the Inuit people of the Arctic Circle area [with what there is left of it a century later you may have to see this old film to full appreciate another of the Earth's losses] but to recreate events that he couldn’t just wait around and reshoot several times in order to get a useable rendition of a seal hunt, etc.) Further, there’s clearly a softly-delivered plea for a turn to spiritual guidance to rescue us from the increasing devastation we’re doing to our planet and our lives which some might consider to be improper propagandizing in what they assume to be a factual account of a topic (but there again, that’s not understanding the true nature of documentary—and further implies a total unawareness of doc polemics, whether from the left such as in Michael Moore’s 2004 anti-Bush Fahrenheit 9/11 or the right such as the current anti-incumbent diatribe, Gerald R. Molen and Dinesh D’Souza‘s 2016: Obama’s America, both of which press their cases in ways unlikely to convince those not already in the choir [such as me on the left if that's not clear enough already], but docs have been doing this even since Flaherty’s original intention of convincing the “civilized” that their far-flung ethnic cousins also lead admirable lives), although even if you don’t attribute Arctic ice meltdown to global warming you’d be hard pressed when watching Samsara to not acknowledge the presented horror of the huge piles of discards that demonstrate our obsessive quest for objects and the resulting useless disposal of such (along with the tragic reality of impoverished people scavenging through these mountains of muck, looking for useful trash or maybe even consumable food) and the soul-searing visions of hundreds of factory workers pumping out countless new devices for the more affluent among us to consume, then dispose of. If the title simply refers to the Hindu/Buddhist concept of the “ever-turning wheel of life” with its related grandeur and tragedy, the images from Fricke and Magidson achieve their purpose to “document” the wondrous planet we share with billions of other humans (and trillions of other life forms) and the sorrow that comes from nature’s periodic cleansing of our long-occupied home along with the suffering we bring upon ourselves with our passion for unsustainable growth and overconsumption of resources.
This is a film that literally speaks for itself as it uses no graphics or narration to explain anything, it just presents what the filmmakers have carefully collected and chosen to show you, so you’ll have to decide for yourselves if you think that the implied argument to turn to a higher power for help in these troubled times is comforting, convincing, corny, offensive, or indecipherable. There’s no doubt that you’ll be impressed by the majestic imagery of volcanoes, deserts, cathedrals, sculptures, etc., whether delivered via straight photography or time-lapse/pixilated variations just as you’ll be depressed by images of slums, sulfur pits, and animals in assembly-line slaughterhouses, even possibly amused/bemused by other assembly lines of sex dolls, the huge indoor ski slope in desert-bound Dubai, and the weird collection of coffins shaped like fish, airplanes, and pistols. Maybe you’ll feel the irony of cramped multi-story dwellings in the shadow of Egypt’s ancient Great Pyramids or maybe you’ll find spiritual inspiration from the vast Muslim Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, Jews praying at Jerusalem’s ancient Wailing Wall, the vast spaces of the huge Christian St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City within Rome, or the intensely-focused construction of a colorful sand mandala by Buddhist monks, a stunning creation that is intentionally destroyed upon its completion leaving just the mundane sand, echoing the final shot of lofty dunes in a vast, empty desert (likely the Sahara or the Gobi, based on its immensity). Conversely, you might feel either that you’ve seen many things like this before (dating back at least to Godfrey Reggio’s 1982 Koyaanisqatsi with its many pixilated images of rushing chaos in the modern world, illustrating the title taken from the Hopi language for “life out of balance”) and still don’t see nearly enough human desire outside of the movie house to reverse these lethal choices we keep making or you’ll wonder just how these allusions to spiritual redemption are going to finally connect after misfiring for so many centuries. (Just as in another “ancient” classic, D. W. Griffith’s 1916 Intolerance where humanity’s self-inflicted crimes through the ages are suddenly redeemed in a “lions-laying-down-with-the-lambs” final sequence of heavenly redemption that seems unmotivated by any events of the film except the last-minute rescue of The Boy, about to be hanged for a murder he didn’t commit, by the guilt-ridden testimony of The Friendless One, a woman spurned by her lover, looking for revenge—but if that’s all it takes to bring about world salvation, maybe we can get Robert Miller [Richard Gere] to cop to his misconduct in Nicholas Jarecki’s Arbitrage [full review next week] and the Pearly Gates will swing open for our misbegotten, just as they did in Griffith’s magnum opus almost a century ago.)
“These are the days of miracle and wonder, And don’t cry baby, don’t cry, Don’t cry,” sings Paul Simon in “The Boy in the Bubble” from his likely magnum opus, 1986’s Graceland. Simon wisely never tells us why we shouldn’t cry in these times when the “dry wind … swept across the desert, And it curled into the circle of birth, And the dead sand, Falling on children, The mothers and the fathers, And the automatic earth,” but with their larger medium than a single song are we satisfied that Fricke and Magidson don’t tell us anything beyond what we see for ourselves in Samsara? The images are stunning to look at, but the silent response to “What next?” like the hushed winds blowing across the desert at the end of this film just tell us that despite the “Journey” so far (for those who get the pun—but don’t ever think I’m comparing this merely OK band to the artistry of Paul Simon), “The wheel in the sky keeps on turnin’, I don’t know where I’ll be tomorrow.” Fricke and Magidson don’t know either, nor should we expect them to, but that final ambiguity may present you with more questions than you’d prefer when the wheel of Samsara leaves you alone in the dark during the final credits. I’ll just leave you with a couple more images from this visual, if not completely conceptual, masterpiece because it demands to be seen, in large format if possible, if you really want to be able to talk about it.
The reality for many of you, though, may be that there’ll be no hope of even finding Samsara (or avoiding its meaning in the real world) to see until it’s available on video, so just be patient and then take a look for yourself, preferably on as big a screen as you can find. Just in passing, another film that takes on the subject of the impending failures of human civilization that may be even harder to find than Samsara is Jamie Bradshaw and Aleksandr Dulerayn’s Branded (with its quasi-documentary feel using narration and story-update interludes to impart its surrealistic tone), which is seemingly playing in so few theatres that even the reviewers can’t find it to trash it. (Rotten Tomatoes gives it 13% based on only 8 reviews, Metacritic says 20% based on 6, and Movie Intelligence shoots all the way up to 39% but based on just 5; box-office returns indicate lack of exposure [or audience interest] as well with only about $240,000 returned through last weekend [Samsara’s doing somewhat better with almost $483,000], which is really pathetic for Branded given that something as strange and obscure as Benh Zeitlin’s bayou-apocalypse tale Beasts of the Southern Wild is still playing after two months, taking in a bit over $10 million [see my review of this one if you like in the July 18, 2012 posting], so you know that Branded is about as obscure as a mainstream release ever gets.) In this strange allegory, set and shot in Russia, the boy Misha Galkin (played as a young adult by Ed Stoppard) is hit by lighting in Moscow in the early ‘80s, but when we shift to present day he’s a fierce capitalist on a lightning level of accomplishment as a marketing genius who helps the fast-food industry giants regain their fortunes after a period of health-consciousness-driven corporate losses by making “fat beautiful”; however, when Misha’s mentor, Bob Gibbons (Jeffrey Tambor), breaks up the romance between his daughter, Abby (Leelee Sobieski, who looks to me like she has to be Helen Hunt’s daughter but isn’t), and Misha the young visionary starts seeing weird demons everywhere growing out of people because of advertising and toxic products’ hold on the public (nice riffs on real stuff with names like The Burger, Yupple, GiantSoft, Soda Soda, and Johnny Vodker, with Max von Sydow of all people as their parent CEOs' marketing consultant), then sets out on a crusade that results in the demolition of major mass consumption products and the ban on all ads in Russia. If Samsara is a subtle meditation on the self-destructive tendencies of the human species then Branded is its blatant opposite in approach (not unlike the overt sociopolitical stance of the original Planet of the Apes [Franklin J. Schaffner, 1968], which I just saw again for the first time in decades at a winery screening [nice combination]), with rank but intriguing combinations of seeming narrative insanity and scathing condemnations of the atrocities of consumer culture. I’m more generous than my critical brethren, offering it 3 ½ stars if this were an actual review, but warning you that if you seek it out later on DVD (or want more info on it now at http://www.brandedmovie.com/
If you’d like to meditate more deeply on Samsara here are some suggested links:
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