by Indy Datta
Ron Fricke was the cinematographer of Godfrey Reggio’s 1982 film Koyaanisqatsi, and also one of its writers and editors. Reggio’s film, which takes as its title a Hopi phrase meaning “life out of balance”, is a non-verbal visual documentary essay about the impact of humanity on the planet (set to 90 minutes of parping Philip Glass). The title provides a clue to interpreting the images, should you need it, but it’s not as if Koyaanisqatsi is big on ambiguity or nuance – every human intervention into the natural world and every aspect of modern industrial society is depicted with the heaviest of hands as destructive and hubristic.
Fricke was not credited on Reggio’s sequels to Koyaanisqatsi , which progressively moved away from the documentary aspects of the first film – 2002’s (unfuckingwatchable) Nagoyqatsi featuring computer graphics as much as documentary footage, and with that documentary footage often heavily treated to play up its abstract qualities. Instead, Fricke has made three films somewhat in the mode of Koyaanisqatsi – the IMAX feature Chronos (1985), Baraka (1992) and now Samsara – which are so similar to each other that they are more like variations on a theme than separate films.
They are also, it seems to me, comfortably more compelling than Koyaanisqatsi, although superficially they appear less sophisticated (travelogue eye candy to Reggio’s installation art). Where Reggio seems to view human civilization with the dyspeptic eye of Agent Smith from The Matrix (“humans are a cancer of this planet…”), Fricke’s view is more humane. Although Baraka and Samsara contain plenty of material in the same vein as Koyaanisqatsi (including, in the case of Baraka, what appears to be a dramatic reconstruction of that Athena poster in which a native American is moved by the sight of ecological destruction to cry a single tear and ask “WHY?”), Fricke makes a central place in his work to explore human responses to the sublimity of the natural world, and to the stresses the industrialised world places on us.
Fricke’s entry point for these explorations is spirituality, but not any particular religion. The films seem to draw as much inspiration and hope from the massed ranks of hajji in Mecca (breathtaking scenes that appear in both Baraka and Samsara) as from the Tibetan Buddhist monks who top and tail Samsara with the creation (and – spoiler alert – destruction) of an intricate multi-coloured sand mandala. Secular or material human comforts are absent from the films, except in commoditised and perverted forms – there is no sex here but prostitution and sex dolls, there is no food here but factory processing of animals juxtaposed with images of fat Yanks guzzling meal deals at Burger King.
Montage, then, is Fricke’s main rhetorical device, and some of his use of it is witty – like the cut from a meat packing factory to a sex doll factory, but it can also feel rather banal (that Athena poster moment from Baraka; in Samsara the cut from gyrating Thai ladyboy go-go dancers to a close up on the traditionally made-up face of a geisha who – yes! – cries a single tear), and where Fricke moves beyond pure documentary montage to include elements of performance (a man in a business suit, sitting behind a desk, smears clay on his face, scrapes it off, smears it back on again) the results are mixed. And the cafeteria approach to spirituality, and the lack of any narrative or glossary text to contextualise or ironise the images mean that, for me at least, the metaphysical undertow of these films comes off as rather vague and flat compared to, say, Malick’s Tree of Life, which displays some evidence of being influenced by Fricke, and even shares the odd shot with Samsara.
(Samsara’s second-string rhetorical device is music, and while deploying the plangent wailing of Lisa Gerrard to denote a deepening of the emotional register was possibly not a Hollywood cliché at the time of Baraka, it really is now. Still: (a) this isn’t really Fricke’s or Gerrard’s fault, as such, and (b) at least it isn’t Philip Glass.)
It should be noted that Samsara’s images themselves are consistently glorious (don’t take my word for it, check out that trailer), using to the full Fricke’s motion-controlled timelapse rigs (pioneered in Baraka), the most technologically advanced 70mm film stock, and the sheer endless wonder, beauty and horror of the world around us. You won’t be able to see the film projected from 70mm film – but a projection on a big screen from a 4K DCP would disappoint only the most ardent celluloidophile. As has already happened with Baraka – the BluRay of Samsara is destined to become a preferred demo disc of home cinema nerds everywhere.
There’s a certain irony in such a spiritual and eco-conscious work being so readily reappropriated as a fetish item of industrial art, but for me the most winning thing, finally, about Samsara is that ironies like this don’t seem destructive to its openness and appetite for beauty. It’s not a mistake, surely, that some of the most beautiful scenes in the film – like the timelapse nightscapes of Los Angeles – are the most shaped by the modern human world?
Samsara is in cinemas from Friday 31 August.