Wednesday, November 28, 2012
Shiny and New: Samsara
If the essence of cinema is visual storytelling, Samsara is the purest cinema experience of the year. Directed by Ron Fricke, it's a documentary without narration, dialogue or central characters — offering instead vivid image after vivid image, and just enough of a score to fill the void around them. Over the course of the 102-minute film, we see the majestic ruins of Petra, the towering skyline of Shanghai, the temples of Myanmar and so much more — beautiful, startling and devastating sights from 25 countries, captured over a five year period. Many of the images, particularly the timelapses of the night sky or the white and red ribbons of rush-hour traffic, are big-picture versions of what can already be found on Vimeo, often captured by relative amateurs in stunning resolution. But Samsara is more than just a marriage of top-notch technology (filmed in 70mm) and technique. There is an artistic voice here, too, in the unmistakable social/environmental commentary that takes shape over several portions of the documentary, and in the film's infectious awe for these pictures.
In 2012, this really has no business working. There was a time when moviegoers went to the theater to see things they never could on their own, but that was another era. The Internet, the limitless potential of CGI, the proliferation of image delivery systems and affordable image capturing systems, the boom of ecotourism and the increased convenience of transportation, it's all led to a world in which almost nothing seems mysterious or out of reach. Even the most remote sites are one finger tap away, and amateur vacation chronicles on YouTube enable us to see exactly what it looks like to visit nearly any site on the planet — and, hell, even destinations in space — without needing to get off the couch. So none of this should impress anymore (we've seen it all), and yet it does, because the epic nature of the exercise and exquisite cinematography make even the most familiar landmarks, like our own Monument Valley, seem exotic. In a nod to Madonna's "Like a Virgin," care of Quentin Tarantino's monologue in Reservoir Dogs, Samsara can make even the most world-wise moviegoer feel touched for the very first time.
Watching this movie, falling under its spell, reminded me of my childhood routine of spreading out on the floor to flip through issues of National Geographic, staring long and hard at images that, as the months went by, I'd gazed into several times before but never ceased to find compelling. Calling Samsara a movie version of National Geographic could be used as an insult, I suppose, but I don't mean it that way. What the celebrated stills from that magazine have in common with the images of this documentary is a heightened realism — rich colors, dramatic contrasts, framing and depth. This, to borrow a phrase from Werner Herzog — no stranger to dramatic images himself — is "ecstatic truth." And in an era in which Hollywood keeps trying to outdo itself in its CGI depictions of heightened reality, there's something special about being reminded just how breathtaking the world can be all on its own, whether we're looking at a sand painting, a waterfall, destruction from hurricane flooding or, in one of the most fantastic shots of the year, a white sea of Muslim worshipers participating in the Hajj, swarming and circling the Black Stone. Here, authenticity and awe are intertwined.
At times, Samsara is like an extended version of the creation sequence in The Tree of Life (like Terrence Malick, Fricke hasn't lost his wonder for the world), not just in terms of its spirit and cinematography but also because it chronicles the resilience and evolution of life. To see those simple holes carved into mountainsides is to marvel anew that man created those dwellings by hand, and survived that way for so long. It's a testament to what we're capable of. But what do we do with that capability now? Much of the second half of the movie observes man-made creations of mass production. Images of newly manufactured bullets and guns are chilling reminders of the never-ending strength of the death industry. Images of chickens and cattle being moved through enormous assembly lines challenge any wholesome notions we have about the food we eat. And then there are shots of the factory workers: stuffing chickens in crates all day, assembling guns all day, bagging home appliances all day, and so on. These are gruesome, awful jobs that look like prison sentences, not occupations, which seems increasingly unjust when we watch the YouTube-celebrity prisoners of Cebu Province Detention and Rehabilitation Center in the Philippines performing one of their elaborate dance sequences and having a much better time behind bars, at least in that moment.
Many will find such social commentary too heavy handed. In one instance, we see the end result of those food assembly lines: a family of overweight Americans shoveling fast-food into their mouths. Admittedly, that image seems out of step with the rest of the film at first. But maybe it isn't. Armed with so much potential, American society is choosing to fatten up like the livestock that make up our meals. Like it or not, this is who we are, as much as the face paint and weaponry of the Mursi village in Ethiopia is who they are. And if we don't find the portrait nearly as romantic, we have only ourselves to blame. Samsara reconnects us to the world, in all its glory, monotony and tragedy. Who could ask for more?