Samsara Review

Shot over five years in twenty-five countries, Ron Fricke’s epic documentary essay reaches British screens.

In 1982 Koyaanisqatsi was released. A pioneering documentary-essay, setting images of nature and cities (no narration or any spoken words, just Philip Glass’s score), it was a film intended to demonstrate a thesis of “life out of balance”, which is the translation of the Hopi Indian word of the title. Whether you agreed with its intentions – or if you thought it was simply New Agey idealism writ very large – it was undeniably a stunning-looking film, its imagery being hugely influential on later films and a good few promo videos and commercials. Much of the credit for this has to go to the collaborative eye of director Godfrey Reggio and cinematographer Ron Fricke. However, the two men went their separate ways. Reggio and Glass completed their trilogy with Powaqqatsi and the much-delayed Naqoyqatsi. Fricke struck out on his own, exploring much the same themes but utilising large-format cinema technology. The short films Chronos and Sacred Site were shot and exhibited in IMAX. Working with producer/co-devisor/co-editor Mark Magidson, he made a feature, Baraka, shot in 65mm film and shown in 70mm.

Now we have Samsara, again shot in 65mm (but see below). These films have an old-school epic grandiosity to them: not just the use of the large-format film, but the scale of production. Samsara is no different: Fricke and Magidson filmed in (count them) twenty-five countries over a period of five years. The title refers to the Buddhist concept of the cycles of life, and juxtaposes images of natural beauty and images of decay and destruction. As there is no narration, just a music score by Michael Stearns, interpretation of these images is left largely to the viewer. Sometimes the links are obscure, sometimes they are less than subtle: for example, a sequence showing a family (father, daughter, son) posing with guns, to scenes of bullets being manufactured to a military cemetery with a veteran disfigured (just one ear, no hair, half his face scar tissue) by combat. Although western life comes in for much criticism, and Eastern life could be seen to be idealised (some beautiful shots of Balinese dancers, Buddhist monks making an incredibly elaborate sand mandala), the East doesn’t get let off the hook. We see a group of Thai ladyboys, a Chinese meat plant, the manufacture of sex dolls, and some truly disturbing shots of factory farming. Other sequences are more puzzling, for example a sequence when a man in a suit plasters his face with clown make-up.

While Samsara undoubtedly looks stunning – Fricke’s eye for an image is as acute as ever – it would be unkind, but not too far from the truth, to describe this as the cinematic equivalent of those big glossy books that exist to be displayed on coffee tables. Too much of this seems over-familiar, a case of Fricke and Madgison banging the same drum a few times too often. Thirty years after Koyaanisqatsi, can Fricke only seem to shoot world cities in time-lapse? As with the earlier film, I’m not sure if this technique doesn’t serve to subtly undermine his message: meant to convey a “crazy life” (another translation of that Hopi title), a life out of balance, it also conveys a sense of great energy and vitality.

As the end credits tell you, Samsara was shot on 65mm film stock and scanned at 8K resolution. However, unlike Baraka, it isn’t being released in 70mm but in 4K digital prints. While 4K digital is all very well, it’s equivalent at best to 35mm, and if you have seen a 65mm-shot film projected in 70mm (as I saw Baraka in London, back in 1992) you will notice the difference. While Samsara undoubtedly looks gorgeous, I would argue it would look even more so in a 70mm film print. This is undoubtedly a commercial decision: film prints are expensive, 70mm ones especially so, and the number of venues that can project them is decreasing year by year. (The last film release in London in 70mm was the reissue of 2001 in that year. However, at the time of writing it would seem that Paul Thomas Anderson’s 65mm-shot The Master, out in the UK in November, is being released with 70mm prints.) But that’s a discussion for another time. There are more than enough reasons to see Samsara on a big screen, and 4K resolution isn’t something you can get at home, not yet anyway.


Updated: Sep 10, 2012

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