If you’ve ever wondered what BBC’s Planet Earth would look like with humans and buildings, Samsara is the closest thing. The film creates a brand of geographic Dadaism that documents hundreds of locations (25 countries total), ethnic groups and commodities, taking equal focus at the mundane and the phenomenal. The Vatican, the Pyramids, Mecca, Hagia Sophia are flanked by tattoos, sex dolls, embalmed corpses, strippers, prison choreographers and junkyards.
The choice of juxtaposition is the most noticeable communication of message (Hurricane Katrina decay cuts to Versailles in ironic collocate), but, otherwise, the film’s purpose is as clouded as the volcanic ash mantles that open and close the film. I’m unclear of what to tell you as a reviewer: A movie with no characters, narrative, dialogue or consistent setting leaves little for analysis. But what does it present for the viewer? I can answer that by saying, despite the common narrative elements the film shuns, I do not regret the 99 minutes I spent watching it. It is beautiful and entertains by maintaining that beauty for its duration.
The film’s splendor is afforded by its 70mm photography (Samsara did it before The Master, but I can see both contending for a Cinematography Oscar) and audio, which includes a score by Marcello De Francisci, the roars of clashing natural forces and a few tracks from Alberto Iglesias’ The Constant Gardener soundtrack. But beneath the score and cinematography, the real power derives from this collage’s sense of cosmic infinity. From the blank stares of the gun-strapped American family to the Geisha suffocated in paint, the film’s arresting focus brings the humans out from beneath their retinas, embarrassed at their clothing and background tapestries, their buried nature horribly unadjusted to their nurture in a plastic civilization. This illustration of the unity in diversity is one of the threading paradoxes of the film, which director Ron Fricke named after the Sanskrit term for “cyclical existence.”
This emphasis on cycles is maybe one of the few themes that organizes this random pastiche of visuals. The film begins and ends with the same shots and phenomena that emphasize rebirth (i.e. volcanoes) and traditions of regeneration (i.e. Tibetan salt drawings which are destroyed and mixed after completion). All suggest the all-conquering washing away of nature.
Even though the film is random and unique, it certainly bears influences. When Fricke catalogues tribal Africans with painful ear gauges before cutting to Los Angeles citizens pummeling on bike treadmills, he highlights the universality of humanity in light of cultural dissimilarities. Fricke is almost making a 2012 Leaves of Grass, studying the universality of the world, not America, as in Whitman’s case. Whitman places prostitutes and presidents in dialogue, whereas Fricke situates members of different religions face-to-face. All are different lights in an equalizing material constellation.
Fricke cited his childhood viewing of 2001: A Space Odyssey as a life-changing experience and the film quite obviously shadows Kubrick's style. The score’s thundering bravado has the same elan as Richard Strauss’ “Also Sprach Tharathustra” in 2001. Further, the famous jump-cut from the ape using a bone as a weapon to the floating spacecraft is reenacted at multiple points throughout. Kubrick juxtaposed the change in different time periods. Here, Fricke juxtaposes the differences in geographic locations. Instead of barbarism to civilization, Fricke cuts from life (i.e. dancing children) to death (i.e. embalmed corpses). On Tuesday, photographer Robert Gaskins visited Cornell and called such images (in such order) “decay porn.” Fricke contrasts the flotsam leftover from Hurricane Katrina with shots of rich, ostentatious French cathedrals and Versailles. Our civilization treats these places with unequal value, but Fricke’s camera does not.
This zigzagging between opposing subjects creates a gorgeous dizzying effect on the eyes, and some critics have censured this film, considering it aesthetic beauty without meaningful subtext. I kind of enjoyed not being inundated with a message. Fricke only hints at stances on global warming, economic imperialism and third/first-world inequality.
He doesn’t ask very much with a prejudiced perspective and instead lets the viewer passively absorb this film and the world’s majesty. After all, Samsara and the cycles of the earth are inevitable, and underneath their powers, we are merely passive and left to observe in awe.
Samsara screens this weekend at Cornell Cinema.