Monday, February 11, 2013

Samsara (2011)

WHO: Ron Fricke has cinematographer & director credit, as well as co-writer & co-editor credit.

WHAT: Fricke began his career as a cinematographer auspiciously. Having only shot 16mm before, he was brought on by Godfrey Reggio to photograph his ambitious nonverbal film Koyaanisqatsi. After the film's acclaimed 1982 release, Fricke left Reggio's crew, filming more non-verbal films Chronos and then Baraka as director. Samsara is his first film release in twenty years; in the meantime he has worked on other people's projects, notably George Lucas's Star Wars Episode III and Gary Leva's Fog City Mavericks.

I didn't have high expectations for Samsara when I first heard Fricke was releasing it. I found Baraka to be easy on the eyes of course, but rather facile in its approach to creating (as I said at the time) "a travelogue for spiritual seekers, or a sermon for the Lonely Planet set". Compared to that of Dziga Vertov or Warren Sonbert or Nathaniel Dorsky, Fricke's and Reggio's work seems outrageously ostentatious. Scott MacDonald has expressed admiration for the both filmmakers, particularly Reggio, but summarizes his limitations very well:
Reggio has been criticized for his naïveté in participating in the very patterns he pretends to abhor: Koyaansqatsi is an anti technology film but it was produced...with the most technologically advanced cinematic means available; Powaqqatsi sings the dignity of the laboring, third world individual but provides no information about the individuals filmed, rendering them socially decontextualized exotics;
MacDonald published the above to introduce an interview with Reggio in 1990, prior to Baraka's completion. But similar criticisms (and it should be stated that MacDonald's words are presented not as his own criticisms but as a condensing of others') could be leveled at Fricke's own work. I can't help but think that, by photographing the world's wonders in such an heroic and definitive manner, using the most impressive visual reproduction equipment known to exist, Fricke unwittingly gives us permission to collectively "forget about" the actual sites and instead fetishize his frozen-in-time images as replacements of reality.

When I finally viewed Samsara the experience overwhelmed all of these intellectual reservations. The visual patterns he captures are generally more astonishing than those in Baraka, and the music is more impressively integrated with image as well; I find it hard to believe that the score was composed to the edit, rather than the film cut to the music, but apparently it's so. I realized that the filmmaker Fricke is most indebted to here is not Vertov or Hilary Harris but Busby Berkeley (a revelation that inspired me to fire off this tweet.) But the most important leap forward for Fricke is that in tone. Although he doesn't escape the same hypocrisies MacDonald identified in Reggio's films, his camera trains on a more varied set of subjects than any of the films he'd previously worked on, with the result that more meanings explode off of each other's surfaces. It feels less like a glorified UNESCO promotional film, and closer to what I suspect the filmmakers were hoping to create: a demonstration of how, in this second decade of the 21st Century, all aspects of life and regions of the world are becoming increasingly interconnected, both for good and for ill. 

WHERE/WHEN: Today and tomorrow at 2:15 & 7:00 at the Castro Theatre

WHY: The Castro is making these Samsara screenings more enticing by placing the film on creative double-bills. I saw it paired with another investigation-of/product-of globalization Beau Travail last month. Tonight it plays with Akira Kurosawa's film that contemplated the human condition in an entirely different way in 1952, Ikiru (In my book it's Kurosawa's most overrated film but that doesn't make it not worth watching.) Tomorrow's pairing is with the 1984 Somerset Maugham adaptation The Razor's Edge, starring Bill Murray and Theresa Russell. I've never seen this one; I believe the last time the Castro (or in fact any Frisco Bay venue) screened it was in a 2006 series of 70mm prints.

HOW: 2K DCP Lincoln Spector has more to say about Samsara and the formats it's available on.

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