The Now and Then Documentary Spotlight
Directed by Ron Fricke—2011—98 minutes
When I decided to replace my Doc of the Week feature with a less time-pressured spotlight series that considers newer non-fiction films with their cinematic antecedents, I chose to kick it off with Ron Fricke’s 2011 piece, “Samsara”, now available in a glorious Blu-ray edition. There was a reason for this: documentary escapism. After completing my book “Documentary 101” I was a bit war-weary in the wake of seeing and writing about so many films that grappled with some of the world’s toughest issues. A sampling of the current news cycle—focused on the Syria crisis, America’s ever-widening income inequality (a new report says it’s the worst since the introduction of progressive taxation a century ago supposedly ended the Gilded Age) and the latest depressingly predictable mass shooting (just down the road a piece from the NRA boot-lickers on Capitol Hill)—only reinforced this feeling. I felt like Bob Dylan in the last verse of “Mr. Tambourine Man”, asking to be delivered to a place “far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow.”
So let’s forget about today until tomorrow and go for a ride with Ron Fricke. He first made his name as the cinematographer for “Koyaanisqatsi”, Godfrey Reggio’s trippy, non-narrative blend of travelogue, implied social critique and cool special effects that was a bona fide arthouse hit in the Eighties. Soon after, he employed the same style of eye-popping 70mm photography when he directed the 40-minute “Chronos”, an early favorite in the newly popular IMAX theaters. He followed in 1992 with the feature-length “Baraka” of which “Samsara” is a sort of belated sequel. Mind you, these types of films (“guided meditations”, Fricke calls them) you just don’t churn out. It apparently took him five years to assemble these just-so visual gems, using painstaking large-format equipment and traveling the four corners of the earth. From the exotic Balinese dancers and mandala-constructing Tibetan monks that ease us in, to the various sites of exquisite historical antiquity, the viewer is lifted into the heavens of visual revelation. Shots of the vast complex of Buddhist temples and pagodas on the Bagan plains of Mandalay look like they could stand in for the Red Planet in a hi-def remake of “The Martian Chronicles.” To extend the “Tambourine Man” gambit one last time, Fricke is certainly enamored with the “foggy ruins of time” and the images of man-made monuments and ageless natural wonders are impressive and transportative. But even in the midst of this Panavision paradise, I knew there would be a catch.
There always is with this genre. Subsequent viewings of “Koyaanisqatsi” left a slightly sour aftertaste with the feeling that Reggio only seemed to approve of nature and Hopi mysticism; the modern world is depicted as a time-lapse whirl of frantic chaos or slowed down to a death crawl. In scenes of assembly lines and rush hours, regular people are made to look like either sardines in a can or rats in a maze. This is unfair to productive, workaday citizens when the powers-that-be behind the problems that the director seemingly cares about (environmental degradation, say) are sure to be out of the sight and unacknowledged. In the end, that’s the problem with the kind of non-verbal film—the camera is the only context.
See if you agree. Thanks to science (and the YouTube poster)you can now watch the full “Koyaanisqatsi” in 5 minutes at 16x speed.)
That has been less of a sticking point with Fricke’s work: he appreciates man’s built environment and largely avoids the whiff of elitism that hovered around Reggio’s “Qatsi” trilogy amid all the jaw-dropping imagery. Still, during “Samsara” there are the usual disconcerting segues. We go from the devastated aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, from African tribesmen to a kaleidoscopic flyover of L.A. at night. At about 45 minutes in, the joy ride ends and we’re left with the killjoy images of folks toiling to fill the ungracious demands of a mass consumerist world; gun culture and the international sex trade also come under a critical gaze, if only in passing. As a subject for further study, you could also check out 2011’s “Surviving Progress.” It combines the impressive visual scale of the guided meditation films with actual talking heads discussing man’s dysfunctional relationship with his home planet.
In the end, Fricke brings the viewer back around, closing with an absolutely lovely record of a Chinese 1000 Hands Goddess Dance, leaving the viewer with warm feelings as to the better side of our nature. That doesn’t erase any of the intractable problems of an overstressed globe but, for a couple of hours anyway, you can let the bad news wait.