guided meditation

Dubious Documentaries #6

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Directed by Godfrey Reggio—2013—87 minutes

Any of you who have read my book “Documentary 101” (don’t all speak up at once!) will know the conflicted feelings I have for director Godfrey Reggio and his “guided meditation” films. He first made his name back in 1982 with cult favorite “Koyaanisqatsi.” Right from the start, all the genre elements were in place: awe-inspiring large format cinematography, trippy special FX and hypnotic Philip Glass music. All were in the service of an un-narrated parade if images keyed into themes of nature, travelogue, ecology and implicit criticism of our rampant technological age.

It was a stunningly beautiful and dynamic film, but clearly wanted to be more than just eye candy for the stoned midnite-movie mavens. Reggio, whose background is in philosophy and social activism, was clearly in thrall of pre-Colombian landscapes and the wisdom of indigenous populations (Koyaanisqatsi is a Hopi word meaning “life out of balance”). Everyday people, on the other hand, are depicted as either rats in a maze or sardines in can, in repeated sped-up scenes of rush-hour train stations or clogged-up freeways. A non-verbal experience like the one Reggio was offering lets viewers provide their own context and what I saw as a blame-the-people tendency got acutely annoying for me when it was repeated in the sequels, “Powaqqatsi” (1998) and “Naqoyqatsi” (2002). The powers-that-be that play a major role in the environmental havoc that the director clearly abhors remain behind the closed doors of boardrooms and presidential palaces.

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Who are you calling “dubious”??

To his credit, Reggio has switched gears for 2013’s “Visitors”, now available on DVD. Known in his earlier works for triple-time shots, here the pace has been slowed down to a crawl. The entire film, shot in B&W using pristine 4K ultra hi-def format, consists of only 74 shots lasting an average of 70 seconds each. It opens with an enigmatic stare down with a lowland gorilla (a highlight) before the staring contests continue with a diverse succession of humans. These are thankfully interspersed with richly pictorial (but static) scenes of mysterious abandoned buildings, a primordial bayou, a closed post-Katrina amusement park in Louisiana, etc.

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Reggio has said that to be forced to gaze upon the supposedly familiar form of the human face until it becomes unfamiliar is a path to really seeing it for the first time. Maybe, but the best way to get to know people via cinematic means will always be through a strong narrative. “Visitors” was a film I found alternately enthralling and enervating, a bit of a seat-squirmer in theaters but one that may be helped on DVD by judicious use of the “next chapter” button on your remote. Honestly, this would have worked better as a multi-screen video installation in a contemporary art museum, or even as a coffee table book of stills.

My book “Documentary 101” is now on sale as both a paperback and e-book: Also available from Amazon and other online book sellers.

Fly Me to the Moon on 70mm Wings


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.