I saw Ron Fricke and Mark Magidson‘s Samsara the night before last. It’s a kind of ohm movie…ohhhmmm! A fixed-tripod, tableau zone-out film without any dialogue or lip movement even, but a drop-dead beautiful 70mm forehead-smacker. It premiered over a year ago at the 2011 Toronto Film Festival. Fricke has become a Zen master of movies in this vein — he co-shot Koyaanisqatsi (’82), and directed Chronos (’85) and Baraka (’92). Oscilloscope opened Samsara in August, and it might become one of the Best Feature Doc Oscar nominees.
But if you get beyond form, it’s something else. A friend asked me what I really thought of it, and I wrote the following:
“It’s stunningly beautiful, and it’s a nice concept of getting everyone in the film to just pose and stare at the camera and not move. No moving mouths, no smiles, no overt feeling. So yes, it’s very beautiful but — I’m sorry but this has to be said — an extremely cold and emotionally remote film. It gradually envelops you with its coldness, like a ghost.
“It left me with the feeling that there are way, way too many struggling third-world people in the world. What a truly miserable existence for so many hundreds of millions. The world is just swarming with millions and millions of people….millions of swarming ants… and they’re all choking on their garbage and working in soulless factories with millions of dead pig carcasses and love dolls and slaughter houses in which small chickens are suffocated and tortured and killed and cut into pieces and their guts fall in heaps on the damp cement floor.
“I’m used to a realm of my own making…we’re ALL used to that realm…in which there is space that I have carved out and decorated, and that otherwise I live in a world of hygiene and open roads and large homes and nice shoes and Oriental carpets and colorful socks and black high-thread-count T-shirts with a sense of clarity and refinement and a certain degree of aesthetic attractiveness, and a certain amount of caring and compassion and serenity and stillness.
“Samsara shattered that feeling for me. It’s a spiritual journey film but more often a tour of a massive, overcrowded garbage dump filled with human ants. It really depresses me to think that I’m an ant, but that’s what I am, I guess. That’s what you are, what we all are…we’re all fucking ants, scampering here and there. How cold, how horrid, how truly miserable, how immensely and suffocatingly depressing.
“But it’s a very handsome film. Mesmerizing, transporting, fascinating. Technical kudos to all involved. Truly magnificent photography. Beautifully scored. And welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to a world of SWARMING ANTS PRAYING DURING RAMADAN and SURROUNDED BY DEAD CHICKENS & MOUNTAINS OF STINKING GARBAGE AND LOVE DOLLS and ORANGE-OUTFIT PRISONERS DOING LONG SENTENCES DANCING IN PRISON YARDS. It took me hours to recover from the depression.
“The world that once was, the Lewis & Clark world of centuries past, a How The West Was Won world of cleanliness and mountain streams and open spaces and greenery and John Colter and Woody Guthrie and Fritz Weaver and Marthe Keller and reasonable amounts of people, seems to be a memory in Samsara. What a bummer.”
For the record, Fricke didn’t shoot the other two “qatsi” movies — Powaqqatsi and Naqoyqatsi.
Samsara is Sanskrit term that roughly translates as “all I need now a cup of coffee and a blowjob.” Seriously, it means “continuous flow” and “cycles of life.”