Sense of dejavu on a global level
By Mark Jenkins
Friday, September 14, 2012
Twenty years ago, “Samsara” would have been a knockout. In fact, it was. Only then it was called “Baraka.”
Director-editor-cinematographer Ron Fricke’s 1992 cinematic world tour offered stunning 70mm images and -- despite no dialogue or narration -- something akin to a narrative. His follow-up looks equally great, but it’s less lucid. It’s also, inevitably, less surprising.
Both of Fricke’s features descend from “Koyaanisqatsi,” the 1982 visual essay that began a trilogy. Fricke worked as a cinematographer on that film, which contrasted images of natural beauty and urban frenzy.
“Baraka” and “Samsara” do the same, although with less vehemence. The movies (conceived with producer-editor Mark Magidson) shift between cosmic reverie, slightly trippy travel video and occasional bummers.
Like its predecessor, “Samsara” spotlights many religious structures and rituals. It also observes teeming cities, dramatic landscapes and industrial operations (including factory farms). While the movie visits 25 countries around the globe, the filmmaker clearly considers Asia the world’s most photogenic region, followed closely by the Middle East.
One of Fricke’s specialities is time-lapse photography, so sometimes his world seems to be spinning wildly. In fact, “Samsara” is Sanskrit for “wheel of life.” Yet this movie has less locomotion than “Baraka” (whose title means “blessed” in various Semitic languages).
One reason for the occasional doldrums is that Fricke’s new movie revisits some of the same places. It also has a similar new-agey score, composed in part by “Baraka” veteran Michael Stearns and featuring the same soprano, Dead Can Dance’s Lisa Gerrard.
It’s not just “Baraka,” though, that has shown us these sites before. Images of once-remote locales have become more common as Hollywood goes global, video recording gets simpler and cable channels and Internet streaming proliferates.
So “Samsara” can devolve into a game of spot-that-location. That carved-rock city is Petra, as seen in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.” The profusion of orange gates is the approach to Kyoto’s Inari Shrine, familiar from “Memoirs of a Geisha.” And there’s Tokyo’s bustling Hachiko intersection, which turned up not only in “Lost in Translation” but also in “Baraka.”
Less-pretty pictures of impoverished trash-pickers, regimented factory workers and post-Katrina New Orleans are familiar from both movies and television news. Even the grimmest location, a Java sulfur mine whose exploited workers risk asphyxiation from volcanic gases, has been seen in previous documentaries.
So what’s new in Fricke’s wide world? Quite a bit, including gun cultism, Dubai’s grandiose developments, Israel’s West Bank separation fence and an exercise yard full of dancing Filipino convicts. “Samsara” finds the world a little less blessed than it was two decades ago, yet still beautiful, which seems to be the movie’s primary message.
Contains disturbing images and partial nudity.