The Sanskrit word, “Samsara,” in my laptop’s dictionary, is defined as “the cycle of death and rebirth to which life in the material world is bound.” I like “Farrago” better, defined as “a confused mixture.”
In Ron Fricke’s follow-up to his 1992 picture-fest “Baraka” (or, “blessing”), we’re treated to a free-associative montage, or flow, of the beauty of nature and the bad, bad, bad, bad, bad things that man does to the planet and to each other. It’s grating, grandiloquent work: it’s also bad, bad, bad, rising to the level of a gratuitously good-looking, promiscuously photographed tract rather than the feat of filmmaking it aims toward. It’s as pretty as a succession of postcards: having a great time, wish you were coherent. Or, you’re having a great time, wish I were stoned.
The images, shot with 65mm film in a reported twenty-five-plus countries across several years (and shown in 35mm or, more likely, DCP digital), attempt an effortless flow, with recurring images of Tibetan monks creating a brightly colored kilkhor, or sand mandala, to represent the world. Their work takes shape as “Baraka” goes on, and its intricate, grain-by-grain beauty is ultimately swept into a tureen where colors mix in a bone-to-green mass of undifferentiated silica: humanity, huh? The images have fantastic clarity, as if the filmmakers were future tourists of our own fallen world. This is Earth, “Samsara” would seem to say, and you, the viewer, are meaningful among the other tiny grains only in having purchased a ticket to our indiscriminate pageantry. The Tibetans are presented as pure souls atop our ragged fury and inconsequence. (Distributor Oscilloscope reports a $260,000 two-week gross at only nine theaters.)
To pick a pair of apposite views on “Samsara” in the past couple weeks, DJ (and sometimes music supervisor for movies) Jason Bentley, whose KCRW programs are astute and discerning, is an admirer, tweeting: “‘Samsara.’ A stunning film. A meditation on humanity, life, death, and (spoiler alert) the impermanence of it all.” More akin to my annoyance is this from filmmaker David Lowery (“Ain’t Them Bodies Saints”): “‘Samsara’ was a truly glorious B-roll reel from other documentaries and (literally) ‘The Tree of Life.'” Lowery’s tweet suggests a useful summa of “Samsara”: it’s like Terrence Malick’s recent work, only without dialogue, voiceover, personal connection, meaningful gestures or performances (whether at non-monk tasks or from actors like Brad Pitt). In “Samsara,” humans are effaced as particulate and degenerate in the larger sweep of aerial shots and heaving masses and flurries of lookie-lookie.
There are glimpses of post-Katrina damages of Ninth Ward schoolrooms, and a Philippines gun factory intercut with an Accra funeral with a casket in the shape of a pistol. (The images of blanks of metal being sandwiched on an assembly line to create the body of a handgun are among the best of the shiny moments of manufacturing.) A choreographed dance in a prison yard by dozens of figures in orange is a fine random kapow but—wha? It’s prettier, but just as confounding as the long sequence of a performance artist behind a desk larding himself with blue and gray mud and ripping at his eyeballs and mouth. Japanese sex dolls, false anuses raised to the camera, and in a scene of dancing Bangkok transvestites a weirdly extended shot of a penis behind translucent magenta panties. (Credit is given to the “Ladyboys of Cascade Bar.”) Meatpacking and baby-nuzzling are conflated, and shots of the faithful on their hajj to Mecca sweep like a broom across a vast sea of white-clad figures swirling around the black cube of the Ka’aba, too cleanly reminiscent of an early image of a machine culling kills from a factory floor of white chickens.
Despite trucking their huge cameras around the planet for half a decade, girdling the globe, hoping to be like Herzog conveying a steamship over an Amazonian mountain, the result is less “Fitzcarraldo” than “Ditzcarraldo.” Fricke and Magidson credit themselves with “concept and treatment,” and to paraphrase “Annie Hall,” someday it could be developed into an “idea.” The music is by Michael Stearns, Marcello De Francisci and Lisa Gerrard (Dead Can Dance, “The Insider”) and Keith Jarrett, among others, but any random needle-drop of sigur rós would have the desired effect. Oooh. Lookie.
There’s a film yet to be released, Victor Kossakovsky’s mad, dynamic “¡Vivan las Antipodas!,” one of 2011’s most dynamic documentaries, and a fine, rude pill to “Samsara”‘s pallid palliative. Pictures need progression as much as flow, attitude as much as willed quietude. Otherwise? Dazzling grains of sand is all you’ve got.
“Samsara” opens Friday at Landmark Century. Reviewed in 35mm.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” in words and images will be published in Spring 2022.