Shot on 70mm film over a five-year period, Samsara is the latest effort from filmmakers Ron Fricke and Mark Magidson, who previously collaborated on Baraka (92) and Chronos (85). “Samsara” is Sanskrit for “continuous flow,” or “the ever-turning wheel of life,” as the filmmakers translate it. The film’s locations span Nepal, Angkor Wat, the Arctic, Tokyo, Arizona, Kenya, Yosemite, Dubai, a Filipino prison, and the border between North and South Korea. Fricke directed and photographed the film, and wrote and edited it along with Magidson, who produced.
While some shots in Samsara are edited into sequences, there is no immediately apparent narrative strategy to the film. Not a straightforward documentary, Samsara is more a collection of images whose connections emerge over the course of the film. As shot succeeds shot in Samsara we fashion our own narrative from what we see. (Chanting and other vocalizing aside, the filmmakers eschew recorded dialogue, or voiceover.)
But do movies have to “mean” anything? Isn’t it enough for them to deliver beautiful or exotic or arresting images? In the early days of cinema, audiences were thrilled to see anything that moved. It took years for narrative films to wrest the market from footage that simply recorded or documented. That impulse for sheer imagery has remained an important part of cinema, and helped introduced technological advances: camera movement in films like Edison’s Return of the Lifeboat (1897), Technicolor travelogues like John Nesbitt’s Passing Parade, and widescreen processes like Cinerama (This Is Cinerama!) and IMAX (To Fly!).
Koyaanisqatsi (82), which director of photography Fricke also co-wrote and co-edited, set a new template for travelogues, one that Samsara imitates slavishly. No dialogue or explanatory titles. A Philip Glass–style minimalist score. An allusive editing style that compares and contrasts objects and locations. A roughly chronological structure. Obsessive attention to scale, from tiny to overwhelming. And, at least in Koyaanisqatsi’s case, an overarching point of view. “Life in the balance,” for example.
But in a way, in the absence of a point of view, films like Samsara are like home movies, albeit with world-class production values. They lure the viewer with the exotic and unattainable: a volcano’s spume, an ancient sculpture lit by the moon, a face disfigured with tattoos. They can also be seen as glorified stock footage. If you need a clip of the sun dawning over a jungle temple, here is an excellent example in 70mm.
The genre’s money shot is the aerial view, and Samsara deploys some half-dozen helicopter crews that capture mesmerizing views of deserts, jungles, cities, and ruins. At one point in Samsara a helicopter flies over a glacier, the camera capturing the tumbled mass of ice in velvety slow motion. It reminded me of similar shots in To the Arctic 3D, an IMAX documentary by the legendary Greg MacGillivray, as well as The Bourne Legacy. MacGillivray wanted to teach viewers that global warming was threatening the Arctic ice pack. Bourne director Tony Gilroy wanted to show viewers that secret agent Aaron Cross had near-miraculous powers. Fricke just wants to show a glacier.
Too much of Samsara feels like it’s grabbing you by the collar and shouting, “Look at that!” When Fricke and Magidson do construct actual sequences, or set up conscious parallels, these feel glib and unrewarding. A shot of factory workers assembling steam irons leads to workers on a “disassembly” line pulling apart obsolete electronics. A machine “harvesting” chickens leads to workers slicing chickens apart, and from there to fast-food employees putting sandwiches together. The next shot? Customers eating fast food. Get it?
Fricke and Magidson should be commended for assembling the money and personnel needed to shoot Samsara over several years. It took a lot of effort to film a Tibetan sand painting with a 65mm high-speed Arriflex. But doesn’t it confound the purpose of a sand painting to memorialize it? And when Samsara shows miners struggling to lift baskets of ore, what do they represent? The triumph of labor, or the evils of capitalism?