Directed by: Ron Fricke
Produced by: Mark Magidson
Written by: Ron Fricke
Music by: Michael Stearns
Marcello de Francisci
Cinematography by: Ron Fricke
Editing by: Ron Fricke
Studio: Magidson Films
Distributed by: Oscilloscope Laboratories (United States)
Release date(s): September 11, 2011 (TIFF)
August 24, 2012 (United States)
August 31, 2012 (United Kingdom)(limited release)
Running time: 99 minutes
Country: United States
Box office revenue (as of publication): $1, 604, 125
Hey gang, another week gone and the reviews have been slow, how bloody predictable of me! Regardless, I have been watching films in between rounds of Wagner's Tristan And Isolde, Friedrich Nietzsche and Melmoth The Wander (and soon Dostoevsky's Demons), so as usual keep your eyes posted! In a deviation from format, I'd like to flag up ten movies that I have seen this year outside of the reviewing sphere that I think would be of interest to my readership: Boogie Nights, Get Carter, The Firm, Bride Of Frankenstein, Gods And Monsters, The Big Boss, Chungking Express, Cross Of Iron, 4 Months 3 Weeks And 2 Days, Festen and The Searchers (I know, that's eleven!).
Right, todays film up for discussion is Samsara, the new film by Ron Fricke. Real freaks for this blog (if there are such people) will know that Ron Fricke is, as a cinematographer, a member of The Thin White Dude's Hall Of Fame. Now, this might sound silly, but it is largely off of the strength of one film: Koyaanisqatsi. I became acquainted with this film a number of years ago now, and at the time I thought it was (and still is) one of the most extraordinary films I have ever seen. Indeed, it too is in my Hall Of Fame as a documentary film. It is rather an unconventional documentary, in that it (and Godfrey Reggio's later Powaqqatsi and Naqoyqatsi) contain no dialogue whatsoever, with the film being driven by a harmonious synchronisation of images and music, creating a loose narrative of sorts. This genre, which has it's ancestral filmic roots in Dziga Vertov's Man With A Movie Camera (recently declared by Sight And Sound the 8th greatest film of all time), is something that I am interested, particularly in relation to silent cinema, in that these filmmakers have all the privilege and technology of sound cinema, yet actively choose to make a movie in this way. Following on from his 1992 film of Baraka, Ron Fricke's Samsara "explores the wonders of our world from the mundane to the miraculous, looking into the unfathomable reaches of man’s spirituality and the human experience. Neither a traditional documentary nor a travelogue, Samsara takes the form of a nonverbal, guided meditation." I know, that's lazy, but I didn't feel I could put it better than that synopsis on the film's official website, which can be found here: http://barakasamsara.com/.
Starting with the good about Samsara, I have pay note to the cinematography. Ron Fricke, master of his craft, has went for a striking visual style. For starters, it is filmed on 70mm cameras instead of digital, but after being shot they were transferred to Digital Cinema Package, so we get an extraordinary combination of film and digital technologies. The clarity and quality of the image is thus down in many ways to the editing software, before we even get to talking about cutting the film. Also, for all it's technical qualities, the film wouldn't be as good if they didn't have something worth capturing. The subjects engage and convey emotion, very much akin to the power of montage as demonstrated by the Lev Kuleshov Effect/Experiment, without any words to the audience, who are left (mostly) to develop their own ideas. Images of a fascinating nature are littered throughout this film, and the way Fricke shoots them is as such that your eyes are opened to looking at the world, both one we recognise and one we don't, in an altogether different way. Also praiseworthy is the film's music. Man, am I on a good one, two films in a row with me actually digging the sonic vibes! This is a real potpourri of sounds, with Michael Sterns contributing an electronic/ambient side to the story, alongside Marcello de Francisci (who unfortunately in the course of my research I have been unable to find much detail) and the incomparable Lisa Gerrard. Edited without a soundtrack, Samsara is for all intents and purposes a silent film, and the three composers have each done a great job of interpreting what is before them. Their contributions elevate the images beyond a purely visual stimulus, and make them seem poetic and transcendental in nature. The only other major aspect to the film I have to praise is director Ron Fricke. The proverbial architect behind this project, you have to admire the time and effort that has been put into the project. I mean, the film took four years to shoot, and was made in twenty-five countries across five continents, and the effort that Fricke and his crew have went to bring this to the screen is up there for the audience to behold. Also, it is remarkable that someone in this day and age (feel free to refer to me as Old Man River for that phrase) has the singularity of artistic intention to make a film of worth, beyond a purely stylistic aesthetic, in this way, given the abundance of access to technology that even filmmakers on a low-budget have available at hand.
That said (here we go!), for all that I think is good about Samsara, there are a few problems to deal with. Of course, as you have seen, you can't really judge a film such as this by the standard criteria, so, in criticism, I will express myself as best I can. I agree with some of the sentiments of Kenneth Turan, who described it "as frustrating as it is beautiful." One of the strengths of this genre of film is that a lot of it is left open for audience interpretation. With Samsara, there are a number of instances where the mostly strong montage flounders into predictability. Heading into easy territory, it also leads the viewer towards a conclusion, as opposed to letting them find one. Also, at the heart of the film's central thesis is a simplicity that frankly does not require a hundred minutes of screen time in order to express it. Samsara is consistent, but this creates an ill-at-ease atmosphere tonally in parts.
For all its flaws, which are more on the basis of a consistent issue of tone and general direction that the audience is led down, Samsara is still a very good film. You will doubtless be treated by the harmony of visual splendour and sonic elegance of the piece. Furthermore, it is rare to see movies like this from filmmakers like Fricke who care for it beyond a purely stylistic standpoint, and as such, you do have a sense that everyone involved here cared for the project.
The Thin White Dude's Prognosis - 7.7/10
The Thin White Dude's Self-Diagnosis - Cool