Saturday, September 22, 2012

"Samsara": how the world works, and it's scary to watch

When I went to see the film “Samsara” by Robert Fricke and Mark Magidson at the new Angelika Mosaic in Fairfax County, VA, I was expected another abstract visual adventure like Francis Ford Coppola’s “Konyaanisqatsai” (“Life out of Balance”, 1982, music by Philip Glass), or a French nature film shown in the science museum in Amsterdam (name escapes me).  This new film, shot in 70MM Panavision with digital “oversampling”, is indeed that, but it really carries a political and social punch that will stick.  The title, referring to “cycle of life” (or “Tree if life, maybe) is ambiguous enough.

The film opens with a formal shot of three Asian women presented as symmetric sculpture, and then jumps to the Hawaii volcanoes.  In the early parts of the movie, we are treated to a variety of natural landscapes (starting with the Sahara) and native human habitats and ceremonial sites that build on fractals and, by resurrecting a lot of forgotten civilizations, make the Earth like the home of a lot of extraterrestrial-looking civilizations.  One of the critical early shots is in Lhasa, Tibet; we move inside from the landscape to a scene of monks working tediously to build a “Tree of Life” mosaic out of sand.

Then the film really does something.  I’ll come back to that.

Let me mention, first, a couple of images that really meant something to me, for my own fiction writing. One is an indoor ski resort in Japan, so massive that it seems like a model alien planet under one roof. Another is a shot of an old man, apparently wanting to make himself into a clown, progressively disfiguring himself, as if doing so would let him become the top voyeur.

We start to see some more destruction, particularly the insides of flooded homes in the lost Ninth Ward in New Orleans.  Hint: an inconvenient truth.  There's also a shot of the canyon country in Utah, an obvious reference to "127 Hours".

Close to half way through, the film gradually switches to masses of people being regimented, first in the workplace, with various assembly line scenes.  We also see massive industrial slaughter of animals, as with one particularly shocking chicken slaughter plant in Denmark. We see scenes (particularly in Brazil) of high rise upper middle class neighborhoods right next to shantytowns and slums. 

In the midst of all of this there are a couple more particularly graphic individual images.  A man with a particularly gross pot belly is being marked up for liposuction or surgery, and I felt a kind of anger at his kind of indulgence, as a waste to the world.  I whispered “bring out the machete”.  Then I realized such sadistic satisfactions could come at my expense, too. Later, we see an Army staff sergeant, in dress greens, with a particularly gruesomely disfigured face, from combat.  I remember my own days with the draft.  I got out of Vietnam service.  But used to think, it anything like that ever happened to me, I don’t want to come back.  I can’t see expecting someone to love me looking like that. Talk about sacrifice.

The movie then moves on to mass armaments. We see assembly lines producing bullet casings (I presume this film was shot before the Colorado massacre).  We meet see the North Korean DMZ and see the soldiers, and then see both sides in the middle East.  We meet a survivalist family, with teenage kids at port arms.  We see massive Muslim prayers, and a long sequence with the hajj, the center of which moves in counter-clockwise fashion, like a storm.

But we see that it’s not religion alone that drives the world into dangerous directions, or even class struggle in the usual Marxist sense. The problem is more that, individually, our lives depend on the hidden sacrifices of others that we never see. 

Near the end, the Buddhist monks destroy their “Thanka” artwork, bringing the grains of sand back into entropy. Then we see a shot of the Sahara, almost as if we could become a lifeless planet.

The film is distributed by Oscilloscope, which seems to have taken over from the old Warner Independent Pictures.  The official site is here.

Wikipedia link for “Wheel of Life” picture. 

Another picture here is my own of Mono Lake in CA (2012).
See this in a big theater. 

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