Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Samsara (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway
"Samsara", the new film by Ron Fricke (Baraka) is a spellbinding look at the human and natural world. Samsara which directly translates as "the continuous flow of life" lives up to its name as a film. It is a facile, haunting and sometimes shocking look at life on earth solely by images and music.
This film owes a debt to Godfrey Reggio's "Koyaanisqatsi", especially since Fricke was the cinematographer for that film. ( Koyaanisqatsi is from the Hopi Indian word , which means "Life Out of Balance")  "Koyaanisqatsi " might be thought of as Samsara's cousin with its depiction of traffic and cities all presented non-verbally without dialogue. Yet "Samsara" maintains a fresh "Aha!" reaction with its free associative, mostly tranquil imagery. That being said, there is imagery here that will make you gasp out of your seat and also emit a few titters.
At the start we are shown immense images of volcanoes and sand dunes. These are coupled with long stretches of the Hurricane Katrina aftermath that will leave you haunted with its shots of classrooms covered in rubble, shelled supermarkets and churches covered in chunks of rock and slate as if to make new Doomsday mosaics to a wrathful god. This leads to shots of Versailles and churches dripping in gold and crystallized in stained glass transforming the entire earth into a single vast Faberge egg. 
Then we are shown youngsters at Baptism, some smiling beatifically, others crying from the shock of being doused. 
Although much of the action takes place in Asia, we are shown a good bit of Western culture as cities race into an infinity of hectic neon and windows dance crazily along a night sky. 
There are quiet moments too: one buff male who is completely covered by tattoos, protectively enfolds his newborn son perhaps shielding him from the inevitable attack of graphic design on his infant skin.
We also see the harbingers of our own destruction. Guns are made with the same equal attention given to the creation of a Chinese dumpling. African warlords are seen carrying AK-47s, along with a shot of an American family who proudly handle their rifles. There are vast caches of bullets, the gold that brings no riches, together with coffins made to look like birds and airplanes--- all futile attempts to make death into something non-threatening, toy-like and sweet. This is bizarre enough, but then there is a sudden shot of a casket being carried in the mold of a gigantic pistol.
We see fields of orange clad prisoners dancing in synch to disco, only to be locked away with some inmates dancing in place. Their staring eyes challenging the camera and us, to look away.
My favorite segment of the film shows a conveyor belt of humanoid Anime style doll parts. Seen in close-up, the heads are almost impossible to tell apart from their human counterparts whose lips are melting in sad, reluctant kisses. Then we see a conveyor slab of female legs which are contained in a hospital-like setting. There is one big heap of plastic breasts, arms and curiously life-like hands. (Is it our hands that make us human?) Then we are in a presumably Asian stripper's bar: their faces blank, their eyes wide, their lips parted while their alien, over-sexualized torsos rock to the music. 
"Samsara" raises many disquieting questions, not least of which is when does the human in us become synthetic and vice versa. 
But perhaps  the most upsetting is the imagery of a chicken slaughter house in which huge plots of pecking chickens, three hens deep, are swept up in vacuum machines, their necks instantly broken, literally mashed up to die.
This is juxtaposed with time lapse shots of an overlarge American family eating fast food in hyperdrive: chewing, sucking, talking and spitting.
At times subtlety is not Samsara's strong point, but I don't think it matters. It is a pleasure, if at times a troubling one, to simply be carried away by the sheer multiplicity of its images from across the world.
And even at its most jarring moments as when pigs are butchered in front of our very eyes, along with overweight people being prepped for liposuction, we still cannot look away. This is in part due to the masterful  score by Michael Stearns and Lisa Gerrard ( at times aural and feathery, at others syncopated and apprehensive) which makes us feel we are exclusive planetary travelers here to witness an inner space adventure story.
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