Doc Talk is a biweekly column devoted to documentary cinema, typically featuring an essay concentrated on a currently relevant topic for discussion followed by critic picks for new theatrical and home video releases. This week’s focus is the release of Ron Fricke's Samsara.
The spectacular new film Samsara is precisely what I was talking about in the last Doc Talk column regarding movies best seen theatrically. The visual splendor of this wordless and storyless documentary is so brilliantly extraordinary that it must be experienced on the big screen. I don’t know that we should necessarily consider it a religious encounter, no more than we already accept true cinema as being so enlightening, but it is a powerful film that provokes a lot of feelings, some of which might be of a spiritual nature depending on the viewer.
With a title like Samsara, you have to expect content that is both divine and open to the viewer’s interpretation or subjective understanding. The word is Sanskrit and basically means the circle of life, but as a concept it has slightly different functions for different cultures and I take it to be about a larger idea of the continuous flow of existence, beyond yet inclusive of the Hindu’s context of reincarnation. Much of what we see in the movie relates to birth and death but also to the forward progressions of nature and humanity, which can still involve decay and repetition.
The doc itself fits into the samsara of cinema. It’s of a dying breed, having been shot on film, let alone 70mm. And yet right now we’re witnessing a sudden new interest in that larger format, whether with new works like The Master or rereleased and reformatted classics, such as Raiders of the Lost Ark and the Alamo Drafthouse’s “AlamoScope” series, which includes Baraka, the previous marvel from Samsara director Ron Fricke.
Samsara also fits into a cycle and an evolution of certain kinds of documentary, those being the “symphony” film and the general non-narrative nonfiction film. So, I’d like to highlight some of those necessary works that came before and others that have popped up more recently, which share in some of the aesthetic and structural mindset of this stunning new masterpiece.
1. Demolishing and Building Up the Star Theatre (American Mutoscope & Biograph,1901)
Credited as being the first film to really showcase time-lapse cinematography, this experimental actuality film is also a magical treatise on construction and destruction, which certainly goes with the more natural form of the life cycle. What you see is a sped-up record of the demolition of the Star Theatre in New York City as seen from the American Mutoscope & Biograph Company building. The footage was reprinted in reverse and then, depending on the exhibitor, could be shown as if the theater is pulled down and then rebuilt (as in the video below) or, vice versa. Or, just the demolition may be shown by itself, too. This short is also a good one to watch before Charles Sheeler and Paul Strand’s early city symphony film Manhatta and Dsiga Vertov’s meta, trickery-filled entry into the symphony genre, The Man with a Movie Camera.
2. Rain (Mannus Franken and Joris Ivens, 1929)
While I could include a whole bunch of city symphony films here, including classics like Walter Ruttman’s Berlin: Symphony of a Great City and Alberto Cavalcanti’s Nothing but Time, as well as Manhatta and The Man with a Movie Camera, I’d rather showcase a lesser-known favorite of mine that isn’t often lumped together with the rest. Instead of simply offering a portrait of Amsterdam, this short work looks at the Dutch city in the rain, presented as if it were one day of inclement weather. There’s a naturalness to the film that I love, which other city symphonies don’t focus on, acknowledging the power of the Earth in combat against and in harmony with humanity, especially the urban man.
3. Secrets of Life (James Algar, 1956)
Although it features narration (from writer Winston Hibler), this installment of Walt Disney’s “True-Life Adventure” nature films is a definite ancestor to both the studio’s own modern documentaries, particularly Earth and Oceans, and to other nonfiction films and series set out to capture the order and/or chaos of the planet. While written and directed by Disney doc legend James Algar, whose best-known work is actually his uncredited helming of Fantasia’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice segment, the film is also notable for its pioneering time-lapse cinematography by John Ott.
4. Koyaanisqatsi (Godfrey Reggio, 1982)
Another unsung time-lapse pioneer, Hilary Harris, ought to be recognized for his contribution to this, the most famous film of the non-narrative documentary genre. It’s also where Samsara director Ron Fricke got his start after hooking up with Godfrey Reggio for a local ad campaign. Fricke then went solo -- well, he also joined up with longtime collaborator Mark Magidson, who cowrote and produced his solo efforts -- and didn’t return for the other two Qatsi films (1988’s Powaqqatsi and 2002’s Naqoyqatsi). In my opinion, nothing that either Reggio or Fricke have done or will do since can compare to this partnered effort. Some of the portraits of people in Samsara are nearly as good as those in Koyaanisqatsi, but still not quite as memorable.
5. Sans Soleil (Chris Marker, 1983)
Another film that’s distinctly different for its inclusion of heavy voice-over narration, although this experimental take on the travelogue documentary doesn’t feature any synchronous sound. I’m mainly highlighting it because it should be seen anyway in tribute to the recently deceased director and also because it offers a great contrast to Samsara while still similarly taking us on a virtual trip around the world employing the context of a particular theme (human memory).
6. Baraka (Ron Fricke, 1992)
Even though Samsara isn’t a sequel in a narrative sense (Fricke and Magidson prefer the term “follow-up”) and so doesn’t really require a viewing of Baraka beforehand, it does seem to reference some of the earlier film’s content, albeit from the perspective a whole different thesis. And it helps for a greater contextual appreciation, similar to the way the Qatsi films and Gary Hustwit’s design trilogy (Helvetica, et al.) are most interesting when considering each installment in relation to the others. Plus, the Blu-ray of Baraka is mesmerizing (even better is the chance that this year the film is being shown in 70mm in some cities). Because of its direct connection, it’s the one film on this list that really has to be seen if you also see Samsara, though it can actually wait until after. Also recommended is Fricke’s solo debut, the relative 1985 short Chronos.
7. Bodysong (Simon Pummell, 2003)
To be honest, I just became aware of this award-winning British film while compiling the list, and so I’ve only seen parts of it. But as a wordless documentary that looks at life, from birth to death, the doc obviously fits with the theme of Fricke and Magidson’s latest. Of course, it’s also more dependent on archive footage, a huge contrast opposite the gorgeous shots Fricke captures exclusively for Samsara. With an original score from Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood (also known well for his music for There Will Be Blood), Bodysong is one that I’m now adding to my “watch after” pile.
8. Life in a Day (Kevin Macdonald, et al., 2011)
A few critics, including myself, came up with the not-so-original nickname for this film of “YouTubisqatsi.” It’s not a truly apt comparison, however, not only because Life in a Day is completely comprised of outsourced footage sought via the Internet and is among the growing doc subgenre of user-generated films, even if it involves the singular direction of Kevin Macdonald and producer Ridley Scott. It’s also very broad in scope, not concentrated on a theme like “life out of balance” (Koyaanisqatsi) or “blessing” (Baraka) or “the circle of life.” It’s more like a city symphony film but with the entire world rather than a single metropolis. Still, it’s a genuinely, surprisingly compelling portrait of the planet and its people, one that I hope people aren’t dismissing just due to the YouTube association. Fortunately you can view it in full right here:
9. Abendland (Nikolaus Geyrhalter, 2011)
When I saw this film at True/False this year, Geyrhalter explained that “there is narration in the montage,” which stuck with me when I later saw Baraka and Samsara this year. Never mind that Fricke and Magidson don’t really mean for a message to come through in their films so much as a feeling. Geyrhalter’s earlier food-industry film, Our Daily Bread, actually has some imagery that overlaps well with both of Fricke’s features, but Abendland, which explores the theme of the European Union at night, has a similar globalized focus that also especially reminds me of Life in a Day. Consider it “Life in a Night,” albeit limited to one continent and with an even more concentrated directorial vision.
10. ¡Vivan las Antipodas! (Victor Kossakovsky, 2011)
Another movie I caught at True/False this year, and one that hasn’t been officially released yet (neither has Abendland, though it had a little run in NYC recently), this film takes a very clever look at the planet by way of its antipodal locations. That is, we see one place, such as the rural landscape of Northern Argentina, and then we see the place directly opposite that on the globe, which in this example is the bustling streets of Shanghai. If Samsara is the most theatrically necessary doc I’ve seen this year, Kossakovsky’s gimmicky yet fascinating feature comes a close second.
I'll be back with another Doc Talk column in two weeks. Until then you can follow me on Twitter @thefilmcynic and at the DOC Channel Blog.