Around the World in 70mm
So, a friend of mine who I haven't seen for a bit got in touch and suggested we met up for a drink. 'I can only do this Tuesday at six thirty though!'
This was a bit of an issue as I was planning to go to the cinema (just for a change) and the only showing of Ron Fricke's Samsara was on Tuesday at six thirty. 'Er – I was going to the pictures, fancy coming with me?'
'What are you seeing?'
'It's a non-narrative non-verbal guided meditation on the eternal themes of life and death. Certificate 12A.'
My friend was, shall we say, rather dubious, and warned that she might very well fall asleep on me (not the first time this has happened, of course) but in the end agreed to come along, mainly due to her boundless tolerance for my silly ideas and the fact that strategic use of a 2-for-1 voucher meant it was a free night out for her.
So we watched the movie (and I snuck surreptitious sidelong glances to see if she was awake every now and then), and at the end – well, first of all, at the end of the film not only was there was spontaneous applause from the audience, which hardly ever happens in British cinemas, but my friend was joining in with it.
'You didn't fall asleep then?'
'No… that was incredible… amazing… maybe the best film I've ever seen!'
I didn't respond to Samsara quite that strongly, but I still thought it was a remarkable experience and I do wonder if the distributors and cinema chains aren't being a bit too cautious about how this film is meeting the public. Rather to my surprise, it hasn't shown at all at the arthouse, and – as previously mentioned – only a solitary screening was scheduled at the multiplex, and that was barely advertised. And yet I think this is a film with much wider potential – as someone else has said, quite insightfully, many people who might really enjoy this film would never dream of going to see it.
This is probably because non-narrative non-verbal guided meditations on the eternal themes of life and death are not a regular feature of the release schedule. As a result there is some danger of going in with the wrong kind of expectations (on a similar note, I was amused to see some people turned up for Samsara with buckets of popcorn), or indeed trying to discern some kind of plot. If you did, the results would be something like this:
In a pre-credits sequence, three dwarves in very fancy costumes do a ritual dance together. This causes a volcano to erupt, killing various people including King Tutankhamun. After the titles, Angkor Wat looks pretty in the sun, while some Himalayan monks play the trumpet. Other monks at the same monastery are making a mandala from coloured powder, watched by their younger brethren.
A gothic cathedral looks very pretty from the inside, as a lot of young children are baptised. There are some rocks in a desert, and some crumbling statues. The desert is eating some houses. This looks a bit like the part of New Orleans destroyed by the hurricane, which in turn looks very unlike the inside of the Palace of Versailles, which is beautiful.
Modern life is not very beautiful, and perhaps as a response to this a Japanese man has built a robot double of himself. People working in an office whizz around very fast for no obvious reason. One office worker plasters his face with clay and appears to have some sort of psychotic episode at his desk. Some modern cities do look beautiful in their artificiality after all.
And so on; I would hate to spoil the ending for anyone. As you can probably tell, they're not kidding about the non-verbal non-narrative thing – Samsara is essentially just a succession of images of dizzying diversity: the natural world, human civilisation and its ejecta, people themselves, from all kinds of social and ethnic backgrounds.
The first thing to say is that this is a stunningly beautiful movie, shot wholly in 70mm. Many of the individual shots are breathtaking in their vividness and the way they've been composed – the first time I saw the Angkor Wat sequence, part of me was certain it was CGI: the real world doesn't usually look so lovely! Others are striking in the way they depict things one doesn't usually see or even think about – often these are a bit less pleasant to look at.
But what's equally arresting is the way in which the shots have been edited together, creating strange and provocative juxtapositions. Post-Katrina New Orleans is followed by the grandeur of Versailles, in one of the film's more cryptic associations. While the film-makers claim not have a particular overall message, what they're getting at in some of the sequences is fairly obvious, as when a look at the manufacture of sex dolls is intercut with some gyrating pole-dancers (but even here this sequence is bookended with a woman being prepared for plastic surgery and a geisha in full make-up).
Parts of this are quite obvious, possibly even awkwardly so, but this doesn't necessarily stop them being moving – I was particularly struck by a section on the manufacture of weapons, which features several posed shots of members of archaic tribes, where the only signs of the modern world or western culture are the guns they are carrying. Then again, my friend thought other sections were much more affecting, and saying different things as well.
It seems to me that one of the great things about Samsara is its very refusal to insist on a narrative or a single message – something every standard documentary does. This movie shows you the world – or different aspects of it – and permits you to form your own conclusions about what you're seeing. Having seen it, I was glad I'd gone with someone else as it's the kind of film that demands to be talked about afterwards, ideally with as many people as you can muster. And this is a film best watched on the big screen – I might even say that seeing it anywhere else is not really seeing it at all.
I suppose there is always the possibility of people seeing this movie, not buying into it, and just dismissing it as a lot of pretentiously weird pictures strung together with a vaguely New Age-y soundtrack playing over the top. However, whether you think Samsara is a non-narrative, non-verbal meditation on the eternal themes of life and death, or just a lot of landscapes and time-lapse photography intercut with people with weird stuff on their heads staring at the camera, the film grants you the permission to make that decision for yourself: and that's no small thing these days. For me, this was one of the most memorable films of the year, and well worth seeking out.