Three decades ago, the documentary “Koyaanisqatsi” electrified art-house audiences with its spectacular time-lapse photography of cityscapes and natural wonders, as well as its highly influential score by Philip Glass. Ron Fricke worked as cinematographer on “Koyaanisqatsi” before directing his own globe-trotting films, which abandon traditional narrative in favor of juxtaposing photography from earth’s most remote corners and most dehumanizing habitations.
Fricke’s new film, “Samsara,” takes its title from a Sanskrit word meaning “the ever-turning wheel of life.” It offers sequences of remarkable images, shot over a four-year period on 70-mm film, in such countries as China, India, Japan, Ethiopia and the United States. It has no plot and virtually no spoken words, leaving the audience to find meaning in its imagery, although at times the filmmaker’s editorial intentions are all too clear.
The first section could be an IMAX film, with its emphasis on spectacular landscapes and ancient monuments reminiscent of Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias” (“Round the decay / Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare / The lone and level sands stretch far away”). Fricke’s command of time-lapse photography shows shadows flowing across the undulating curves of deserts. A breathtaking early sequence shows the spires of impossibly ancient castles piercing a forest canopy. The early scenes also emphasize religious practices, including baptisms and Tibetan monks producing intricate sand paintings of astonishing color and complexity. Fricke clearly invites the viewer to consider “Samsara” as a cinematic equivalent of sand painting.
These sequences of spiritual practice and natural placidity give way to high-speed shots of big-city street scenes, from headlights flashing like neon lights on highways to groups in a large gym’s spin class, their knees pumping at a rate like that of hamsters in a wheel. These scenes effectively illustrate the dehumanizing qualities of high-tech urban life, but they cheat a bit. Pretty much anyone, from the most enlightened monks to the most sensitive farmers, will look like absurd wind-up figures when shown in speeded-up fashion.
Much of the film implicitly critiques the excesses of modern life, from the shots of people through sprawling landfills to the close-ups of heavily made-up indigenous people glaring at the camera. You expect to see “Do not bring your evil here” in comic book-style word balloons over their heads. “Samsara” even includes a staged, music video-type vignette of a tweedy man at a desk who rubs paint and clay on his face in increasingly deranged fashion until his face is completely smothered.
A section devoted to food production on a massive scale proves more queasily effective, with workers folding dumplings on gargantuan assembly lines and footage of a giant, Lazy Susan-like contraption for live cows. (The 2005 documentary “Our Daily Bread” focused entirely on similar food industry footage, to devastating effect.) The most lingering moments of dehumanization involve highly disturbing footage of mannequins and cutting-edge androids (some of which may be sex dolls). Their ability to move their eyes and change their expressions, while still seeming utterly lifeless, couldn’t be more creepy.
I must confess that I’m not always certain how to watch a non-narrative film like “Samsara.” Should I focus on the images and the relationship between the composition and the content? Or should I take a more meditative approach and let my mind wander wherever the images suggest? “Samsara” may have subliminally encouraged the latter. I didn’t have a stopwatch, but the shots seemed to last roughly the same duration, so the editing lacked rhythmic variation, as if trying to put the viewer into a trance.
The sights of spectacular scenery and ancient monuments elicited genuine awe, while the ones involving modern civilization could have been checked off a list of political issues: food preparation, gun ownership, incarceration, pollution, etc. We briefly visit the Internet-famous dancing Philippine prisoners, see portraits of determined-looking Americans holding rifles and watch a genuinely odd funeral with a casket shaped like a handgun. At times it’s like watching the most technologically advanced possible version of the 1970s “Keep America Beautiful” TV ads with the weeping Native American.
Ironically, the people who seem most in harmony with the world can come across as the most alien, like the heavily costumed Balinese dancers who open the film or a line of bejeweled dancers who seem to have a thousand arms, like Shiva as conceived by Busby Berkeley. “Samsara” reminds viewers of the splendors of the world around us. If only we could do something about all the people on it.
“Samsara.” Directed by Ron Fricke. Rated PG-13. 99 minutes. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.