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Wednesday, 5 September 2012

The patterns of Samsara

This is a review of Samsara (2011)

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2012
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)


5 September

This is a review of Samsara (2011)

* Contains spoilers *

Unless you intuit something from the eyes of the dancers at the beginning (and they, at least, are allowed a varying expression, not just a fixed gaze), you may not realize how intense, disturbingly intense, Samsara (2011) is going to get. You may recognize some locations early on, such as Petra, The Hall of Mirrors at the Palais de Versailles, the cathedral of Rheims, but it is not material, for this is not a travelogue with a soundtrack of music: its abiding purpose is not to substitute for visiting those places.

Let's come back, first, to those unvarying faces, without expression save in the eyes. This is not witnessing, this is determining, as if for passport photographs, how someone must agree to look to appear. So, also, is the editing, which, for example, takes out unwanted frames in the close scenes of workers on production-lines, by selectively speeding up that part of the process so that we see the product but not what intervenes.

On these grounds alone, quite apart from the fact that the credits acknowledge Fricke and Madigson's 'treatment', do not doubt that this film will manipulate you any less, perhaps more, than a feature film. The transitions, the juxtapositions, are managed well and done carefully, because they need to be in what is choreography, a thought-through presentation of images and music, much composed especially for the film.

Samsara has, in its widest sense, a political message. It shows chickens being gathered by machine to be caged for transport, piglets suckling in a confined space, cows being milked on a huge turntable, food items and meat being processed en masse, landfill sites and scrap PCs in pieces being rooted over, and the process of manufacture of weapons, and electrical goods and even, to take things to their logical conclusion, sex-dolls*, together with a display of dancing Thai lady-boys (all with a number, and so all can be chosen).

All is pattern, all is conformity, from the convicts performing aerobically in a jail in The Philippines (to what appears to be an added disco-beat) to vaster numbers still of the military performing tai chi, where, seen from one angle, the uniformity of movement became translated into order. There was a similar effect of reducing the individual to a geometric display with the worshippers at Mecca, or military parades of what appear to be US marines and Chinese women with short red dresses and automatic weapons.


Early on, the film propounds a theme of decay, of the stars in their apparent traverse across the night sky in time-lapse scenes being the backdrop to human activity and the natural world, and of the transient nature of all things: if we know the Book of Ecclesiastes or the Buddhist teaching about impermanence, still none of this prepares us for the cumulative power of the images with which we are confronted, summed up for me in the scene from France where a man wearing a suit and sitting at a desk slowly starts applying clay to his face and is soon, in a frenzy of transformation, no longer recognizable. Likewise, the multi-lane highways from around the world, showing traffic ever in motion, are both mesmerically beautiful, and seem to question the point of all this motion and striving

The film takes us into all this activity and consumption to an almost unbearable degree and then calmly back out through revisiting a Tibetan Buddhist painting that, when the novices came in from outside and gathered around, we saw being carefully constructed with coloured sand (a
mandala. The West’s approach might be to revere or seek to preserve such an artefact: here, first one line, then three others intersecting it, is scored through it to represent that, however attractive it may have been, it is just one world-picture amongst others, and the coloured sand is then mixed together by all present, scraping and scooping it up into a container.

The simplicity of the horns that called out from the monastery have brought us back to the dancers in Bali or somewhere like it, performing one in front of another with a profusion of elongated arms and eyes on their palms. Their actions seem serene, graceful, although embodying the same need for everyone to play her part in a seamless whole.


We end with the desert to the sound of the sea. All of these things that we saw before both seem and do not seem different, because we are different**.



End-notes

* I was unavoidably reminded of Bianca in Lars and The Real Girl (2007).

** I avoided Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life (2011), because it seemed overly long and likely to be irritating. Samsara was not, but I was glad when I could sense that the uncomfortable footage was coming to an end. On that note, I have found some reviews that I found worth looking at (the last two very brief ones, the first in more depth):


http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2012/august-web-only/samsara.html;

http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2012/sep/02/samsara-ron-fricke-review;

http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2012/aug/30/samsara-review?newsfeed=true.

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