‘Samsara’ contrasts the secular, the sensual and the spiritual

I was surprised to find that this wasn’t the first movie to be called “Samsara.” Yet make no mistake, Ron Fricke’s movie has nothing to do with previous movies of the same name, except in a tenuous theme. If you’ve seen Fricke’s “Chronos” or “Baraka” you have an idea of what to expect: Beautifully filmed sequences of nature and man from various locations without a word of explanation. “Samsara” opens today at the Laemmle Playhouse 7 in Pasadena.

The 1950 Indian movie “Samsaram” was 219 minutes in Telugu and Tamil about a middle-class family that is troubled, but according to the Wikipedia entry, there’s a happy ending. In 1975 IMDB lists another “Samsaram” but little else about it except it was directed by T. Prakash Rao and in the Indian language of Telugu. There was also a 1988 “Samsaram” directed by Narasimha Rao Relangi, again in Telugu.

The 2001 Indian/Italian/French/German movie, “Samsara,” was about a Buddhist monk named Tashi (Shawn Ku) who searches for enlightenment, but instead is seduced by secular life, leaves the monastery and marries the daughter of a rich man.

Samsara or samsaram comes from sanskrit, the primary liturgical language of Hindu, but also the traditional language of Jainism and Buddhism. It is the official language of Uttarakhand, a state in North India.

In Hinduism, samsara is the concept of reincarnation. In Buddhism, it is the continuous flowing between the cycle of birth, death and decay. Samsara is something that is universal and can only be escaped by enlightenment.

In Jainism, samsara is a continuous cycle of reincarnation that is without a beginning, but in which a soul is bound by karma. The only salvation is moksa, the highest and purest state of consciousness.

The team of director Ron Fricke and producer Mark Magidson brought us “Baraka” in 1992. That non-narrative movie used a word derived from Arabic that meant blessing and was filmed in 70 mm Todd-AO. That format hadn’t been used since the 1971 “The Last Valley.”  The format is high resolution for widescreen and was named for its co-developer, Mike Todd (1909-1958), who as a Broadway producer and Elizabeth Taylor’s third husband. Under Todd the process which he developed with the American Optical Company was first used for the movie adaptation of the Broadway musical “Oklahoma!”

Fricke and Magidson began “Samsara” in 2000, when digital cameras were evolving but decided that “we needed to use a system that brings back imagery that’s really going to stand the test of time.” And after all, without any dialogue, no narration or commentary, the image is the star.

Fricke was inspired by the 1982 “Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance.” That movie by director Godrey Reggio with music composed by Philip Glass and Fricke was the cinematographer. The movie consists of slow motion and time lapse sequences of cities and natural landscapes in the United States. Koyaanisqatsi comes from a Native American Hopi word and Reggio would continue on this linguistic track with his 1988 “Powaqqatsi: Life in Transformation” and the 2002 “Naqoyqatsi: Life as War.”

Their 1985, “Chronos” had footage from eight countries for a 35-minute. “Baraka” was 24 countries and took three years to film and produce. “Samsara” is 99 minutes and took almost five years for Fricke (director, cinematographer, co-editor, co-writer) and Magidson (producer, co-editor and co-writer). While one could imagine how beautiful it must have been to visit 100 locations in 24 countries, imagine all the equipment, checking in and out of airports and the visas and other legal hassles.

As in “Baraka,” there is beauty, but there is also sadness and it might not be a movie suitable for young children unless you want to explain to them the facts of life and loneliness (sex dolls). This is about life, death and rebirth–the ever turning wheel of life.  The young female dancers  crowned in silver with yellow costumes will doubtlessly inspire many belly dancers. The conveyor belt of chicks might trouble you a bit if you consider their fate. Then there’s those dolls for adults–a different kind of action figure.

You won’t be able to escape gridlock here because our infamous Los Angeles freeways are featured–moving faster than usual because of the time-lapse photography.

Because of the theme, the scenes of monks making a sand mandala are featured at the beginning and the finished piece is also shown at the end before it is destroyed. Impermanence is the true nature of life. According to the press notes, the imagery is broken down into categories: nature without humanity, waterfall sequences or sand dunes, factory images, food processing sequences and images of people in prayer.

You might wish to create a travelogue of some of these places if you can figure out where they are. Not all of them are listed, but perhaps in a year or two Wikipedia will feature the findings of sleuths around the world.

The Los Angeles Times reviewer, Kenneth Turan calls this a head trip. Do you really have to know where these places are to enjoy them? From the press notes, we know that it required a two-hour hike each way in 100 degree weather to visit the Native American ruin, Betatakin in Arizona. The pig factory is in China. The sulfur mine is in Indonesia. Other sites were in Ladakh, India (for the sand painting in a monastery) and Namibia.

Perhaps it would work better if we didn’t. I wouldn’t feel the road rage or have flashes of anger, dread and frustration if I didn’t recognized the Los Angeles freeways (which comes just after a portrait of a Himba woman in Africa). Releasing the need to know each detail, could free us to appreciate these layers of images. Places you and I might not have known had existed but for this movie. Will we now want or lust to visit them or can we sit back and enjoy that someone did visit them and invest in time and money to present these images to us.

Sometimes you don’t need words because we’ll each derive meaning from our own experiences and with only a soundtrack of music by Michael and Lisa Gerrard–in this case added after production as opposed to “Baraka” which was composed with Michael Stearn’s music in mind. Fricke has called this a “guided meditation” and Fricke, who does meditate, feels that one should approach this like walking through an art gallery looking at great paintings or photography. Wander and perhaps you’ll have an epiphany.

“Samsara” opened today at the Laemmle Pasadena Playhouse 7 and the Town Center 5 in Orange County. It will also come to Laemmle NoHo 7 and the Claremont 5 on September 14, 2012.

If you want to see a real mandala made by Tibetan monks, head over to the Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena from September 5-9, 2012.

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