“Samsara” film essay

“Samsara” a film by Ron Frick, on Netflix

Samsara by Ron Frick

The musical direction of this film, as stunning as the visuals, literally entrances us as Ron Frick’s visuals take us traveloguing through some of the most striking landscapes and manscapes of the planet. The beauty of the film, shot in 70 mm in countries across the globe, is breathtaking. It is composed like a dance cycle: sometimes the landscape is made to dance, as in one remarkable desert sequence, shot in time lapse, in which a single dessicated tree comes to life in the stark angles of the sun and the gentler light of stars and moon. In another, thousands of chickens are seen on a massive industrial conveyor, and we realize that their dance is final: the conveyor is leading them to their grotesquely industrial final moment.

The subject of this film seems to be, well.. eternity. It takes us into volcanoes, where rock is mutable liquid, and into the Buddist monastery where sand painting of heartrending beauty is made by monks shaking sand, grain by grain, onto the mandala, and where, once the work is finished and has been contemplated, it is swept into a bowl so that the process can be repeated. I am reminded of T.S. Eliot’s beautiful lines

Words move, music moves

Only in Time…

This film also reminds us that that is equally true of dance, prison sentences, or stone monuments.

You can’t look at this film without being grateful to be taken to places on the earth where you will never walk, into factories where hands literally fidget for the next industrial part to arrive on the assembly line, or where young monks run up the steps of their temple to race around the prayer wheel and set it in motion. I may never see the girl-boys of Thailand, but their challenging, lonely eyes have now tried to seduce me.

There are hundreds of moments in this film worth watching, and it would be horrid folly to ask anyone to ignore it, but I do want to say that the film doesn’t seem to have decided where the pointed end of the stick is facing. Is it about the eternal, or perhaps, in its sequence about industrial food production and consumption, about the horrors of the way we humans harvest protein, meant only to be consumed by overweight people and washed down with soda? Frick wants us to see both the movement of rock and the movement of pigs’ carcasses as a kind of dance, but I very well remember the effect of Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi, with a score by Philip Glass, whose arpeggios became so insistent and so troubling that the film’s theme was delivered more strongly, more insistently than in Frick’s.

Do not ignore Samsara, as I did, thinking that the documentary was going to give me a narrow message about Eastern spiritual practice. The film is much more ambitious than that; it tells us that mankind’s unstoppable desire to make and mutate the world, even in the way we destroy it, is part of the gaia of the planet. That’s a big message, and the beauty of the score, the breathtaking force of the imagery, and the amazing places that we get to see, are all worth contemplation. If you come out of this filmic experience with a new appreciation for those who can create beauty in the morning only to sweep it up and prepare for a new creation on the morrow, that can only be a good thing.

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