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‘Baraka’ filmmaker to appear at Wheeler

Stewart Oksenhorn
The local favorite "Baraka" a visual and sonic survey of planet Earth will show at the Wheeler Opera House on Sunday and Monday at 7:30 p.m.
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Mark Magidson’s run in the movie business has not been prolific. The Los Angeles native has credits on just three movies, and his only directing credit is for the concert film “Toward the Within,” by the eclectic art-rock band Dead Can Dance.Still, Magidson’s enduring place in the movie pantheon seems assured. Among Magidson’s films is “Baraka,” a film he co-produced and co-edited. The dialogueless 1992 film, which aims to be nothing less than a visual and sonic survey of planet Earth, has become one of the most continually appealing of cult-status films. More than a decade after its release, the environmentally themed “Baraka,” directed by Ron Fricke, gets regular screenings on both coasts. In Aspen, the Wheeler Film Society shows it twice a year. And that’s nothing compared to Los Angeles’ American Cinematheque, which features weeks-long engagements several times a year. “They refer to it as their ‘house film,'” said Magidson.The nature of “Baraka” has given it its enduring quality. There’s no story; the film is more in the nature of visual poetry, set to the original music of Michael Stearns.”It’s sort of timeless in a way,” said Magidson. “It gives an experience that’s different than what you get in a dialogue film. The people that like it like it a lot. I still get letters from people who have seen it 30 or 40 times.”

The semiannual Wheeler screening of “Baraka” is set for Sunday and Monday, Dec. 26-27, at 7:30 p.m., and local fans of the film will get a special treat. Magidson, in Aspen with his family for the holidays, will participate in a Q-and-A following the Sunday show.One of the more interesting answers Magidson has is to the question, how did an industrial designer come to produce and edit a film like “Baraka”?Not surprisingly, Magidson came to the film industry from the technical side. Soon after the 1983 release of Godfrey Reggio’s “Koyaanisqatsi” – like “Baraka,” a non-narrative, visually driven work – Magidson met that film’s director of production, Ron Fricke. Fricke was about to direct the IMAX-format film “Chronos,” a survey of Western civilization through a visual tour of monumental places like the Vatican, the pyramids at Giza and English castles. Fricke tapped into Magidson’s inventor’s brain and had him invent a motion-control time-lapse camera – one that would allow time-lapse photography, but would introduce a panning motion into the technique.Following the 1985 release of “Chronos” – which was just 40 minutes long, due to the limitations of IMAX – Fricke and Magidson decided to expand the film’s theme in a longer movie. Working in a tight five-man crew and shooting on 70mm film, Fricke and Magidson spent three years making “Baraka.” Fourteen months of the time was spent on principal photography, with the crew traveling the world. Because of the nature of time-lapse photography, which squeezes enormous expanses of real time into seconds of screen time, the 30-second full-moon sequence that concludes “Baraka” took a year of full moons to film.

“I’ve described it as a small film on a big canvas,” said Magidson. “It’s big thematically. And 70mm – that’s a huge canvas.”That big canvas worked against the film on its initial release. “Baraka” – whose title means “blessing” or “breath of life” – got mostly good reviews but did so-so business at first. For one thing, there aren’t many screens equipped to show a 70mm print, and those that exist tend to be huge theaters, not exactly the kind of place “Baraka” could fill. But “Baraka” has had an unusually long shelf life. Partly because of the continued theatrical screenings, it has been a big seller on VHS and now DVD. In his annual movie and video guide, critic Leonard Maltin, while calling “Baraka” “a strikingly visual, insightful National Geographic issue come to life,” concluded that “much of its effect will be lost on the small screen.” But with the advent of large-screen home theaters and the high quality of DVD, “Baraka” has become a big seller for the home market.”[Maltin] was wrong. ‘Baraka’ became a must-have,” said Magidson, noting that the film has broken into the black.

“Baraka” was not the final chapter of Magidson’s film career. Impressed by “Baraka,” the members of Dead Can Dance asked Magidson to direct their 1994 concert film, “Toward the Within.” Magidson was glad to help and found it quite a different experience from his earlier film.”We shot that basically in one night,” said Magidson, who has turned his attention to running his manufacturing company, Moldex.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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