The big picture: ‘Samsara’ screens in Aspen
September 20, 2012
ASPEN – Visual images, even exotic, dramatic, beautiful and startling ones, have, in this digital world, become casual, effortless things. We click a button on our pocket-size camera phone, glance at the image for an instant, then email it off to our contacts list with as brief a message as possible: “4u2njoy.” The recipients look at the photography on a 2-by-3-inch screen for a second, then most likely delete it.
“Samsara” refreshens our experience of what visual images can be, what effect they can have on us. The film, produced by part-time Aspen resident Mark Magidson and showing this weekend at the Wheeler Opera House, is visual poetry: scenes of the natural world, arts and culture, human faces, time-lapse sequences that squeeze hours of activity into a few seconds. Much of the imagery is things we have seen before – sometimes even things we have actually witnessed, not just seen in pictures. There are dance troupes, night skies, prayer gatherings, food processing facilities, and the recurring image of a sand mandala.
“Samsara” has no dialogue or narration – there is a soundtrack of meditative music – no plot and virtually no character development. What gives these images their potency is intention and effort. Magidson, who co-edited and co-wrote the film, along with director Ron Fricke, traveled to 25 countries over five years to make “Samsara.” The movie was shot on 70mm film, giving it a sumptuous look, but the decision to use 70mm film came at a price: shipping the film by FedEx and DHL and preventing exposure to multiple X-rays required excruciating attention. The editing process was as painstaking as the filming and shipping. “The film is made in the edit. We connect scenes in a way we couldn’t script out in advance,” Magidson said. The end result is that, even in a world where we are bombarded by visual images, “Samsara” can shake up our eyes.
“There’s a lot of density in this 99-minute experience,” Magidson said from his home in West Hollywood. “There’s major intention and hopefully that comes across, the density of the images, the effort. Hopefully you feel that when you see the totality of the images.”
Following an afternoon screening last week, I found myself outside the Wheeler looking at familiar things with awakened eyes. I looked straight up the outside walls of the building and noticed the color and texture of the brick, the reflections off the windows, the symmetry of the design.
But “Samsara” is meant to affect more than the eyes. In wrapping together bits of action that are significant on their own – Filipino dancers, Muslim worshippers in Mecca, calving glaciers, an immense martial arts gathering, a baby being Baptized, a family cradling their guns – and even more mundane scenes, like people hitting balls at an immense driving range, Magidson and Fricke are presenting a wide-angle view on mankind and the Earth. “Samsara” is nothing if not fully inclusive of all aspects of human activity.
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“The take-away you hope for is feeling connected to the phenomenon of life around the world,” Magidson said. “You hope to have it be an inner journey, at the end of which you feel uplifted. What you’re really looking for is this flow, from Brazil to China to the Philippines, and this inner feeling of connectedness.
While “Samsara” has no traditional story line, there are a few themes that get developed. The sand mandala, first being created and then destroyed, receives a lot of screen time. (“Samsara” is a Sanskrit word that can mean impermanence, or endless cycle.) The film opens with King Tut’s mask staring straight at the camera, a symbol of death, the human face, ancient things.
“The frontal stare – that’s the metaphor we’re exploring,” Magidson said. “Tut is looking at you, kind of back from the other side, from eternity you might say. We’re trying to show the connection with the life and death experiences.”
While “Samsara” has an overall positive tone, it seems to intentionally acknowledge the darker corners of existence. There are sex dolls, a burial scene with the body placed in a coffin shaped like a gun. One of the standout bits is of French performance artist Olivier de Sagazan doing a piece that is as disturbing as it is humorous and unexpected. And just about at the film’s midpoint, viewers are taken inside a poultry processing plant. It’s an extended visit, long enough to show chickens being cooped up in crowded pens, mechanically swept along the assembly line, chopped and sliced and rinsed and packaged.
“We’re not trying to have a point of view of good or bad, right or wrong,” Magidson said. “Some of these places are really difficult to work in – the chicken factory is a miserable place to work, low pay. But it’s feeding people, and people need jobs. The film introduces complex issues like that and it doesn’t seek to give answers. That’s not what a film like this tries to do. We’re just trying to move through it and give viewers the space to have their own experience.”
In the context of the rest of the footage, the chicken slaughtering comes across as just another activity that take place on earth, with little political message.
“I love documentaries with a point of view,” Magidson said. “But this is something different. It’s meant to give you a personal journey, not a point of view about right or wrong or pro or con on a particular subject.”
Mark Magidson had been a mechanical engineer and inventor of medical devices when he met Ron Fricke. A filmmaker, Fricke had been the director of photography on “Koyaanasqatsi,” a 1982 film that, like “Samsara,” combines imagery and music, leaving out dialogue and narration. Magidson was looking to get into something more artistic, and he and Fricke collaborated on 1985’s “Chronos,” a 35-minute IMAX film with no dialogue that meditated on the passing of time. But the technology at the time didn’t sufficiently allow the two to explore the themes that interested them, so they invented a 70mm IMAX camera that could. With their new equipment, Magidson and Fricke made “Baraka,” a visual poem filmed in locations around the globe. Roger Ebert put “Baraka” on his list of Great Films.
“Samsara,” which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival and began its theatrical release last month in New York and Los Angeles, might be the last film of this type that Magidson makes. The effort is enormous and time-consuming; the difficulty of transporting film keeps getting greater because of security issues. While the use of 70mm film has been a fundamental part of the process, he doesn’t rule out a switch to digital technology, where the quality and convenience continue to increase rapidly.
“You’d have to really think hard about doing this again in 70mm,” the 60-year-old Magidson said. “But there’s nothing like 70mm in the digital world. You bring it back in a format that’s just stunning. So much fidelity and richness.”