The Santa Fe Film Festival’s sponsor, the Center for Contemporary Arts presents “Samsara,” the latest expedition into the mysteries of earth by filmmaker Ron Fricke. This guided meditation on the seasons of life, death and rebirth was exquisitely photographed in 70mm. Its synthesis of time-lapse, slow motion and optical phase printing, makes “Samsara” a kind of time travel device invented by the filmmakers for our enlightenment.
Fricke’s pioneering camerawork was first seen by a larger audience in the groundbreaking non-verbal feature “Koyaanisqatsi” directed by Santa Fe resident Godfrey Reggio. Their collaboration deepened through two additional titles by Reggio entitled “Powaqqatsi”, and “Naqoyqatsi”, while Fricke graduated to directing his own features including the award winning “Chronos” (1985), and “Baraka” (1992).
“Koyaanisqatsi” made its world premier at the Santa Fe Film Festival on April 27, 1982 and was immediately hailed as a groundbreaking cinematic achievement. It went on to be embraced internationally for its innovative presentation of moving images, as well as its landmark soundtrack by composer Philip Glass.
For the sake of better appreciating their place in the evolution of motion pictures, “Samsara”, “Baraka”, and the Qatsi Trilogy could be grouped together as prime examples of a sub-culture in movie making known as Pure Cinema. Absent of actors and sets, it enlarges upon the language of montage (film editing), which is distinct from theater or literature in that it encompasses a multidimensional choreography of light, lens, time, nature, humanity and machine. Very early experiments in this form include “Ballet Mechanique” (1924), “Berlin, Symphony of a City” (1927), and “Man with a Movie Camera” (1929), among others.
The films of Reggio and Fricke, from “Koyaanisqatsi” through “Samsara,” make particular use of an early editing experiment referred to as “The Kuleshov Effect,” in which an actor was filmed with a dispassionate expression. The film was then cut together with contrasting images that lead the audience to conclusions by association. The point being it is not the content of the pictures but their combination that imbues movies with their meaning.
For example, pairing the actor’s neutral close up with a steaming bowl of soup, Russian film pioneer Lev Kuleshov made audiences unanimously presume that the man was hungry. Editing together the very same clip of the face with a child’s coffin made him seem to be grieving. The Kuleshov Effect allows for a pronounced editorial tone, yet one that common sense must confirm in each of us, inviting the viewer to interpret for him or herself the emotional value an image.
While they were making the movie, industry executives warned them that no one would ever watch it because there was no dialog. When they would ask the director “Who’s in it?” He would say, “you.”
Though we may think we have seen some of “Samsara’s” subjects before, time and again it is revealed to us that we haven’t. Contrasting a bird’s with a worm’s eye point of view, the filmmakers scrub our attention back and forth across a broad swath of earthly activities to gently cleanse our eyes of apathy and bias and flush out entropy and dysfunction in society at large.
Not all the scenes of nature in “Samsara” are upward gazing in awe. Neither are all views of the machine downcast with disdain. One of the most inspiring visuals I came away with was of a metropolis at night, glittering like crystal, firmly fixed, yet in perpetual motion, constantly expelling light in the darkness.
I see why one of these movies has to be released every decade or so. It is a multidimensional time capsule of human progress and also a kind of mellow psychedelic trip without the attendant risks. After watching “Samsara”, I feel like I’ve grown as a human being, gratified by my connection to nature and humbled by my complicity with the machine.
The Santa Fe Film Festival is proud to have been the venue for the world premier of “Koyaanisqatsi.” The legacy of Reggio’s Qatsi Trilogy and subsequent Ron Fricke spin-offs have endeared themselves to New Mexicans by a number of other close associations.
Director Godfrey Reggio still lives here and continues his work as founder of the Institute for Regional Education in Santa Fe. Before becoming a pioneer cinematographer and director, former resident Ron Fricke was once a humble sketch artist doing portraits on the plaza for tourists.
The participation of resident Alton Walpole as co-producer of both “Koyaanisqatsi” and “Baraka” is one more fact that makes movie lovers particularly proud to live here. Alton contributed in different capacities on the subsequent titles “Powaqqatsi” and portions of “Samsara” as well.
“For me,” states Walpole, “it caused a real change in my feelings about the visual impact of filmmaking, the idea that you could tell a story more strongly with images than with words.” Alton and his Mountainair Films continue to enrich the motion picture industry in New Mexico and beyond.
What’s more, David Aubrey, chief of Santa Fe’s Lightningwood Pictures, who is currently creating a trailer for the 2012 Santa Fe Film Festival, was credited for having co-edited “Baraka.” Dave reflected on that experience recently. “Without a traditional script it was a wide open canvas, and an editor’s dream to have that kind of freedom.”
To top it all off, Santa Fe composer Michael Stearns wrote the music for “Chronos”, “Baraka” and “Samsara.” Michael has composed scores for an impressive roster of popular films, IMAX features, amusement park rides, video games and planetarium shows worldwide.
What a mark of distinction it is for New Mexico filmmakers to have made such enduring contributions to international film culture. These movies blow up, in high resolution, growing evidence of how delicately we are poised between heaven and hell in this journey from birth to death, and whether we and our children are going to be able to exist more in one realm or the other during our lifetimes.
Pure Cinema of this quality provides us with both telescope and microscope to peer into the heart of modern civilization, as well as what remains of ancient ones, for a singular perspective of our interconnection and potential for transcendence. Movies like this rise above all technology, business and politics required to make them.
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Many thanks to our local film wizards for helping bring these works to life, and to our colleagues at Center for Contemporary Arts for bringing “Samsara” to Santa Fe audiences. “Samsara” is showing through November 8, 2012 at CCA, located at 1050 Old Pecos Trail, a short walk south from the plaza. Their info line is 505-982-1338 or visit http://ccasantafe.org.
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