Nature and the Machine

“Samsara,” is the latest cinematic exploration 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, becomes a quintessential time/space travel device invented by the filmmakers for mass 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 28, 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.

The man who inspired worldwide audiences and generations of film experimenters, started out life on a very different path. Reggio began his adulthood a Catholic monk and though he left the order decades ago, it is obvious that between his now graying eyebrows still springs the same determination to share spiritual sustenance with his fellow human beings.

At the Santa Fe Art Institute a couple of years back, I listened to him speak about modern life, creative work, and his thoughts on new media. Though his films demonstrate great technical mastery, the director does not place his faith in the future upon technology. It’s always the message that counts with that celluloid sage, much more than his method.

There is something distinctly biblical about the Qatsi Trilogy. I wonder if the director would agree with my description of his work as serving up a sort of a secular, non-verbal gospel. The word “sacramental” adequately describes my experience of watching any one of those movies with an open mind.

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 state of the art examples of a long established sub-culture in movie making. Absent of actors and contrived sets, Pure Cinema 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 Kulishov 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, to prove 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 Lem Kulishov 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 Kulishov 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.

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, exhaling light into the darkness.

The transcendent power of these cinematic dissertations lie in there involvement of the audience. Movies mean a lot of things to a lot of people. Then in the movie theater, we’re all looking at them from a slightly different angle. While they were making the “Koyaanisqatsi”, 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.”

Whenever we buy a movie ticket, or click to a live stream we’re asking for the truth, The same thing that keeps us from seeing the truth while it’s happening to us is what makes it plane as day when we watch it replayed on screen.

Time is what shields us from the truth, not time itself, of course, but our attitudes toward it. An example of this would be to go to a movie like one of these for instance, and to be so preoccupied with your own past and future you completely miss the present purpose of the film you came to see. The same dynamic explains why the truth in life escapes our notice so much of the time. You go away wondering what’s the point.

Is it possible to watch any of these films and be distracted by anything more important? The genius of these films is that there is no better story than the one unfolding on this earth at this moment. The content in these assembled recordings absorbs its audience by enlightening them to the naked truth that eludes us night and day.

That’s why a new one of these titles has been released every decade or so. Motion pictures like these help us take the blinders off. Each is a multidimensional time capsule of natures wonder, plunder and blunder as well as a kind of mellow psychedelic trip without the attendant risks. After watching “Samsara,” I feel like I’ve grown as a human being, intoxicated by the elegance of nature and sobered by my complicity with the machine.

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