Whenever events in my world start to bring me down, I turn my thoughts to the classic Louis Armstrong recording of What a Wonderful World. No matter how bad things may get, the sentiments of that song’s lyrics always restore my hope and faith in the beauty, power and glory of this creation we call earth, a response not unlike what’s evoked by the new cinematic sensation, “Samsara.”While “Samsara” has been rather loosely characterized as a “documentary,” that label doesn’t do the film justice. It’s more of a cinematic meditation, a reflection on our world and what’s gone into its creation in its present state. It consists of only images, music and occasional nature sounds, with no dialogue, narration or graphics. It features gorgeously photographed vistas of natural and manmade beauty, as well as visuals of nature and man run amok, from 25 countries around the globe. It’s a project that took director Ron Fricke and producer Mark Magidson five years to create, and it’s an effort that was well worth the wait.
In exploring its central premise, “Samsara” looks at creation as a force that’s capable of expression in myriad forms. The picture’s creators never judge the results for “better” or “worse,” always recognizing the intrinsic validity of each and every manifestation, no matter what its nature. Those decisions are left up to the viewer, who is free to evaluate the imagery and see the outcomes as he or she chooses, be it positively, negatively or neutral.
In that sense, the film epitomizes the core principle underlying the conscious creation process, namely, that we each create our own reality based on the thoughts, beliefs and intents we hold. The picture essentially says that the world we see before us depends on what we each manifest from within, with the end results materializing in completed form before our eyes. All options are thus on the table in this metaphysical scenario, again, be they those of a “positive,” “negative” or “neutral” nature, depending on one’s particular perspective.
Given the infinite range of options available to us, however, it would behoove us to choose our creations carefully. We’re capable of creating great beauty, as seen in the images of temples, churches, palaces and skyscrapers from around the world. At the same time, we’re equally capable of manifesting ugliness beyond belief, as evidenced by the shots of slums, garbage dumps and polluted sites found throughout the globe. And what’s perhaps even more unsettling is our capacity for indifference, our uncaring disregard for the environment, the creatures with whom we share the planet and even our own fellow human beings, as shown in scenes of such places as food processing plants, prisons and border crossings. We’ve materialized a magnificent terrestrial home for ourselves, so we’d better be careful with what we do with it.
Of course, it’s somewhat comforting to know that we get multiple chances to get things right. If we screw up, there are always additional opportunities to make amends. That’s because, as the film contends, our existence is innately based on a system of repeating, unending cycles. The picture’s title even reflects this; the word “samsara” is Sanskrit for “the ever-turning wheel of life,” an infinite, incessant progression of creation, destruction and re-creation that we all experience, even if we’re not completely aware of it. Metaphorically speaking, this is perhaps best depicted in the images of Tibetan Buddhists spinning their prayer wheels, physical reminders that serve to enlighten us of this metaphysical concept. It’s also apparent in the monks’ creations of sandpaintings, intricate, meticulously detailed images that are wiped clean upon their completion to signify the inherent impermanence of all things. Those who might be shocked at the destruction of these beautiful images should take heed, however, that, no matter how many of them might be destroyed, there are always new ones to be created to take their place, a certainty that’s assured as long as the prayer wheels continue their spinning.
Those looking for clues as to which creations might be “preferable” and/or longest lasting can take cues from the attributes they share. Creations that celebrate our spiritual nature and our connection to the divine collaborator who helps us make our manifestations possible are among those images that are most enduring. To the contrary, those that appeal to our more secular inclinations seem much more prone to decline and deterioration. That’s particularly true for those tied our baser instincts, especially those that glorify our lacks, fears, wants and worries, concerns that clearly embody a belief that the Universe doesn’t support us. But, if that were indeed true, surely we wouldn’t have been blessed with such a grand and glorious home as we have, now would we? In this pursuit, as in any other of a conscious creation-related nature, we truly get back what we concentrate upon.“Samsara” recalls many other films that director Fricke has worked on, including his prior works “Baraka” (1992) and “Chronos” (1985), as well as the immensely popular “Koyaanisqatsi” (1982), for which he served as cinematographer. In some ways, “Samsara” is an extension of these other pictures, not so much as a narrative sequel but as a continuing kaleidoscopic treatment of subjects that are just as timeless now as they were 30 years ago (and that will likely be just as timely 30 or more years hence). The picture is stunningly photographed on 70-millimeter film (you must see this on the big screen) and beautifully scored by Michael Stearns, Lisa Gerrard and Marcello De Francisci. The editing of some sequences might have been handled better, especially in some of the picture’s transitions, although this shortcoming doesn’t detract significantly from the overall quality of this truly superb film.
Whenever natural or manmade disasters occur, I’ll invariably encounter individuals who lament the state of the world, seeing it in a predominantly negative light and woefully decrying the inherently flawed nature of physical existence. Their impassioned arguments can, admittedly, be quite persuasive, too. But, at times like that, I look to shift my perspective. In particular, I like to recall a vacation that I took with my partner to Acadia National Park in 2011. While sitting atop the summit of Cadillac Mountain looking down upon the splendor of the Maine seacoast and the charming seaport of Bar Harbor, I told him about the doom seekers, observing, “You know, no matter how bad things may get in this world, it’s comforting to know that creations as beautiful as this still exist.” Experiences like that little New England moment renew and reinforce my faith in the belief that the world can be just as magnificent as it can be horrendous. “Samsara” echoes that same notion, and it does so impeccably.
What a wonderful world indeed.
Copyright © 2012, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.