When deciding whether or not to see Samsara at the Dome in downtown Hollywood – an incredibly vast and immersive movie experience that is every bit worth the steep price of admission – I made the mistake of perusing Rotten Tomatoes for quick and dirty judgments (funny how we can look at this tactic as a mistake, when, at core, it’s the essential commercial purpose of film criticism), and the blurb that I had floating in my head while the film washed over me was this one from the Chicago Reader's Ben Sachs’: "Any sincerity inherent in the project is overwhelmed by the manufactured awe of its godawful New Age score." Now, I admit, it’s not necessarily professional practice to be so persuaded by other critical work in the formulation of one’s opinion, but Samsara's music is such an unmistakable element of its texture that it's probably impossible not to feel one way or another about it. In this case, I sympathized with Sachs' assessment, so I kept wondering, is he correct to say that this music that's just plain goofy is overwhelming the sincerity? That's a tough question to crack, because I'm not sure I buy the alleged sincerity of Samsara to begin with. I'll go a step further than Sachs' and others and argue that in addition to being plain goofy, this music gets at the core of what I found grating and ridiculous about the larger artistic and philosophical modus operandi of Samsara.
Written by Michael Stearns, Lisa Gerrard, Marcello De Francisci, and performed with musicians Bonnie Jo Hunt, Ron Sunsinger, and Vidia Wesenlund, the Samsara score is a synthesis of reverby Enya-esque ooh's and ahh's, spaced-out synth-pad drones, vaguely indigenous drum rhythms and chants, a grab bag of tropes from different cultural musics, and ever-escalating-and-sustaining climaxes, and the number of musicians who worked on it only gives a hint of the clusterfuck eclecticism on display. It also reflects the guiding ethos of the film: cover everything, mix it all up, and present it as one piece, because everything belongs together and warrants the same level of attention. Carried along by this flowing, rarely ceasing musical accompaniment, the images start to feel democratized to an outlandish extent – the slicing of raw poultry is observed with the same detached, aestheticized awe as the painted face of an Aborigine. Everything is viewed as if a lunar landscape, something worthy of caution and wonder.
The idea at the heart of the film is interconnectedness, which justifies Fricke's seemingly haphazard cutting between radically different locales (poverty-stricken countrysides to bustling urban metropolises, for instance), but there's a superficial quality to this universal equation. Unlike, say, Terrence Malick (another filmmaker who works on this cosmic scale but in a more searching, inconclusive manner), Fricke seems to have decided from the onset that there is something sacred in everything, meanwhile missing the unique charm of something plainer, more-down-earth. It's no surprise that some of the film's most genuinely humbling moments comprise the only times the musical score lets up and we glimpse an image for what it really is, without the thick gloss of importance laid upon it. A waterfall, or a roiling cloud of volcanic smoke, or a speckled cityscape dotting the night sky, is sublimely beautiful on its own, but with the relentless side-note that it's only sublime paired with something else, it becomes a trite, degraded postcard-ready picture.
Samsara aims for nothing less than an existential survey of the past and current history of life on Earth. At a certain point, it feels like it’s working its way through a checklist of major talking points of humanity both in a contemporary and a metaphysical sense: war, religion, prostitution, food industry, poverty, etc. The film's game plan is simplistic: juxtaposition. Let's try juxtaposing the ancient with the modern, the poverty-stricken with the well-off, the mechanical with the organic, the violent with the gentle, the macro with the micro, the vertical with the horizontal, etc. The question of intersections, of revelations, of sums, of outliers, is so rarely addressed; instead, Fricke is keen on stepping back to play the contemplative card, shuffling the puzzle pieces for the fun of it and leaning back on the knowledge there's a picture within there somewhere.
Now, to step back for a moment, I should admit that Samsara houses some of the most immaculately photographed, "breathtaking" images I've seen in my life. Among them: pyramid temples spaced out in a verdant landscape and illuminated by the last golden beams of a sunset; a slowly panning time-lapse view from the inside of a shack in the desert; color-coded assembly lines that stretch as far as the eye can see; soaring shots over intersecting urban highways at all different times of day; an aerial glimpse of a vast religious ceremony in which people miles apart from each other bow in unison, creating a collective "blinking" effect that has to be seen to be believed. For these shots alone, I'd recommend seeing Samsara on the biggest screen possible. But as a cumulative work of art, I feel cheated. To the extent that the film expresses anything, it deals in fortune-cookie clichés: destruction is creation, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, power corrupts, progress is relative, etc. If you're looking for a bit more of this, Samsara's not a bad place to find it.