Saturday, April 25, 2015

89.7 KMSU Spring Pledge Drive

89.7 KMSU FM "The Maverick" is currently holding its spring pledge drive. If you listen to Sounds of Cinema from this station or believe in independent radio, please consider making a financial contribution. You can make a pledge by calling 507-389-5678 or 1-800-456-7810. You can also make a pledge online at the the station's website.

This pledge drive has a high fundraising goal--$40,000--because the station is in need of a new transmitter. This is an expensive piece of equipment and it is critical to keeping KMSU on the air.

If you listen to KMSU and enjoy its content, please help to ensure that the station continues to broadcast its unique blend of programming. In stressful and uncertain economic times we all have to take extra care in how we spend our money. But it is also important to remember that we demonstrate what we value by where and how we spend our money. Consider the impact that KMSU's program has on the community. Many of the programs, especially those that are locally produced, provide a very important service to the listenership and to the Mankato area as a whole.

It's also important to remember that pledges are not just about money. Space and funding are at a premium across higher education. When you make a pledge to KMSU you demonstrate that the station is valued by the community and that helps justify its continued existence.

On Sunday, April 26th, those listening to Sounds of Cinema from KMSU will hear a special pledge drive episode. Those listening from 89.5 KQAL FM in Winona will hear the regularly scheduled program.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Reflections on 'Samsara'

On April 7th and 9th, 2015, Sounds of Cinema hosted a screening of the 2012 documentary Samsara at Winona State University. The event was sponsored by the Winona State University English Department, Mass Communication Department, Department of Theater and Dance, Sociology Department, Department of Art and Design, Darrell W. Krueger Library, and the Winona State University Sustainable Futures Theme. 

Samsara is a non-narrative documentary that cross-cuts people and locations across the globe, drawing broad parallels and suggesting that human civilization is trapped in a vicious cycle.

Samsara was directed by Ron Fricke and produced by Mark Magidson. Fricke had worked as a cinematographer and editor on the 1983 documentary Koyaanisqatsi and he directed the 1993 documentary Baraka, on which Magidson served as a producer. There are quite a few parallels between those three films and especially between Baraka and Samsara. To make Samsara, the filmmakers traveled to twenty-five different countries and shot on 70 millimeter film. That was a rare feat and it made the production much more difficult but the 70mm film stock achieved unequalled clarity and detail.

The music of Samsara largely consists of a score provided by Marcello De Francisci, Lisa Gerrard, and Michael Stearns. In most non-narrative films the music is composed or selected ahead of time and the visuals are then cut and cued to match the rhythms of the music. The footage of Samsara was edited first and the music was added later. This gives the visuals of the film primacy and the filmmakers let the rhythms of the imagery dictate the tone of the film. 

Despite leading with the imagery instead of the soundtrack, Samsara does have a musical feel. As a non-narrative feature, this film is a collage, not a story, and it is best understood as a cinematic poem.

Samsara is a very interesting piece of work in regard to its content but also as a piece of cinema. What follows is an examination of a few of the noteworthy aspects of the film.

I. Realism vs. Formalism
One of the binaries in the ways that academics and film critics think about cinema is formalism versus realism. Without getting too far into the critical weeds, formalism means that the filmmaker manipulates the elements (the form) of the motion picture—the lighting, the sound, the exposure speed, and the camera techniques—in order to lead the viewer to a particular conclusion or understanding. That is seen in Samsara in the use of time lapse photography and in the musical selections but it is most notable in Samsara’s editing choices.

A famous experiment by Russian filmmaker Lev Kuleshov found that juxtaposing images changed the audience’s understanding of what the images meant. For example, when viewers were exposed to the image of a person’s expressionless face followed by an image of a coffin, the audience concluded that the face looked sad. But if that same expressionless face was juxtaposed with food, the viewers concluded that the person looked hungry. And if the same face preceded a woman giving bedroom eyes, the subject was deemed to be lustful. Samsara is formalistic in that sense. The film is full of different images from a lot of different places and while those images represent something in and of themselves they take on additional meanings because of the images that occur before and after them.

For instance, Samsara presents us with images of indigenous people living in huts, including head shots that examine their clothes, makeup, and the ritual scarification of their bodies. This is juxtaposed with images of people from industrialized civilizations in which the filmmakers pick up on equivalent details like jewelry and tattoos. This suggests a parallelism between people of the first and third worlds.

 One of the often repeated images of Samsara is of people in assembly lines or working their way through a queue. This is mostly done in ways that emphasize the monotony of the work and the circuitousness nature of society’s production, consumption, and disposal of goods. But among the locations in the film is a prison in which inmates engage in an elaborately choreographed dance routine. That Samsara juxtaposes prisoners with workers on an assembly line implies something more complicated than either of these images suggests in and of itself.

The other half of that binary I mentioned is realism, which means that the filmmakers observe the subject with as little interference and as little manipulation of the film as possible. This is frequently seen in the interviews of documentary filmmaker Errol Morris who often holds his camera on his subjects during awkward pauses and allows them to reveal themselves in the subtleties of their responses. A more extreme example of realism is Andy Warhol’s 1964 documentary Empire, which is an eight hour long single shot of the Empire State Building. In any case, the idea behind realism is that the truth will reveal itself if we let it.

An unavoidable outgrowth of films with a realistic style is a tendency to be remote from their subjects. This quality is also found in Samsara. Most of the people in this film aren’t performing for the camera or addressing the fourth wall. In fact, quite a bit of the movie doesn’t feature any human beings at all. Many sequences, especially in the first third of the movie, study people-free landscapes such as rock formations, abandoned homes, and empty places of worship. Other sequences are shot from such a distance that individuals become invisible. This is especially true of the sweeping helicopter shots of cityscapes and shanty towns. 

No single film is purely realistic or purely formalistic. Each movie exists somewhere on a continuum between those ideas. In Samsara both realism and formalism are at play and the filmmakers often use one to foil the other. The broad sweeping shots of cities or geography are sometimes interrupted by close up headshots of individuals looking directly into the camera. Every time it happens the impact is disconcerting; as viewers we are accustomed to looking at a film and unused to it staring back at us. These faces alter the perspective of the film—and therefore the viewer—by zooming into the middle of environments that are otherwise distant and put a human face on the proceedings. The pause also breaks from the frequent time laps photography and places the viewer in the moment.

II. Non-Narrative Cinema
Part of the educational value of a movie like Samsara is the way it demonstrates the possibilities of cinema and the film is able to do that because of the absence of a narrative.

In 1978, film critic Roger Ebert wrote an essay titled “Beyond Narrative: The Future of the Feature Film.” Although Ebert was writing from a different context regarding television and movies, what he had to say remains relevant, especially regarding a film such as Samsara. Ebert wrote:
I believe the future of feature films as an art form lies in the possibilities beyond narrative—in the intuitive linking of images, dreams, and abstractions with reality, and with the freeing of them all from the burden of relating a story. I certainly do not believe the day will come soon when large audiences forsake narrative. But I am concerned that three things are slowing the natural evolution of cinema—the eminence of the “event film” (already discussed), our obsessive insistence on a paraphrasable narrative, and the reduced visual attention span caused by over-consumption of television.
*   *   *
How does a critic build bridges between what is new, best, and most daring at the movies, and the built-in desire of the mass audience to see the kinds of movies it has known best and longest—and can depend on? Where do the two audiences meet? The daily newspaper reviewer is faced with this dilemma more frequently, and more bafflingly, than writers for audiences who have already made part or all of the journey to those lands where the best new movies reside. There are a great many people for whom going to the movies still means a decision in favor of the new Clint Eastwood film instead of, say, the new Charles Bronson film. There are those who would rather see "Saturday Night Fever" ten times than see "Saturday Night Fever" once and then see nine other films.
I do not mean to reject filmgoing on that level, but I do want to insist that the most original new work will not be found there. It is fine with me if there are two, ten, or a hundred cinemas, but I think we have to understand that the most important new movies will not be coming from the directors who make better and better films in conventional narrative modes, no matter how much we may admire and enjoy what they accomplish. The key films of the coming years, whether or not they are immediately (or ever) successful, will be the ones that explore and try to understand the powerful three-way connection between cinema, emotion, and the mind.
Ebert wrote this in 1978 and his argument for a cinema that is free of narrative is still a relevant one. Of course, non-narrative movies are not something new. The cinema of the silent era was frequently without a story or at least was not bound by it. Art house and underground cinema has always played with or discarded narrative such Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising and Vilgot Sj√∂man’s I Am Curious. And there are examples of feature length Hollywood movies that have jettisoned narrative or used it in a tenuous way like Walt Disney’s Fantasia and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

In his essay, Ebert voices concern about the audience’s shrinking attention spans due to the impact of television. With the advent of the internet and online videos hosted by YouTube and Vimeo, attention spans are seemingly shorter than ever. But the online media being generated and consumed today is much more fragmented and less bound to narrative, whether it’s cat videos, music clips, or pornography. In that sense, the audience of today is primed for a movie like Samsara, which jumps all over the globe and suggests connections between apparently unrelated images. On the other hand, Samsara runs nearly two hours and is comprised of long takes and so today’s audience is likely to find its ponderous pacing difficult to take.

 The fact that Samsara may be a challenging experience for viewers should not disqualify it from consideration. The film’s frustrating qualities are actually to its credit and the very thing that justifies its existence.

While recounting the cinema of 2012, I named Samsara the best movie of that year. Both then and now I would argue that in a culture that traffics in fragments and sound bites of artificial outrage and commoditized desire and in which so much of what is created is rapidly consumed and discarded, the patience and pensiveness of Samsara make the film a subversive and radical work of art.

III. Spirituality
Filmmakers Ron Fricke and Mark Magidson have referred to Samsara as a guided meditation. That, and the remote nature of the film, has led some critics to say that Samsara has no point or that it’s just a travelogue or a collection of pretty imagery. It may be that Fricke and Magidson didn’t intend to make a statement but I believe that they did anyway. The fact that they picked the title Samsara and then shot and edited the imagery the way that they did leads viewers to draw parallels and arrive at conclusions, although you have to work a little bit harder to see the connections than you would in a more commercial film. 

Due to its title and topic, Samsara can be called a spiritual movie and maybe even a religious one. However, the film is not necessarily spiritual or religious in the way that viewers are generally accustomed to thinking about these topics, especially as they appear in film.

Of the various uses of the word “samsara,” it is clear that the movie is anchored in the Buddhist understanding, in which human beings are caught in an endless cycle of suffering that is the result of ignorance. The picture is bookended with imagery from a Buddhist temple in which monks go about their day and ritualistically create and destroy a sand mandala. In this ritual, an intricate image visualizing Buddhist ideas and deities is created by carefully pouring colored sand onto a flat table space. The process is intense and time consuming and after it is completed the mandala is wiped away, the point being the transience of the physical world.

The way in which subjects are photographed and presented in Samsara also lends itself to the Buddhist understanding of the term. The movie includes time laps photography of land masses that suggest erosion and grand pieces of contemporary architecture are contrasted with ruins. Many sequences also imply coming and going such as the passage of day into night and the travels of human beings via subways and highways.

Samsara also documents holy sites such as the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, and the Muslim holy site of Mecca in Saudi Arabia. Within a movie that is ostensibly about spirituality, an uncritical viewer might assume that the film is making some kind of universalist statement about religious traditions and beliefs. However, a closer examination of the film suggests something more subversive. 

The juxtaposition of religious icons and secular imagery leads to an unsettling meaning. The footage of people praying at the Wailing Wall is preceded by imagery of the barrier segregating the Israelis from the Palestinians and footage of Israeli soldiers monitoring checkpoints. Collectively, it appears as though people are praying to a militarily guarded wall that keeps people isolated. This flies in the face of a perpetually positive notion of traditional religion as a force that brings people together. It also suggests a more complex and sometimes troubled relationship between faith, which is inherently vague and intangible, and the shortcomings of faith physicalized as a concrete object.

A similar issue is at hand in the sequence shot at St. Peter’s Basilica. These gorgeous interiors are devoid of people and they come just after images of abandoned and decayed human structures from other parts of the world. This content also has some provocative connections with imagery that comes later in the film. The basilica segment emphasizes the artwork representing angels and saints and other religious figures. These idealized human shapes parallel the pole dancers, synthetic automatons, and sex dolls seen later. The grandness of the basilica also compares to a later sequence in which the ruins of Egyptian pyramids are shown in the background while contemporary housing is foregrounded against them. Collectively, these images imply the inadequacy of worldly monuments to spiritual ideas but also the impermanence of the ideas that they represent.

Perhaps the most provocative use of religious imagery, and the one that requires the least amount of unpacking, is the footage shot at Mecca. Samsara presents a bird’s eye view of the site filmed with time lapse photography in which faithful Muslims rotate into the arena and cycle around it like the bovines photographed during the food processing sequence. If the visual vocabulary of Samsara links circularity with ignorance and dehumanization, than the meaning of this image is clear.

The sequences at the Wailing Wall, St. Peter’s Basilica, and Mecca, as well as the use of the Buddhist sand mandala ritual, makes Samsara’s regard for spiritual traditions, or at least religious representation, complicated and more than a little subversive. Rather than confirming a positive, universalist conception of religion, Samsara implicitly suggests that spiritual traditions are at least inadequate in grasping and communicating the truth of human existence and may be one of the forces that keep us in a cycle of ignorance.

The way the filmmakers of Samsara use and subtly redefine familiar images is one of the movie’s outstanding qualities and what the filmmakers have done with religious icons is paralleled by what they’ve done with similar imagery regarding nationalism, agriculture, and industry. The cumulative effect of Samsara is to make viewers take a long view of human civilization while also recognizing their own participation in a global and cosmic context. That may be as spiritual as a work of art can be.

IV. Final Thoughts
Samsara is not a title that’s likely to be on the average moviegoer’s radar. That in itself was an incentive for me to show it. But I think this film is important for viewers to take in because of its style and the way it uses that style to make its point. So much of contemporary American life is spent rushing from one job and one errand to the next. A lot of mass media reflects this and our streams of news and entertainment are fragmented in such a way that we don’t get a whole picture.

Samsara was picked to complement Winona State University’s Sustainable Futures theme. When we talk about sustainability that usually leads to a discussion about recycling or reducing our carbon emissions or new kinds of farming. Those are important questions but they are so specific that they miss a larger and underlying topic. Implicit in any discussion of sustainability is preserving our culture and our natural resources for the future. But it is impossible for us to change course in a meaningful way without first achieving some kind of macro-level epiphany about mankind’s relationship with the planet and with our own species. This makes the issue, for lack of a better word, a spiritual crisis.

We depend upon religious gurus, storytellers and artists to spiritually nourish us both individually and as a society. But as the integrity of most traditional religious institutions continues to erode, the rituals and customs that we’ve come to depend upon are less and less satisfactory. And as art and media becomes more processed and synthetic they are less able to surprise us or show us something new or reimagine the familiar in a way that is enlightening. Narrative itself, especially its most popular formulas, may be too familiar and just reinforces our presumptions instead of challenging them.

This is evidenced in the so-called faith-based movies of the last few years. A story intent on delivering a spiritual message ought to break free from the pettiness of the everyday but instead many of the most popular faith-based titles double down on the persecution complexes of their intended audience and enable ignorance. 

The failures of the faith-based film market put the accomplishments of Samsara in relief. By untethering the movie from the constraints and familiarity of narrative, the filmmakers are able to take a truly epic look at the world we live in. That allows the film to deliver the kind of epiphany that we must have if humanity is ever going to break free of its own ignorance.