Many believe 2012 to be a transitional year in human history, but I wonder, do you think we’ll really be looking back on it in a couple of decades as the marker point for the dawning of the Age of Aquarius? Will there perhaps be any other linked trends worth isolating from this phase? One particular notch on the sundial of human cultural evolution that is on a lot of people’s minds at the moment is how 2012 is set to mark the turning point in which commercial cinema exhibition heads irrevocably down it’s digital path, and what changes this might bring in what we see and how we see it.
Samsara, the latest ‘Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?’ wake-up call for a new generation of filmgoers from cinematographer-director Ron Fricke (Baraka) seems fully aware of its significance with regards to such aspects. Released in the UK but a month prior to the 60th anniversary of the Cinerama format that first launched the widescreen revolution in the 1950s, it is also the first film in 15 years, since Kenneth Brannagh’s Hamlet (1996), to be shot completely in 65mm negative stock printed on 70mm. (Christopher Nolan’s recent productions have used wide-gauge film in certain sequences, and we should also add the caveat that we are only talking about films intended for release in conventional cinemas, as opposed to specialist venues such as IMAX).
Hamlet was already something of an anachronism in the fading years of the 20th century. With virtually all of the ‘roadshow’ venues for which the 70mm format was intended closed down or subdivided long before the multiplex era of the 1980s, there were simply very few places for the film to be shown to its best advantage. Brannagh may well have been aiming at the grandeur Cleopatra or Doctor Zhivago, as its 4-hour-long running time also suggested, but the market for such widescreen epics had all but disappeared by the year of its release, and for the most part it screened in 35mm reduction prints at those cinemas willing enough to take the punt at showing a film that occupied two programme slots.
Samsara will similarly be presented in a different format to that which it was shot in, but without any such significant loss in image clarity – or at least, it should provide the perfect benchmark as to how good digital projection can be for those cynics still amongst us. The 70mm footage has been scanned at a phenomenal resolution of 8K HD, high enough to be projected for a full-screen IMAX presentation without visible pixilation. Celluloid purists will no doubt argue that no greater filming medium has ever been devised than 70mm film (though the debate of film vs digital in terms of image quality will no doubt rage on for some time yet), and Fricke’s work here certainly supports such assertions. However, as a projection medium it is incredibly expensive (in terms of both raw stock and processing), unwieldy and difficult to transport. Getting enough prints made up and transporting them to venues across the world in order for them to be shown is quite some undertaking. The advantages of distribution using a Digital Cinema Package (DCP) contained on a specialist hard disk to get the film shown as far and wide as possible are pretty obvious in this case, and it is interesting to note that Fricke’s groundbreaking work with Samsara is now being followed by the Weinstein Company, who are producing Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Masters, similarly shot in 70mm and up for digital release later this year.
Unfortunately, we’re a long way away from the era of Cinerama, and the sort of size screens such meditative travelogs of this type would be best showcased upon nowadays are more likely to be occupied by the CG-enhanced superhero movies that sit at the other end of the “realism” spectrum. Samsara looks mainly set to play the arthouse circuit, at venues that have traditionally aimed at fostering a more intimate viewing experience than the average Hollywood blockbuster, without the state-of-the-art projection facilities and mammoth screens of say, the BFI IMAX, or the Empire Leicester Square.
The presentation I caught, at the Apollo Cinema near Piccadilly, was projected at the current digital standard of 4K – good enough for most human eyes, but for how long, one wonders? Mere days ago, on 28 August, Hollywood Reporter announced that 8K Ultra High Definition Television (UHDTV) would become the new broadcast standard of the future, with NHK hoping to start test broadcasts in Japan by 2020. This is flabbergasting. What sort of stuff are we going to be watching on television in ten years time to justify this visual clarity, and just how big are our living rooms going to have to be to accommodate our screens? More crucially however, is how is cinema going to compete when the exhibition sector has already financially hobbled itself to reach the 4K standard, leaving numerous independent venues behind in a celluloid limbo in the process?
Returning to Samsara, scale is the order of the day here, with the pre-release publicity keen to emphasise the production was shot over a ‘4 year period in 25 countries across 5 continents’, as with such other technological showcases as This is Cinerama (1952), The Miracle of Todd-AO (1956) and the numerous early IMAX features (before the post-Spiderman trend of the bulk of IMAX programming being made up of standard 35mm releases being artificially enhanced to fit the larger screen dimensions by a nifty piece of computer software). In fact, it is worth remembering that following his camerawork on Godfrey Reggio’s not dissimilar Koyaanisqatsi (1982), Fricke next showcased his penchant for dialogue-fee “visual poems” comprised of a plethora of stop-motion landscape shots on a wide-film medium with the 45-minute IMAX documentary Chronos (1985).
Still, the imagery remains remarkably similar to all these films even if the means of delivery has changed: expansive landscapes of deserts and mountains, raging waterfalls and rain-drenched forests, aerial shots of chaotic city scenes with flows of flickering taillights flowing through filigrees of roadways, and a panoply of images that celebrate both the splendour and futility of human endeavour.
Apparently “Fricke conceived the film as a guided meditation on the cycle of birth, death and rebirth”, and as you’ll no doubt have already read elsewhere, ‘Samsara’ is a Sanskrit word that means “the ever turning wheel of life.” Those who have seen the aforementioned titles and Baraka (1992), Fricke’s first 70mm film as a director to be released to conventional cinemas, will have a pretty good idea what to expect; an entrancing cavalcade of National Geographic-styled images laden with meaning and consequence set to the grandiloquent strains of Marcello De Francisci’s score, which similarly oscillates between exoticism and evocation.
If the above sounds a little dismissive, then it shouldn’t. Critical analysis of what Fricke is reaching for is tricky, and in any measure may be largely superfluous. One is left to resort to such clichés as ‘jaw-dropping’, ‘awe-inspiring’ and ‘soul-stirring’ found in other reviews, simply because ultimately, whether or not one takes any higher meaning away with you after the credits roll, for 90 minutes or so, that is exactly what it is – a feast for the eyes and soul. Mesmerising, often poignant, sometimes hackneyed (the African tribesman decked with warpaint and clutching a gun, the hurried mass-pedestrian scuttle across Shibuya crossing shot in time-lapse – indeed, Fricke falls back on this technique a little too often), Samsara‘s high-definition wide-angle compositions nevertheless are seldom anything less than strikingly beautiful, even in the film’s uglier moments, such as the scenes of production-line butchery that should be enough to put one off eating chicken for life. I’d strongly recommend it for these reasons alone, and as a showcase of what cinema can do with current technology and where we are possibly heading in the future, a more palatable alternative to the synesthetic silliness of the new 4DX shtick I wrote about for Sight & Sound a few months back in my ‘4DX: Here come the feelies’ article.
For a reviewer searching circularity, in this instance it comes not from the final destruction of the sand mandala we witnessed being painstakingly created by Buddhist monks in the stunning Himalayan region of Ladakh, India, at the opening of the film. Instead, the following shots of arid landscapes and deserted cavernous buildings that once echoed with human activity reminded me of another, slightly more unsettling non-narrative celebration of the scope and depth of civilisations past and present, Bill Morrison’s Decasia – The State Of Decay (2002). Collaged together from the faded remnants of earlier eras in a medium that for the first hundred years has been cinema’s very essence, Decasia’s images constantly threaten to devolve into the same elemental chaos from which that which they depict has emerged.
One prays that posterity will be at least as kind to Fricke’s glorious vision than to these anonymously-captured fragments. As transient as a physical, analogue medium such as film may be, there is nothing more ephemeral than the easily-erasable digital elements on a computer hard-drive. As technology marches relentlessly onwards delivering ever greater thrills and spectacles, let us pray that at least some vestiges of such visual poems as both these films will survive into the next century in some concrete form.
The website for Samsara is here.
A new Blu-ray of This is Cinerama, released next month to celebrate the 60th Anniversary of the film can be ordered from here.
For more on the more troubling aspects of the digital switchover, I refer the reader to the LA Weekly article ‘Movie Studios Are Forcing Hollywood to Abandon 35mm Film But the Consequences of Going Digital Are Vast, and Troubling’ from 12 April 2012, linked here.
Sunday 16 September 2012 at 4:30pm, Zipangu Fest in London, will be hosting a panel discussion entitled “Is There Still a Need for Film in a Digitising World?” following the screening of Spirit Made Flesh: Works from 3 Experimental Filmmakers, linked here.