Every so often we are treated to an illustrative film that’s presented without commentary or dialogue. “Samsara” is such an event. “Baraka” in 1992 was a similar visual stream-of-consciousness piece that shed light on our world. “Baraka” captured some of the franticness of the 1990s and “Samsara” seems to embrace the sheer frustration of the world as we see in 2012 while capturing the spirit of “continuous flow”. It is as if the cinematographers are making the case for “taking the long view” in this time of the Kali Yuga.
The visual tour de force includes but is not limited to three dancing Lakshmis, clouds of fire, a baby, Angkor Watt, construction and destruction of a sand mandala, stars, ruins, organic dwellings, carved stone, windows like eyes, sand drifts overtaking abandoned homes, trophies, the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles, caked mud, celestial ceilings, baptisms, Lazarus, Mt. St. Michael, red dawn on dunes, the Rose Window, shyness, frozen falls, dirty ice, salt at Mono Lake, an arch at the Grand Canyon . . . . . . . . . . . . .
All this is played without comment, though soundtrack is quite interesting. Initially the film borders on the final wish scenes of those who’ve chosen to die in the old movie Solent Green – they can select uplifting classical music and a personal screening of all the beauty of the world before it was destroyed by the power elite to die to.
Things get more interesting and ambiguous with a striated rock that looks like a rabbit head with an eye followed by Tanzania Falls, fierce red eyes, yellow unblinking eyes of numerous individuals and dome huts with dwellers wearing strange dreads. Freeways (in Los Angeles?), a tattooed man with his newborn, cars in night traffic – white headlights coming at you, red tail lights as they recede. Two Asian twins – one is a very life-like automaton.
More robotics lead to the most interesting part of the film – a performance artist seated at a dressing table mashes greenish clay over his face, transforming, disfiguring, and manipulating make-up, thick clay applications and conceptual trappings until he becomes a radical and disconcerting mess. That’s my favorite part, and it sums up a sort of message this Samsara brings: we are contortionists, we are mad, we have lost our way most disturbingly but it is all illusion anyway.
After this hair-raising, eye-gouging exhibition of confusion and self-loathing, we get to see a huge golf putting range built for the Malthusian masses, an artificial indoor ski resort, the highest building in the Middle East, island housing like footprints on the sea, and the spiral of land development in Dubai. It is fantastical along with fractal jewels, and contrasts of women in burkas walking past a department store display of men in very skimpy swimwear.
Lakshmi (the Hindu Goddess of prosperity) reappears; we go to the opera, and a play. We visit Times Square, the subways of Tokyo where there are masked manikins modeling anti-SARs fashions. We see pachucos with big hair striving for individuality and a man with the word “Methodical” tattooed on his shaved head. Factory workers, cars made and cars crushed, recycling, some gross food production, pot stickers being made by carpal tunnel-susceptible workers, chicken processing, mega-milking machines, pigs, cows, supermarkets, real looking blow-up dolls, daybreak over a city slum with early-bird pickers, dancing orange something (can’t read my notes written in the dark, and too quickly), and we hear a heartbeat going from very fast to real slow.
To further enlighten us – garbage dumps, sulfur mines like living hell, women carrying impossible bundles on their heads and children everywhere – under arms, on backs, at breasts, then coffins built in the shapes of jets, lions, cars, guns. Gun factories and fierceness vs. tenderness, border crossings, Dome of the Rock, The Wailing Wall, seemingly billions of devotees circling the Haj. The pyramids seen from bleak bedroom windows, and Tibetans again with a shockingly blue-eyed Buddha. Green eyes on multiple hands of dancers with the many arms and legs of one beautiful being in deep knowing and unknowing.
A mystery is touched upon but we cannot grasp it nor solve it, so like “Samsara” we can only enjoy, ponder and embrace this world’s continuous motion.
On November 9th this wistful yet powerful documentary will open in theatres across the country. I had the good fortune to see it when it premiered at the Varsity Theatre in downtown Ashland last month. James Balog took great pains to record the progression of ice melt at 25+ locations using cameras that took thousands of frames of icebergs every year from 2007 until 2011. A scientist himself, who was initially skeptical about Climate Change and whom had doubts that the actions of humans could accelerate the phenomena so rapidly, he became curious enough to assemble a team and the financial backing to document and record what was really happening to glaciers in the Arctic, Greenland, and other locations.
The footage and photos are stunning and the film simply presents the evidence gathered. If you miss the screenings at local theatres, you’ll eventually be able to watch “Chasing Ice” on television. As an employer and substantial backer of Balog’s work, National Geographic has purchased the television rights and will be airing it soon.
Those of us who have studied and followed the Climate Change issue are encouraged that our Congressmen and Senators will be see Chasing Ice in the near future. In fact the film’s website at www.chasingice.com provides a feature where you can tweet info to important leaders including President Obama, Leonardo Di Caprio, Oprah Winfrey and naysayer Senator James Inhofe. Sadly the issue has been sorely missing from ads and debates leading up to the U.S. Presidential election. I personally have difficulty understanding why the questions around “energy independence and jobs” aren’t being harnessed to the answers of cleaning up the environment, reducing carbon and creating more alternative power, on a grand jobs program scale!
Chasing Ice should be a real wake-up call to non-believers. As a beautifully filmed visual illustration of what is happening in the life-supporting regions where polar and glacier ice reflect light back to outer space and maintain the most important cycles on the planet, the images are introduced without judgment or dialogue to convince. It is obvious to all when Balog shows the retreat of an iceberg over a short period of time equal to the height of the Empire State Building. Since our minds are not programmed to understand a human-caused geological change event of such massive proportions and devastating results, we are given insight into the melt zone, calving (when icebergs split off from the main mass), moulins (vertical shafts in the ice) and terrifying live action of icebergs the size of cities collapsing instantaneously into the ocean.
Balog has created a memory of these landscapes, which may never return. He shows us how conclusive and irrefutable evidence is gathered. Seeing is believing. Ice samples gathered through taking deep ice cores and analyzing the air bubbles for their carbon dioxide levels reveals the historic data, ancient records, of glacier building and melting. Findings give evidence of a 1.5 degree Farenheit increase since 1850s and a definite deterioration in air quality (as suitable for life on Earth.)
The accumulation of “cryoconite” which is carbon, grit and dirt blown from other areas of the world to the Arctic and other glaciers is a significant cause of more rapid ice melt, since the dark, striating colors attract more sunlight thereby speeding the melt off. It was startling to see the patches in the ground ice and snow being literally eaten away by the nasty black sludge that has etched pools and hollows filled with what looks like the leavings of a camp fire after it’s put out with a pail of water. As melting continues the moulins become raging torrents of water thundering out to the oceans in underground passages. Seeing this on film is like looking into the abyss where torrents of freed and violent water cascade towards our human population centers. One extreme and recent exploration to locate the outlet of a huge moulin is dramatically told in “Melt Zone”, June, 2010’s National Geographic.
In Balog’s poetic narrative he likens his photographs of glaciers to portraits of people where both their grandeur and fragility are exposed. He equates the vision of a collapsing glacier to an old man falling into the sea and has recaptured for us the tragic story that’s in the ice. The evocative shapes of the icebergs in confused blue puddles and the accompanying song “Before My Time” is poignant and inspiring. Balog’s lyrical closing echoes across the water and hopefully haunts us into more action – “Sometimes you get out over the horizon and you never come back.”
If you would like to get involved in a regional effort please visit http://kaconjour.com/ClimateChange/RVOrganization/Organization.html
For information on the State of Oregon’s efforts please visit the Climate Change Portal or contact Bill Drumheller at (503) 378-4035 or (800) 221-8035
If there’s one film to see this year, Beasts of the Southern Wild could be it. Playing at the Varsity Theatre in Ashland, it is a must see, particularly at this time while Hurricane/Tropical Storm Isaac, and the Republican National Convention pass over us like a harbinger of more destruction to come in the first case, and glossy delivery of deceit, stormy news coverage and question-raising extravagance in the second.
It is amazing to watch the child actor who stars in this film about life and death in a severely stressed outpost on the Louisiana delta. She holds our rapt attention and I marvel at her strength, resilience, fortitude and beauty, her inner spirit as well as her charming appearance. Narrated in her voice and words, a creative look at a disturbing world through the eyes of a six year old is both hopeful and heart-rendering. “Hushpuppy” has a father who is terminally ill and drinking to hide it. The neighbors on the bayou live a hard life of freedom at all costs. When an impending storm again threatens their existence, we witness an array of coping skills as Hushpuppy and other “Beasts of the Southern Wild” rise in bravery and pure survival instincts to outlive an ongoing catastrophe.
There is much to recommend this movie, beyond a wonderful story with intriguing characters. Hushpuppy’s teacher at the jerry-rigged floating school minces no words when educating her ragged pupils about the harsh realities of rising oceans and the impact on their way of life. How this rough information is taken to heart and used in the imagination of Hushpuppy and her friends is a cautionary tale for us all.
During the recent Republican Convention, not one of the well-groomed speakers mentioned climate change. The impotence of the political party in place and the disbelieve or callousness of the other is very disturbing in light of the reality that hundreds of thousands of ordinary citizens in America and millions all over the world are barely coping with rising seas and unprecedented destructive weather events. Up on dry land aspiring politicians and those in power spew words like “believe, hope and jobs” but these ideals and conceptual jargon are not life rafts for the jobless, the homeless or displaced and they have floated the middle class into a puddle of confusion. Both parties, in my opinion, have failed and the spirit of people like Hushpuppy may be our best means to face the extremes barreling down on all of us in the form of flood, fully melted ice caps, drought and chemical poisoning of the air, food, land and water, sexism , prejudice and elitism.
The film is a riveting tribute to a terrible truth: we live in the time of the Sixth Extinction, which through profligate use of polluting resources, irresponsible actions and, the greed-motivated pushing of products, ideology, false promises and lies by corporations, the mainstream media and government, manmade environmental devastation in a short 200 years has accelerated the Sixth Extinction by millions of years. And let’s not let ourselves off the hook; we are daily consumers of the products, pacifications, entertainments, excuses, delusions and comforts we hold dear. We all are prisoners and contributors to what could be our own demise.
As messaged in the film, it is time to be brave, face our demons and survive. As humans we must stare down the “Aurochs” of our fate as symbolized by the four huge mutated ancient killer bovines that march across and terrorized Hushpuppy’s landscape. These, like the Four Horses of the Apocalypse in biblical times, give a face to many 21st century threats like abuse of power, rising oceans, genetic engineering, dependence on chemicals and pharmaceuticals and mixing our food sources with cross-species experiments. As politicians turn their backs in willful disregard for environmental tragedies man-made in this and the past century, and “save” us (as when rescue workers remove island disaster victims by force), I can only think in wonderment and resentment about how tax dollars are thrown away on us as an after- the-fact gesture – like an apology for not facing and addressing the real problems head on.
I’ve often expressed my belief that “every problem carries within itself its solutions.” If we want to address the problem of jobs then a full scale effort could be mobilized around reversing the environmental hazards we have been causing. Romney should be ashamed of his closing statement in his acceptance speech to the Republican Convention; to say Obama “promised to lower the rising oceans and heal the planet” (giving the mean-spirited implication that Obama saw himself as omnipotent or that real environmental problems don’t exist) and that he, Romney, only promises to help “you and your families”. Romney means exactly that: he will help HIS own, but you can bet the rest of us, living on or very close to a real, metaphorical or financial “bayou” about to be flooded by the actions or inactions of either major party make it way past time to get tough and get real and find our power and bravery, confront and change our monsters and champion the children and the planet.
Hushpuppy for President!
After three days of watching the emergency response and hearing talk about the theatre shooting in Aurora, Colorado, I felt it necessary and appropriate to check in to a theatre and see the movie which was playing when the massacre by a lone gunman took place. As an artist and observer I keep a somewhat closer eye on pop culture, the media and cinema of our times. In this case, the question of whether art imitates life, or vice versa, is foremost in my mind. Will watching The Dark Knight Rises enlighten me on why the recent horrific madness occurred or is this film just the pleasant getaway – an innocent fantasy which all world-weary are entitled to a brief escape?
I had to admit to a bit of trepidation as I entered the theatre. Briefly I interviewed the young lady at the concession stand by asking if security precautions had been added. She said things had been calm and normal; they were asking people to leave backpacks and large bags at the counter.
Finally settling in with about fifty other viewers, I appreciated the cool air after the scalding sun outdoors. A matinee is a lovely diversion, or so I thought until the previews started. This was just a precursor to what was to come in the main feature, kind of a violence warm-up:
Black Ops? or something like that : “Their Hero Becomes their Killer”; Jason Bourne is “just the tip of the iceberg” – more trained killers in The Bourne Legacy filled with killing and violence; Bilbo Baggins – The Hobbit, tucked away in Middle Earth, between more violent previews; “ Taken” with Liam Neeson, more violence set in Istanbul; More Killing in Kung Fu movie with Lucy Lu – “ Puts the F-U in Kung Fu!!!”; and “The Campaign” – Politicians acting stupidly – one punches a lady and a baby!
The Dark Knight Rises opens at Harvey Dent’s funeral 8 years prior. The audience is swiftly taken hostage in a flashback where 3 hand-cuffed, hooded prisoners are threatened with being thrown from a military plane if they don’t answer the interrogation of the captors. One of the prisoners is a muzzled man; the plan is “No Survivors.” Then the crew is overtaken and the hero is forced into a blood transfusion which, as an infrequent viewer of the Batman series, I must assume was the cause of Batman’s turning to the “dark side” in the previous movie, “The Dark Knight.” (Fans – please correct me if I’m wrong!)
Back at the funeral, we are schooled on the importance of The Dent Act, which gave major sharp teeth to law enforcement. In the belief system of the Powers that Be, Harvey Dent was a hero and his work has been honored and celebrated as a holiday. Explanation is offered that due to the Dent Act’s success in addressing crime, over 100,000 criminals are imprisoned in Gotham City.
We’re then introduced to the recluse Bruce Wayne, who has not recovered from past incidents, and has taken the blame for Harvey Dent’s murder. Wayne’s butler is worried and conveys his wishes to see his employer (and friend) take more interest in life.
We come to understand that Wayne has funded Boys’ Homes in Gotham City, but his Board of Directors, during his self-imposed isolation and lack of participation in the management of the vast Wayne fortune, has discontinued funding for boys once they turn sixteen. Huge numbers of homeless boys and young men are living in the tunnels below Gotham since they’ve “aged out” of the Wayne Trust Boys Homes.
The action then heads to a society fundraiser where meet a wealthy woman who is engaged in what Wayne dubs “a save the world vanity project.” Also, the disguised Cat Woman is working at the mansion as a server for the gala event. In a rare moment of comic relief, she catches the eye of the corrupt police chief and as he pulls her back in order to grab two hors d’oeuvres, she says “Shrimp Balls” and keeps walking.
She looks like the perfect waitress, so she’s sent to take a tray food upstairs to the ill recluse, Bruce Wayne. But once she’s in Wayne’s room, she cracks the safe and steals his mother’s necklace AND his fingerprints by dusting the safe. She cruelly trips him by kicking out his crutch then escapes as he lies helpless on the well-polished floor.
Wayne pulls himself together, asks for the remaining Bat Mobile to be taken out of mothballs and tries to regain his strength. From there we rapidly move ahead through a convoluted plot where dialogue is offered as a frayed clue of continuity to harness us in for the intense action and violence to come. Recollecting my main reason for seeing this film, I acknowledge the repeating motif of disguise and weaponry in the film, quite reminiscent and parallel to the lone shooter’s M.O. in Aurora. The Joker, a major villain in previous Batman comics and films, is not included in this episode, but we are soon to be re-introduced to Bane, Batman’s current nemesis who was born and raised in the harsh tunnel prisons, and is the only known escapee from that hell.
Bane, we soon see, is one and the same who wore the huge muzzled breathing apparatus in the opening scenes of mid-air torture and mayhem. His Darth Vader mouthpiece is an encumbrance, both for him in his personal pain and affliction and for the audience in their strained effort to hear him. The lower half of his face is contained in the black device, which contrasts interestingly with Batman’s exposed mouth and hidden eyes, nose, and hooded head. The motifs of good vs. evil, shadow and light, repeat and repeat, as does the violent gunfire and showcasing of the extremely powerful WMD technologies that have been developed by evil forces who’ve infiltrate Wayne Enterprises. The only counter-balance to the violence is offered by the young detective who has ultimate faith in Batman and a shared secret history with Wayne of being an orphan, and the flirtation between Batman and Cat Woman, and her jealous flairs directed at Bruce Wayne’s society lady admirer. Those three offered some pretty hot and sweet eye candy when we become bored of barrage. ( Barrage and Carnage vs. Visage and Cleavage, as it were!)
In order not to spoil “the plot”, let me say there are many turns in this twisted production and all is set right in the end, although we are left with blazing ears and thundering hearts having witnessed at least 10,000 bullet shots and innumerable acts of destruction and hate. The movie is a vehicle for showcasing force and I longed for the days of “da-da-da-da-da-da, Batman!” or “Get to the Bat Mobile, Robin!!!”
The montage, a complicated variety of ideas and images, if we look at it through the lens of what’s in the news, in society and culture these days, becomes a kaleidoscope of ever-changing issues raised, then dropped from high cliffs without explanation. Sure, this is comic book balloons of dialogue and comic-book butt-kicking (Pow! Pow! Wham!) yet it’s taken to such a high level of graphic and auditory abuse that we are both mesmerized and repulsed (and a bit embarrassed to be sitting through this spectacle which delivers up over two hours of bad actions, bone-crushing breakage and bullet-battered bombasity, while parents shush their antsy five year olds and fussing infants).
Fragments, like shrapnel, lodge in our consciousness, if we are thinking adults. For example, the growing animosity as rival “gangs” of released and escaped prisoners face off with the “men in blue” is a direct reference (and could in fact fan real fires of rebellion) to the huge prison population in America. The fact that Gotham City is so loose a disguise for New York City and the contrast of rich and poor, the plight of the homeless and disenfranchised, and the potential for class war is portrayed yet never commented upon. It is as if Hollywood uses imagery to foreshadow or instigate, and this forces me to again consider whether art imitates life, or if life imitates art.
Perhaps in my boredom with this film, I’ve overthought a mindless piece of entertainment, but when people are constantly exposed to this level of violence in films, video games and on television, I wonder how strong a filter and how much self-control is being developed or eroded. With special effects growing ever more real, will the future hold more cases where reality and fantasy become indistinguishable, and acting out in deep anger or disillusionment become standard results? There are no movies good enough “to die for” so I hope Hollywood, the media, on line regulators, and U.S. policy, will direct energy away from the display, acquisition, and emulation of weapons and violence in favor of more meaningful, less violent and escapist fare.