Trans­formed by the mov­ing im­age

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film - Evan Wil­liams

Sam­sara (PG) Na­tional re­lease on Box­ing Day

Parental Guid­ance (PG) ★★★✩✩ Na­tional re­lease on Box­ing Day

WHEN I was a boy, en­chanted with the pos­si­bil­i­ties of the cin­ema, I had my own ways of sim­u­lat­ing pho­to­graphic ef­fects. This was be­fore I was given my first movie cam­era, a much loved clock­work con­trap­tion, on my 13th birth­day. I liked to do pan­ning shots by slow­ing turn­ing my head from left to right (avoid­ing blink­ing as far as pos­si­ble). Con­tem­plat­ing a tall build­ing, I would tilt my head back­wards to en­com­pass its full height; and con­fronted with an un­usu­ally grand or beau­ti­ful scene — my first sight, say, of the Blue Moun­tains — I might imag­ine it as the last shot in a film and close my eyes slowly for a fade-out. I did many a fade-out on vaulted ceil­ings and stained-glass win­dows in church, of­ten ac­com­pa­nied by the fi­nal bars of some par­tic­u­larly stir­ring hymn.

All rather child­ish, I sup­pose; but even now I have a habit of see­ing things as im­ages on film. The sheer look of ob­jects, even the most fa­mil­iar, can have a spe­cial en­chant­ment. And I won­der if the same is true of Ron Fricke, whose doc­u­men­tary Sam­sara still re­ver­ber­ates in my mind days af­ter I first saw it.

Sam­sara is a hyp­not­i­cally beau­ti­ful film — a suc­ces­sion of im­ages shot in high def­i­ni­tion across four years in more than 20 coun­tries — mag­nif­i­cent, strange, and oc­ca­sion­ally shock­ing. What rich pos­si­bil­i­ties for fade-outs I’d have found in th­ese end­less vis­tas of desert sand, th­ese crum­bling tem­ples, soar­ing sky­scrapers and in­scrutable faces. Brought to­gether in Fricke’s film, seam­lessly edited and over­laid with a haunt­ing score by Michael Stearns, Lisa Ger­rard and Mar­cello De Fran­cisci, they are a re­minder of the cin­ema’s unique power to re­veal beauty in the mun­dane, even the ugly, and to in­vest the fa­mil­iar world with tran­scen­den­tal mean­ing.

But I mustn’t over­praise Sam­sara; many will find it la­bo­ri­ous and slow, its ideas sim­plis­tic and ten­den­tious. Fricke’s tech­niques — he pho­tographed and di­rected the film and worked with its pro­ducer, Mark Magid­son, on the edit­ing — are by no means new. We first saw them in his 1992 film Baraka, an­other com­pi­la­tion of the un­set­tling and the sub­lime, which in turn owed much to Koy­aanisqatsi (1983), the first of God­frey Reg­gio’s spell­bind­ing non-nar­ra­tive films about the con­flict be­tween the nat­u­ral and man-made worlds (on which Fricke was the cin­e­matog­ra­pher). Sam­sara is es­sen­tially a re­work­ing, us­ing more re­fined tech­niques, of Reg­gio’s prin­ci­pal theme — the idea that West­ern in­dus­trial civil­i­sa­tion is in con­flict with hu­man­ity’s deep­est needs, and that our present way of life, with its in­sa­tiable con­sump­tion of ma­te­rial goods, is de­struc­tive and un­sus­tain­able.

Tim Flan­nery would love Sam­sara. But it would be mis­take to see it as an ex­er­cise in eco­pro­pa­ganda. This is the world as it is; we are shown what is there to be seen. From its open­ing shot of three doll-like Ba­li­nese dancers to its mes­meris­ing views of massed mil­i­tary dis­plays, Mus­lims at wor­ship and armies of drone-like work­ers on pro­duc­tion lines, the tone is cu­ri­ously de­tached and serene. No com­men­tary is of­fered and none is needed. Fricke is fas­ci­nated by the pat­terns of nat­u­ral light mov­ing across un­even sur­faces, punc­tu­at­ing his film with ghostly tran­si­tions be­tween night and day. Those speeded-up shots of city traf­fic and hordes of swarm­ing com­muters, and the hor­ri­ble scenes of fac­tory- farmed chick­ens, pro­vide some jar­ring in­ter­ludes, but even th­ese have a rhythm of their own, in tune with the mo­men­tum of the film as a whole.

More than Baraka or Koy­aanisqatsi, Sam­sara is per­vaded by a strange sad­ness, a mood of spooky qui­es­cence. For me the truly un­for­get­table scenes are those of ru­ined build­ings, aban­doned in the af­ter­math of some nat­u­ral dis­as­ter: a shat­tered su­per­mar­ket with its use­less trol­leys, an empty school­room with mud-en­crusted desks. But, as we are re­minded by a string of close-ups of bap­tised in­fants, life keeps go­ing, with all its pain and sor­row. Fricke dwells ten­derly on calm, im­mo­bile faces: an African tribesman, a pair of lovers, a hideously dis­fig­ured marine in of­fi­cer’s uni­form, a prison guard look­ing down from a bal­cony on the massed ranks in her charge and won­der­ing (we may sup­pose) about the mean­ing of her life. Sam­sara is a grand and ex­hil­a­rat­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, but it struck me that no one in the film looks happy. We see no smil­ing face, we hear no laugh­ter. Is this the way the world is? PARENTAL Guid­ance is an ami­able fam­ily com­edy di­rected by Andy Fick­man, in which Billy Crys­tal and Bette Mi­dler play an el­derly cou­ple briefly en­trusted with the care of their three grand­chil­dren. I call them an el­derly cou­ple, but nei­ther looks quite old enough for the part, and at one point Billy Crys­tal’s char­ac­ter, as if an­tic­i­pat­ing ob­jec­tions on this score, is heard to say, ‘‘ I feel 10 years younger than I am.’’ Per­haps. The screen­play (by Lisa Addario and Joe Syra­cuse) spends more than enough time es­tab­lish­ing that Ar­tie Decker be­longs to an older gen­er­a­tion. He has no apps on his phone, is un­sure what an app is, has never tweeted any­one, and has dif­fi­culty with such sim­ple tasks as un­fas­ten­ing the safety re­straints on a child’s car seat. I im­me­di­ately felt some sym­pa­thy for him.

Crys­tal is a great nat­u­ral co­me­dian, of whom lit­tle has been seen since he hosted all those Os­car cer­e­monies a decade or so ago. But be­ing a gifted co­me­dian doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily make one a gifted comic ac­tor. I liked him in An­a­lyze This, when he played Robert De Niro’s ther­a­pist, but in Parental Guid­ance he seems to be try­ing too hard. And that fa­mil­iar ex­pres­sion of mis­chievous quizzi­cal­ity has taken on a rather bland and flabby tone. Per­haps it makes him look older. Fans of Bet­ter Mi­dler, who plays Ar­tie’s wife, Diane, will be pleased to know that she looks scarcely a day older than she did in The First Wives Club and that her air of high-oc­tane blus­ter and mild vul­gar­ity is as finely tuned as ever.

The film’s ba­sic joke is a fa­mil­iar one: the gap be­tween a com­puter-savvy younger gen­er­a­tion and their out-of-touch el­ders. At the start of the film Ar­tie is sacked from his job as a sports an­nouncer. His su­pe­ri­ors con­sider him ‘‘ old school’’; his pro­grams, it seems, are spon­sored mainly by man­u­fac­tur­ers of hear­ing-aids and mo­torised scoot­ers. Re­turn- ing home, Ar­tie is re­luc­tant to break the bad news to his fam­ily. Then Diane takes a call from their daugh­ter Alice (Marisa Tomei), who asks them to look af­ter their three chil­dren while she and her hus­band take a trip. As Alice tells the chil­dren, ‘‘ Grandpa tells a lot jokes you won’t get — so just laugh.’’ And some­times we do.

Alice and her fam­ily oc­cupy a fully au­to­mated, so­lar-pow­ered house con­trolled by a voice-ac­ti­vated com­puter, which is a pretty good joke in it­self, es­pe­cially when warn­ings are in­toned, Dalek-style, about over­flow­ing toi­lets and flooded bath­rooms. The per­ils of domestic moder­nity were beau­ti­fully satirised in Jacques Tati’s Mon On­cle (1958), which is bound to look pre­scient in ret­ro­spect. But the gen­er­a­tion gap in Parental Guid­ance ex­tends be­yond mere tech­nol­ogy to cover ri­val the­o­ries of child-rear­ing. Ar­tie, of course, will have none of this mod­ern per­mis­sive busi­ness. As he points out to Barker, his lit­tle grand­son, colour­ing-in looks best when you keep the colour in­side the lines. But Alice will have none of it: chil­dren should be en­cour­aged to draw what­ever their imag­i­na­tion tells them (a view with which I con­cur, pro­vided they first learn to colour in­side the lines). And there are bet­ter ways of cor­rect­ing a child than just say­ing no. In Alice’s house­hold the pre­ferred phrases are ‘‘ con­sider the con­se­quences’’ or, in the event of an ar­gu­ment, ‘‘ your opin­ion has value’’.

For me th­ese are the best scenes in the film, but they do no more than set us up for the main story. And you’ve guessed it: Ar­tie and Diane win the chil­dren’s love and trust by in­tro­duc­ing them to the home­lier plea­sures of child­hood — kick­ing a can in the back­yard, get­ting clothes muddy and eat­ing junk food oc­ca­sion­ally. It’s not long be­fore Parental Guid­ance makes a pre­dictable lurch into sen­ti­men­tal­ity and farce. But as fam­ily en­ter­tain­ment goes, it’s prob­a­bly the best thing go­ing. There are some funny cameo parts, the chil­dren are ap­peal­ing, a fair quota of laughs can be guar­an­teed, and our plea­sure never de­pends on mon­sters, trolls, gob­lins, tooth fairies or spe­cial ef­fects. All rather re­fresh­ing, in its way.

Thikse Ti­betan Bud­dhist monastery in Ladakh, north­ern In­dia, in Sam­sara

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.