Transformed by the moving image
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