Tuesday, February 15, 2022

Film Club Featurette: Baraka (1992)

On Wednesday, 26 April at 18:31, Film Club Phnom Penh will share its first-ever encore performance: the momentous cinematic tone-poem of life and beauty on a planet under stress, Ron Fricke’s *Baraka* (1992). 

In 1980, then twenty-seven-year-old Ron Fricke found himself approached by a college buddy named Godfrey Reggio and asked to lunch. Fricke says he had no clear sense of what topics the lunch date might cover, but he must have had an inkling: For years Reggio had harboured a desire to shoot a non-narrative, dialogue-free cinematic comment on the ambitious and deeply flamed relationships that humankind has cultivated with its surroundings. 

The film he imagined would challenge comfortable audience sensibilities with pensive takes, jarring cutaways, thrillingly experimental deployments of time lapse photography, and an almost indigestibly minimalist score by ultra-avant-garde composer Philip Glass. Above all, the project would advance its unspoken agenda through a series of arresting, nay heart-rending tableaux of environmental ruin and technology run amok. The film would be called *Koyaanisqatsi*. Reggio, it developed, was ready to proceed, and wanted Fricke to handle the challenging and no-doubt career-bending job of principal photography. 

Fricke agreed, of course, and the result is one of the most boundary-defying achievements in the history of motion pictures. Koyaanisqatsi literally stunned the theater-going public in 1982. From Berlin to Tokyo, the picture garnered awards and gob-smacking praise in equal volume—but for Fricke the satisfaction of the achievement always felt asterisked, maybe even left-handed. “Life is bleak, and what the human experiment has done to our planet is bleak,” he explained to one filmographer. “But life is also kind, and chaotic, and fascinating, and absurd, and beautiful. That’s why we call it life.” 

Clearly a follow-up—with Fricke at the helm—was in order. 

Not one to bite the hand that fed him, he began devising a “pure-cinema” project of his own, at once a direct engagement of Reggio’s themes while at the same time eluding any cubby-hole appellations as a “response.” His film would be richer without suggesting that Reggio’s was lean. It would be visually immersive without implying that Reggio’s was too astringent. It would advance similar themes and agendas, but in far more integrated tapestries and without so much as hinting that Reggio’s effort had been heavy-handed. Fricke’s film would celebrate the fact that two smart friends may see the same half-empty glass, yet end up talking about it very, very, *very* differently. It would be lush; it would be musical; it would be stirring yet non-manipulative, evocative without mimicry. It would be called Baraka. 

Filmed over eleven months in twenty-five countries on six continents, Baraka eschews the linear progression of Reggio’s technology apostasy, opting to fight the fire laterally rather than frontally. Gorgeous vistas of natural (and human-designed) aesthetic rapture don’t so much give way to rubbish-strewn dystopias, as pirouette around the madness—reminding us that gardens left unappreciated will languish just as quickly as those surrendered to the weeds and rodents of our lesser selves. The human form is rash, spiritual, violent, dirty, romantic, sometimes cruel: but more than these, so much more than these, he is beautiful to watch and supremely lucky to be here.         

Released in the early nineties when aesthetic calls-to-action made a poor fit against the convulsive public consciousness, Baraka was never as widely seen or loudly celebrated as Reggio’s bolt-from-the-blue had been, ten years earlier. In a way it seems Fricke’s attention to a more stylized visual aesthetic may ironically have rendered Baraka as *less* impactful, suggesting to some that packaging and back-of-the-house wizardry had been preferred at the expense of something closer to Reggio’s more compelling narrative. 

Still, Baraka is beloved by those who know it. Writing for Sight and Sound, Roger Ebert called it “quite literally reason enough to own a BluRay Player, all by itself.” Not feeling like this had done the matter justice, he then added, “If ever we launch another deep-space probe with a message for distant alien civilizations, let that message be this film.” 

I hope everyone will plan to join us Wednesday evening at 18:31 for this immersive, challenging, and exquisite delicacy of globe-trotting cinematic excellence. Few movies we have shared are as likely to forever be remembered after they’ve been seen. 

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