245) Baraka (1992) Dir: Ron Fricke Date Released: September 24, 1993 Date Seen: August 3, 2012 Rating: 4.5/5
As I was watching Baraka, and having my shit blown away by it, I couldn't help but think that director Ron Fricke had somehow seamlessly combined two disparate traditions. It's too easy to say that Baraka is similar to Koyaanisqatsi, especially since Fricke worked on that film. Actually, I was thinking of:
1: Goona Goona: I think it's fitting that Baraka is showing as a midnight movie at the Landmark Sunshine in two weeks or so. Bear in mind: I'm always bitching about how conservative the tastes of the Sunshine's midnight movie programmers are. I mean, I have a reason, OK? These are the guys that show The Goonies at midnight and they used to be the guys that showed A Boy and His Dog. This shit matters, ok?!
But Baraka is a good choice thanks in no small part to the exploitative heritage it comes from. Fricke's ideology and approach may be drastically different from the sleazy, pseudo-educational ethnographic documentaries that emphasized naked spear-chuckers, human sacrifices, dead bodies and tattooed/pierced skin.
But you can't have Baraka without that tradition: the footage of an ossuary, which is conflated with footage from a Holocaust museum and then a concentration camp? Or how about the images of a human body being burned near the Ganges, complete with a close-up of a pained look etched on a corpse's face? Or how about that shot of the same body burning where you can clearly see the body's foot burning, the flesh flaking off its bone? Or even the scenes of naked Amazon natives and their elaborate body art? If that's not the distant relative of Goona Goona and the Mondo movies that followed it, I don't know what is. Just look at the film's original tagline: "a world beyond words." Sounds pretty exotic, huh?
2: The Man with a Movie Camera: Soviet theorist turned filmmaker Dziga Vertov's polemical, revolutionary tracts on films have been on my mind of late since Vertov's seminal film recently ranked high on the Sight & Sound critics' poll (VERTOV ROOLS, WOO, VERTOV ROOLS, WOO). Vertov posited that the purpose of cinema is not to film stuffy melodramas, which he consigned to the theater. Instead, a filmmaker has to show us the world with supra-human vision. The "Kino Eye" is the literal lens through which a filmmaker, in Vertov's ideal conception of what a filmmaker should do, should film the world. It stands to reason then that a good Vertov-ian filmmaker should enter and induce a trance-like state and see the world through and even as their camera.
Baraka's opening and concluding sequences, the ones that frame the film's human-oriented sequences as being part of a grand design can be understood in that sense. They establish the natural order that the human drive to create comes from. To be part of nature, we must step outside of the natural and create a new order of things. That's the main theme of Baraka, as I understand it: the favelas in Rio de Janeiro and the skyscrapers of Tokyo and the Pyramids of Egypt are all part of that drive. Our artificial need to re-wire the world is therefore nothing but a hyper-natural impulse. Fricke makes this concept very literal in the scene where the camera seems to go into the back of a Buddhist monk's head, emerging on the other side in a Mayan temple. The human mind creates or maybe re-imagines the world as a testament not just as a testament to ourselves, but also as a testament to the pre-existing order of things. Or something like that, anyway.
With this reading in mind, I was especially confused and moved by the Holocaust segment (tears welled up but never released; which is weird). By this point in Baraka, we have already seen how struggling and pain, as in the sequences of the grimacing kabuki performers and of the oxen that painfully drag a heavy cart up heel, are also part of nature. Not only that, we have seen how humanity has contributed to that cycle of pain and helps to actively reproduce it, as in the scene of the baby chicks that fall down a slick, metallic funnel in slow motion, presumably to their deaths.
But that's what's interesting: with the exception of the Buddhist whose head the camera seems to enter, there is very little human agency in this film's representation of humanity. People are parts of a whole in Baraka, so the images of the concentration camp bother me because there is no violence to these images, only absence. People are just...gone. And that's a universal point that could just as easily be made by filming an ossuary (And Fricke does that, too!). But no, these were people that were annihilated by other people. We did that: people did that. Where does Fricke acknowledge this sad fact? Fricke juxtaposes the Holocaust victims with the pyramids in Egypt as a means of showing both what we take away from ourselves and what we give back to each other. But is that enough? I love Baraka's sweeping scope and the ruminative mood it put me in. But sometimes I feel like the world, when viewed from such a distance, looks unfamiliar.