A Walk Among the Tombstones
Fans of the hardboiled detective, rejoice. Screenwriter-director Scott Frank and actor Liam Neeson, adapting the splendid work of crime novelist Lawrence Block, have brought a…
This movie is 97 minutes of trying not to blink. Image after luxurious 70MM image. A perfect soundtrack. I watched it again, wearing headphones, sitting really close to an HD screen letting the film astound me with its Blu-Ray picture. And it did astound me, beyond my expectations. The details revealed textures and images I had not previously noticed. Every time I plan to watch Ron Fricke's "Baraka" (1992), I watch far more than I plan. I intend to watch one scene, but realize quickly that I have to finish it.
This film has a beginning. It has a climax and an end. It has chapters. It has scenes that are linked together, usually by specific elements. A kiss. Smoke. Speedy movement. I don't know if it has a narrative, though I think it does. But, it keeps my attention. I normally have trouble watching narrativeless films because I often need a sense of where I am and where I am going. Some sense of progression. Some narrativeless movies have beginnings and endings. Most have chapters. Even when images are randomly juxtaposed, we try to create meaning by projecting links between the images. From there, we might project a sense of progression on such films. Here, it does seem that Fricke is taking us through a process, that would be fundamentally different if the scenes or sequences were presented in a different order. I don't know that that is the same for films like Terrence Malick's "The Thin Red Line," or other films that "Baraka" would be compared to, like Godfrey Reggio's "Koyaanisqatsi," which Fricke himself edited.
The film is a mixture of moments of stillness and moments of movement, sometimes between cuts, and sometimes in the same shot. A crowd of well dressed urbanites race through a street. On the same street, a monk with a bell walks in very slow, careful steps, but walks against traffic. There are some moments with the camera stares at a man staring back at me, and I'm staring back at him. There is no need to think. Even when the camera stares motionlessly at stationary, snowy mountains, I'm frozen. And then, somewhere in the corner, the frame reveals an almost invisible temple. And, this point, I suppose, is one of the first lessons of "Baraka": stop thinking, let the world unveil itself to you, and the world will reveal its ornaments. Or, we watch a monk in the presence of a rock garden. In one case, looking at the monk, I spent more time trying to figure out if she was a she, and missed the moment. This is one of the first assignments I often give my religious students: spend some moments in nature, stop thinking (meaning, stop interpreting), and absorb the world. For many students, this exercise is too difficult, and we need to take a few other steps to be able to "stop thinking."
Now, those who know the way of the Sufi or the Dao will find my language familiar. This film takes its title from an Arabic word which commonly translates as "blessing." Deeper than "blessing," it invokes a notion of kneeling and touching: a blessing being a sort of touch from the Divine. From its origins, the word is found in languages across the globe, including the first name of our President. For those not familiar with these traditions, they are commonly called "mysticism," or "spirituality," but might just as accurately be considered "organic religion" in contrast to the notion of "organized religion." The complaint against organized religion is that it stifles and dehumanizes the believer through a sort of mass production of acolytes. Organic religion, however, grows from the most intimate, private, and unique to help the believer find fulfillment in the process of immersion in the world and the beyond. It follows, then, that we find Whitman and Emerson making reference to the Sufis, for in Islamic spirituality, the human self is innately good and beautiful, the world is innately good and beautiful, and practices that develop from this engagement between the human and the world are innately good and beautiful. And, the film "Baraka" seems to lead my attention toward a few specific elements of its organic religion.
The Intimate Kiss. After the eye-catching opening with the Japanese snow monkey closing its eyes like an elder meditating perhaps in exhaustion on the cosmos we move from scenes of community, to temples, to books, to ritual bows. Just as in the opening scene we move from the expanse of majestic mountains, glancing momentarily at a tiny, ornate monastery, before closing in on the quiet snow monkey, "Baraka" takes us from the wide (society) to the private (prayer). Then, we move to the human kiss. A teacher kisses his students before they begin to spin in ecstasy. Women carefully kiss the door of a saint's tomb. A priest kisses the stone where his master was prepared for burial.
That human kiss is so simple that we forget that it is perhaps a most gentle and intimate of all the sacred rituals in our religious and cultural vocabularies. Only the human breath is more gentle and more intimate, except that the breath - even when done in congregation - is done alone. The kiss, however, has a lover and a beloved in a moment of blissful silence.
The Impermanent Smoke and Clouds. Next we move to smoke, such mysterious air. It recalls the human breath. The way smoke elegantly rises, rolls upon itself, and vanishes always seems to catch my attention. It is as though - at least in appearance - smoke is our chance to meet their counterparts from the sky: clouds. Clouds behave in such similar ways, sometimes reclining and sloping like gliding amorphous blankets over mountains. But, like smoke, clouds are unique from each other and impermanent. The interesting contrast that "Baraka" shares with us is that smoke results from fire, while clouds result from ice. Today, we associate smoke with pollution and destruction, but smoke historically was also often frankincense, providing fragrance. Eventually, even the smoke of "Baraka" becomes pollution and destruction, but we'll get to that. But, what is the point: it is as though smoke and clouds are the breaths of the world. Smoke, is the breath of the ground toward the sky. Clouds are the breaths of the sky toward the ground. But, all is impermanent.
Life from Water. Next, we explore the bounties of water. Water visits us through falls, lakes, and rain. Interestingly, the animals in the film seem to enjoy water. The birds fly, singing with each other as they glide along water. Impalas race across a field, yet seem to stand still as rain drips itself upon them. Reptiles sit on rocks along the shore, staring at the crashing waves of the sea. The animals, including small bugs, do not run from the rain. They do not run away until the machines arrive with their own frightening thunder.
Doorways and Pathways. As monks observe and reflect on stillness, surrounded by a racing world, "Baraka" takes us through a series of doorways. At first, these doorways seem to be rectangular. Some are constructed. Some seem natural. All have the same purpose. As the film proceeds, the doors begin to lose shape, but maintain the same purpose: like windows, they become lenses through which to see the world, or markers in the path to the other side of things. That is the goal: the endless quest for the world beyond. It is the doorways that help direct us. Consider the film frame itself. It seems that in most films, the frame is a window. In "Baraka," I suspect that it is a doorway.
Further, the dozens of sites we visit are from every spot of the globe. Had the editor captioned the locations with explanations, the film would be a very different experience. Rather, there are no captions, no voice-overs, no indications of geography. If you did not recognize the climates or the rituals, you would not recognize where you are, yet you would be immersed. Instead of providing a world of boundaries, here "Baraka" focuses on pathways.
Choreography. As the aspirant connects into the world with other individuals, the result is a synthesis of meaningful postures. I would use the term "ritual," but that word is so academic and lifeless. The idea of ritual choreography, however, is that these steps, postures, chants, sounds, have effect and meaning beyond the physical benefits of exercise. It is rhythmic, both for the ears and eyes. It is choreographed so that even though the participants are individuals, they are going through the steps as a unified body. Often, they call us audience members in, at least to watch like moths to the flame. As "Baraka" takes us through a door of a temple in Bali, it takes us to the most remembered scene from the film: the monkey chant Ketjak. Dressed in black and white plaid and flowers, men perform a dramatic conversation. Whether or not the choreography does have an ethereal effect, it does have the effect of harmonizing conduct among its participants.
But, soon, "Baraka" takes us into a different direction with different themes. This becomes the dark side. We move from the sacred to the profane. The faint grey smoke and white clouds get replaced by black smoke.
Mass production. The machines pound through the earth, either leaving it bare, or providing boxes as residence for people. Strangely, the homes "Baraka" shows us seem to resemble some sort of prisons, with residents looking out into the sun from behind bars. And, moving from the box homes, the film takes us to boxed tombs.
From there, people en masse produce cigarettes en masse. If frankincense provided the personal smoke for the monastery, cigarettes provide the personal smoke for the urbanite. This modern, technical world compels the monk to close his eyes as he slowly moves through the speedy terrain. Meaning, technical developments compel transformations in human behavior. Because religion is the ultimate human expression, then by definition, technical developments compel transformations in religious behavior.
My first thought is to assume that Fricke is criticizing the modern era, to the point that he is comparing us to little chicks getting tossed through machinery, not knowing where we or they are headed. But, the music in these long sequences is rather upbeat. Perhaps that is the point. Life for the modern seems energetic, but the energy actually hides the frantic pulse.
Meanwhile, mass production yields mass decay. Across the globe, young workers scour through garbage piles, men bathe together in public on the street, and homeless people old and young pepper concrete jungles, painted dancers recall horrors of humanity, and made up courtesans offer themselves.
The Temple of War. The film does not show it, but obviously animals do fight and kill; all those beautiful animals we saw will probably be eaten by other animals. In the case of humans, we have almost a ritual of war. The end result of this mass production is the mass grave, as well as mass killing. We visit the graveyard of aircraft. A soldier prays dressed in religious and military attire. Burning oil fields cover abandoned tanks with their black soot. We visit emptied sites of genocide, torture rooms, intercut with photos, skulls, artifacts of the disappeared. That they are so neatly piled makes the piles so much more disturbing. But, the killing does not end. We visit soldiers standing on guard, yet standing casually, alongside neatly piled stacks of weapons. We see the statues of former warriors, still standing on guard.
Death. Death is the terminal point for all of the above. Religion is either the fantasy to escape from death, or is the pathway to give meaning to and surpass death. Similarly, the final stopping point of mass production is the relic. Ancient civilizations, recalling ancient rock formations, call upon us to learn from them. Just as the film began with temples seeking the unseen, we visit empty, broken temples commemorating violence. As the saying goes, "The only thing we learn from history is that we don't learn from history." Civilizations rise and fall. People are born and die. All on the ground is as impermanent as the clouds above. But:
Continuation, linear and circular. Humanity endures. Because humanity endures, so too does the aspiration for the beyond (i.e. religion) endure. We continue to bow and spin. We continue with our intimate kisses. The Temples continue to rise. The movie began in the mist of dawn and ends at night, reaching into the beyond, the same beyond imagined perhaps by that snow monkey. "Baraka" has a linear structure, but keeps illustrating circularity. Time moves forward and yet it also moves in circles or loops. But, it does move.
The last point of this film seems to be that religion is the ultimate expression of humanity, the ultimate art form. It is more intimate than a microorganism. It is larger than a painting, a film, a monument, or a temple. Wider in scope than a town, a business, a nation, or a civilization.
And, more than that, the ultimate expression of the world is humanity, and the ultimate expression of humanity is beauty. At times, humanity expresses itself with ugliness, but beauty still seems to prevail.
As we mourn Abrams’ macho Star Trek obliteration, it’s a good time to revisit that most Star Trek-ian of accomplishme...
This message came to me from a reader named Peter Svensland. He and a fr...
Part ten in Scout Tafoya's The Unloved series tackles "The Village."
A photo gallery offering snapshots from The Ebert Dinner at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival.