10Films in no particular order: No.6 Baraka

November 19, 2010

Baraka (1994)

I’m not interested in fingering Baraka as my most favourite film, but there is one piece of evidence which is hard to otherwise explain: I have been out to see Baraka, played on the big screen of a cinema, over a dozen times.

One factor is that a viewing of Baraka – leagues above all other films, of which I would advise the same – is enriched by the cinema.  The large format provided by the dvd played on a big-screen-TV is nothing to sneeze at… but it’s missing a bit of collective magic.

Baraka – cousin to the Koyanistsika-Poyoniscasti-Nacognicasti trilogy and (later) films such as Kronos(?), under-sea(?) – rolls without any dialogue. Sound from a few scenes filter through; very occasionally such sounds emerge to the very surface. But shots pass silently beneath a musical soundtrack.

The musical soundtrack is point upon which I grumble a little. The score (by Michael Stearns) teeters near the brink of new-age-style slock. The “official soundtrack” cd released – by selecting too much of the most lyrical passages – falls beyond this threshold.  The film’s complete audio is not bad enough to cause my grumbling to interrupt my viewings. But from a distance – especially compared to Philip Glass’ score for Koyaniskaski (one of the greatest works by one of the late-20th century’s greatest composers) – I’ve always considered Baraka’s score regrettable.

I find watching Baraka to be like dreaming. (If it weren’t such a terrible cliché, I might use the word experience).  Baraka can be described as a long series of shots – of astonishing variety, without being disjointed. Watching minds alternate between wandering and being riveted, struggling to make sense of the flow and forgetting to bother. I think that I dream the same way: when I wake, my mind has sometimes strung together fragments into a (somewhat) coherent narrative, other times it has only confusion, yet others it has forgotten everything.

I find watching Baraka in a cinema to be an extraordinary experience of collective-dreaming.

Besides dreaming, Baraka also has the feeling of a Keith Jarett solo-piano improvisation. During these improvised performances (especially the Vienna Concert, La Scala), a theme emerges from near-incoherence, drifts and at some (not-quite-pinpoint-able) moment shows itself as a new theme. A sequence flows like this: a Sanskrit book in the lap of a chanting Hindu aesthetic (Sandu) cuts to an a book of Hebrew prayers open in the hands of a Hasidim… the bowing-like gestures of Hasidim at the Western Wall cuts to the bowing of Sufi dervishes… each bowed dervish receiving his teacher’s/leader’s(?) kiss cuts to the ritual kissing a shrine’s padlock by a Shiite pilgrim… and so on.

The cuts suggest dividing Baraka into sections, chapters or passages. Like our dreams, the lines between these are occasionally abrupt, but more often uncertain.  Once I began to watch the film this way, I spent some of my energy trying define each the bounds of each passage, and then to wonder if it had its own theme.  I have now – at the risk of ruining the mystery by looking too closely – have meticulously collected, and looked at, images snapped from each of the film’s shots… I can still say that Baraka seems to be in the process of dividing itself into chapters… the lines between each remain uncertain, and themes seem present but – dreamlike, again – nebulous.

With curiosity, I divided Baraka into 15 chapters; a rather anal-retentive exercise to be sure. The dvd itself divides the film two ways: the menu offers five chapters and sixteen imbedded chapter-points (which you advance through via the skip button on the remote control).  Despite feeling uncertain about the points which I identified, changing my choices a few times, these three lists mostly agree.

The photography, shot on six continents, is wonderful. (However, it is not as universal as this might suggest… sub-Saharan Africa is missing). The image quality – captured using 70mm cameras (rather than the traditional 35mm, or the new norm of digital) – is spectacular (provided the reels being shown are in good condition).

Baraka plays terrific games with both time and movement.  The camera variously stands still and floats, pans or zooms.  There are aerial shots slowed down to a graceful glide.  A shot begins by looking as if it has been slowed down, but then you find yourself watching sky full of stars race across the background. Cityscapes – wildly accelerated – pulse with frenetic exuberance/madness. Some of these sequences are familiar from earlier films, especially Koyonaskasi, but improved filming technology offers an enriched portrait of pace spun out-of-control. Figures stand motionless, looking directly into the camera as life goes on – rushing or inching – in the background.

The pace and structure of Baraka is unusual. We are very accustomed to films raising and lowering their tension, but rising to a single major climax. Baraka seems to pass like a series of waves. The first wave crests a about fifteen minutes in. Thinking carefully about these crests, I realized that their mood varies. Intensity rises to make the heart speed, but other times it rises to grip us in mourning.

Finally, as I watch Baraka, my dreaming position shifts. I am watching people who are completely unaware of my gaze. Sometimes this divide seems natural, other times it feels odd. Other times I am gazing into somebody who’s gaze is fixed on mine… lucid and intense.  Dreaming, I suppose, is the same: a path of lucidity dissolving and then returning – gradually or with startling abruptness.


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