BARAKA – Ron Fricke (1992)

Baraka title screen for Taylor Walker's Bad Cinema Corner review

ALSO KNOWN AS: Earth Looks Pretty Through My Lenses: The Motion Picture
GENRE:
Experimental nothingness of neohippian value
RATING: ★½

Ron Fricke’s Baraka, is nothing more than a collection of pretty-looking establishing shots that aims to tell the viewer something really deep. Unless we count “Ron Fricke is friggin’ awesome” as a really deep spiritual message, it fails miserably.

When approaching this film, it’s easy to mistake it for a cinematographic ode to our beautiful planet Earth, to suppose it a movie whose only purpose is to showcase the amazing and awe-inspiring landscapes scattered throughout our six continents, a collection of stunning visuals accompanied by magnificently composed music gathered from all around the globe in order to create a soothing atmosphere of comfort and wonder, a motion picture whose one and only redeemable quality is the very reason why it has to be considered as a masterpiece to every filmgoer around the globe: the meditative thesis of stunning natural splendor. That’s how it disguises itself. Make no mistake: Baraka’s nothing but malevolent and pointless.

Allegedly a film that, without the use of superfluous things like plot, actors, common sense or dialogue, Baraka tries to evoke meditative reflection on the viewer through pure cinema. In the words of its director, it is a technical and philosophical voyage into the immortal theme of “humanity’s relationship to the eternal”. To each and every New Agey human being alive, this sounds like a cinematic paradise, the perfect movie to meditate with about the course humankind is taking. Unfortunately, Baraka has nothing to do with such conceited themes and everything to do with “I have a camera and I can film nice-looking images with it.”

My thoughts, exactly.

That’s not to say the 96 minutes of its running time are void of any striking image whatsoever. In fact, I consider most of the stuff that ended up being on screen to be prettier, in fact, than seven litters of newborn kittens making eye contact with me at the same time. If the need to watch it should arise, it deserves to be viewed in a humongous screen capable of the highest definition available to the human race. However, there is one underlying issue that ruins the whole experience: it pretends to have a point. Everything would be just fine if Fricke was contempt with being the author of the most gorgeous collection of establishing shots known to men, but no, he had to stick his New Age attitude and be preachy about it.

The story of Baraka, which is far more entrancing than the film itself, began in 1975, when a man named Godfrey Reggio had the exact same idea Ron Fricke had, only about twenty years earlier. Reggio’s design was to create a film composed entirely of expertly photographed scenes, with zero dialogue and no plot, to convey a highly environmental theme. The outcome of this scheme was a visual tone poem movie called Koyaanisqatsi that actually does work. During the production of said film, a very young and impressionable guy named Ron Fricke was hired as its head cinematographer. And he did a damn good job at it. So good were his photographed images, that after literally leaving speechless all the producers/executives at The Institute of Regional Education for two straight weeks with his work, Fricke couldn’t help but think to himself: “Man, anyone with my photographical sensibility could do a better movie than this Koyaanisqatsi hodgepodge! In fact, screw Reggio and his work; he is nothing but a credit-stealing hack! I will make a better movie myself! I’ll travel around the world filming pretty things and voilà! A far superior movie will be instantly created!” And that’s precisely what he set out to do.

Instead of an actual film, Fricke, after spending nearly thirty-six months of continuous kaleidoscopic travels around the world, both inside and outside of his body and mind, returned home with seventeen hours of something that resembled more a collection of establishing shots stock footage for any film studio to buy than an actual film. But, as far as everyone involved in the project was concerned, Fricke’s work was nothing short of spiritually uplifting, although, that might’ve been the LSD speaking. Whatever it was, they decided to release it upon the world, pretending it wasn’t an unofficial Koyaanisqatsi remake and denying ever knowing the existence of anyone named Godfrey Reggio.

Since postproduction is meaningless for meditative works of art, Baraka, as a film, lacks a particularly important ingredient. Nowadays, we know it as “editing” or “the art of arranging a movie’s scenes in a cohesive way”, where shots are put together, one after another, so that they interact both visually and conceptually. Simply put, editing is the art of “having a movie make sense”. Ron Fricke, being too busy loving himself and his genius to apply this knowledge, decided that editing is bovine excrement and that even an untrained cactus could slap two or three scenes together.

image

Ron Fricke being blinded by his sheer awesomness.

The end result is, therefore, a mess. During an hour and a half of screen time, the visionary force behind Baraka, unsuccessfully juggles all his neo-hippie beliefs with his own ego, making it impossible for him to decide what in Gosh’s name is he trying to say. His visual rambling begins with a very understandable “nature is so beautiful! I ORDER YOU TO ADMIRE IT RIGHT AWAY, DAMN IT!” – that reminds you that you just paid to go inside a dark theatre to enjoy a two-dimensional moving picture of nature instead of, you know, actually going outside and enjoying the actual nature – to “human beings are evil monsters that live only to destroy precious defenseless mother Earth”, after which he promptly points out that “human beings are beautiful creatures that create wonderful artificial landscapes that deserve to be observed!”, going through a “our planet would be better off without people on it”, making a rather long stop into the “the only thing that could save us is religion” just to assure us that “religion is what’s tearing us apart!” going back to “Earth is purdy!”, then reassuring “religion is good when its ancient and underground but it’s really bad when it’s mainstream and common” and finalizing his statement, once again, with “Earth is beautiful, despite human beings, who are the most awesome thing ever, unless they are religious beings, which is the reason why they are bad, and they must be exterminated, unless they practice religion, so we can enjoy and create the artificial landscapes that decorate our planet, while destroying life in a vapid stream of gorgeous images of despaired hope of beauty”.

In the end, Fricke, through Baraka, ends up saying nothing more than: “Hi, my name’s Ron Fricke and I’m so proud of myself that I’ll force you to look at my pictures despite returning time and time again to the same visuals because I just love myself and my work and so should you and everybody else.” And that’s something terribly sad, because most of the film’s so-real-and-not-in-any-way-staged-shots-that-definitely-do-not-include-natives-the-production-bribed-to-make-them-look-nativey-while-not-looking-directly-into-the-camera shots are, definitely, breath-taking.

Ultimately, Fricke’s ego is so monumentally huge, it alone manages to transform something with real potential into a superficial look over every aspect of humanity. A superficial and non-interesting look. What really bothers me, however, is the fact that so many people overlook this rather important aspect of the production in lieu of a spectacle of lush images. Processed mindless entertainment for the self-proclaimed intellectual crowd at its best. But, damn it, does it look good on HD! (And even better on LSD. Or, so I’ve heard…)

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