A Ron Fricke presentation of a Les Productions de la Géode production, in association with Magidson Films,
Reuben H. Fleet Space Theater & Science Center. Distributed by Canticle Films (1985) (worldwide) (theatrical), MacGillivray Freeman Films (1985) (USA) (theatrical), Reuben H. Fleet Space Theater & Science Center, The (1985) (USA) (theatrical). Producer: Ron Fricke and Jeffrey Kirsch. Written and Directed by Ron Fricke.
To say that the genre of documentary film-making known as Non-Verbal has already seen its zenith might cause the casual film-buff to react in several different ways:
“Wait, I didn’t even know that was a genre. What have I missed?” or
“Do those Baader-Meinhoff-inspired proto-internet-porn films of the mid-90s qualify as non-verbal? Because if they do, I didn’t miss anything!” or
“Know this: as long as Ron Fricke continues to draw breath there will crest another Non-Verbal wave on these parched shores, O yes!”
OK, but who is Ron Fricke?
Fricke is the filmmaker perhaps best known for his cinematographic work on Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance, (Institute for Regional Education, 1982) the first (and best) of the Qatsi Trilogy directed by Godfrey Reggio, and Baraka, the 1992 non-narrative epic in cinéma vérité. Just as the initial Qatsi film dealt with the theme of “man’s relationship to the eternal,” Baraka too, manages to evoke visceral reactions to a nonexistent storyline by playing on the bigger picture of the similarities humans of all walks of life share rather than what drives them apart.
Some call it poetry, others say tedious, but Baraka cannot be stereotyped as the typical granola fodder for neo-hippie troupe, a new age album of monks chanting the names of Liz Taylor’s husbands, or any of the other self-help metaphysical movements of latter-day western metaphysics. It is much bigger than any labels. Whatever it is, it has its roots in Chronos, one of the first non-narrative time-lapse films, where we see firsthand Fricke’s handiwork with the camera coalesce with his own vision of the world. Filmed in atom-smashingly clear 70mm film format and printed using the IMAX cinematographic process (1.78:1), he and a handful of others revolutionized documentary film-making by creating a film camera which shoots computer-precise, motion controlled time-lapse cinematography, spawning the Non-Verbal genre and inspiring a generation of filmmakers in the process.
Spanning the recent pre-internet and post-internet periods of technological boom, the genre has grown steadily since the mid-80s as the once esoteric world around us is normalized by curious and industrious filmmakers from all over the world, especially the French. Atlantis (1991, Luc Besson) from Luc Besson (The impetus to Le Grand Bleu perhaps), Microcosmos: The grass people (Microcosmos: Le peuple de l’herbe, Miramax, 1996) directed by Claude Nuridsany and Marie Pérennou and Winged Migration, (Le Peuple Migrateur Sony Pictures Classics, 2001) from Jacques Cluzaud, Michel Debats and Jacques Perrin, whose production company, Galatée Films, continues to outpace the rest of the non-verbal pack. HOME, directed by photographer Yann Arthus-Bertrand is another example of great documentary film-making, but is narrated (Glenn Close) and has a clear agenda-driven narrative (Climate Change).
To accomplish their goal of creating compelling still photographs that move, the film-makers must deliberately balance the three elements of film-making: cinematography, editing and music. Soundtracks in all film have a massive impact on the viewer and how the viewer perceives the mise-en-scène (look at Michelangelo Antonioni’s use of silence in the penultimate scene of The Passenger). Yet in Non-Verbal film, the score seems to embody more than mere accompaniment, in that it acts as the concomitant guiding voice, so to speak, blending the sonic and visual elements into a harmonious observable medium. Equal to Fricke’s own ingenuity and expertise with cameras could be composer Michael Stearns, who scored Chronos and Baraka, often using esoteric and homemade instruments, such as the Beam. Called an “instrument of discovery” the Beam has 24 piano strings gauged from 19 to 22, is attached to a 12 foot piece of extruded aluminum with a large electrical pick-up mimicking the setup of an electrical guitar and appears to be played with various metallic vases and pipes. “I chose the beam as one of the unique voices in the score for Cronos because of its deep earthtone qualities…and an instrument that had a large dynamic range that would help propel the soundtrack through the different movements.”
Twenty-six years after Chronos lapsed into existence, word on the street is that Non-Verbal film-making is about to be shaken up once again. The pantomime who would be king, Ron Fricke has scheduled his companion piece to Baraka, Samsara to be released in 2011. Which means New Yorkers, Angelenos and wherever there is a film festival, those people will get to see it, but everyone else in the flow of the world will have to wait until it’s released on disc. Since Bollywood’s film-making revolution has spread west to Nigeria and east to China (the second-largest IMAX film-going community), it might be worthwhile petitioning IMAX for moksha, which is to say, wider release.