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Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Kecak: Invented Tradition


A wordless film of global wonders includes an astonishing Balinese dance. What’s hibiscus doing here?


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Kecak performers, with hibiscus behind the ear, in Bali

At our beloved downtown brocade-walls and bad-velveteen-seats movie theater – the Paramount – we caught the late show of Baraka. This is Ron Fricke’s 1992 cinematic shriek, shot in 70 mm – a God’s eye view of flaming oilfields in Kuwait, drowsy Japanese monkeys, Rio slums, flamingo herds ad magnificum.

Many have written that the wordless film glorifies the natural world and condemns humankind’s waste and cruelty. That’s not how we saw it. Instead, Baraka, with its immense vistas and bellowing soundtrack, strikes us as a testament of power —both human and non-human. It witnesses that the forces of culture are as resounding as volcanoes and waterfalls.

Surely the strongest scene of the film is the three minute performance of kecak, a Balinese art that, to the uninitiated, is compelling and bizarre. (The youtube clip is lively but not much like seeing and hearing this interlude in the dark on the big screen.)

The Balinese “Monkey chant,” as it’s often translated into English, takes place in a circular open-air stage and includes “upwards of 60 men dressed only in sarongs, each with a red hibiscus planted behind his ear.” Following a choral leader with throbbing motions and clacking sounds, they (purportedly) re-enact a tale from the Hindu Ramayama.

Honestly, we couldn’t follow any storyline, but as post-modern entertainment, so much the better: Kecak is one big “Wow!” The strength and the shallowness too of Fricke’s majestic film is that lacking any context, the glorious imagery and booming audio become strangely flat. At the end of 90 minutes, we’ve been stuffed with beggers and eclipses, cigarette factories and throngs at Mecca, snow-capped peaks and Tokyo subways. It’s a sensory pig-out but, eliding any understanding, Baraka is guilty of the same mindless excesses it wants to damn.


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Posted by Julie on 08/31 at 10:39 AM
Art & MediaSecular CustomsTravelPermalink