Home Video Hovel- The Qatsi Trilogy, by West Anthony
Which is no guarantee that general audiences will take it to heart unreservedly. Koyaanisqatsi remains one of the cornerstones of my cinematic education, and a film with which I have maintained a very personal sort of relationship over the past thirty years, in no small part because for a long time it felt like it belonged exclusively to me. In those late 20th century days, when Facebook was merely someone’s subconscious dystopian nightmare and we were linked in to diddlysquat, it was impossible to find anyone in my Orange County suburban environs who had the slightest appreciation for the film: either the wordless, time-lapse visuals struck people as a confusing jumble of meaningless imagery, or they dismissed Philip Glass’ music as a repetitive irritant. But not only is it a richly rewarding experience for those willing to be even a little adventurous, it may be that an even larger audience awaits it today than ever before, because its message of humanity in disharmony with nature and the potentially catastrophic effects that this relationship has on our environment is only more timely and immediate.
Of possibly greater interest to cinephiles than environmentalists, however, is the method by which Reggio conveys his message: there is no story, no dialogue, no narration, only the exquisite imagery captured by cinematographer Ron Fricke and the pulsing music of composer Philip Glass. Yet what Reggio wants to tell the viewer is as plain as day. He starts with a pictogram, a sort of clue as to what lies ahead for the viewer. Pictograms tell a story without written or spoken language; the director now utilizes what was, in its day, modern technology to do the same. From the pictogram we go to the rocket: the film begins and ends with these two things, but while Reggio provides two contrasting shots of rockets — one going up at the start, one exploding and plummeting to Earth at the end — the pictogram remains the same, implacable through the centuries. In between, the film’s message is that we are not consistently utilizing methods that allow us to maintain a harmony with nature; we are taking too much and giving back too little. Moving from spectacular vistas of the natural world to man-made edifices and urban sprawl, to the silent detritus of “space junk”, to the unplanned obsolescence of the ill-fated Pruitt Igoe housing development in St. Louis, to the uncomfortable visual parallels drawn between scurrying throngs of humanity and the manufacture of Oscar Mayer wieners or between circuit boards and aerial photos of the very city you may live in, Reggio issues a warning that the center cannot hold, that “If we dig precious things from the land, we will invite disaster” (one of the Hopi prophecies sung by a chorus in Glass’ score), that, as the rocket metaphor that bookends the film suggests, what goes up must come down. But just as important, he suggests that it is not only the Earth that is suffering from this imbalance, but that we are suffering as well — something important to our well-being has been sorely neglected, we have abandoned our relationship with the natural world in a desperate attempt to somehow rise above it, and this spiritual malaise has created a void that we are trying to fill with the wrong things.
The irony of sophisticated blu-ray technology bringing the message of this film into our homes with an impeccable visual and aural presentation is not lost on me. Koyaanisqatsi has never looked better in any presentation I have seen, and the only reason I cannot say it has never sounded better is because I have had the privilege of seeing both this film and Powaqqatsi with live accompaniment from the Philip Glass Ensemble — who, it must be said, rocked the freakin’ house. Watching the new Criterion blu-ray, I found myself wondering for the first time ever if an older film such as this could benefit from an IMAX 3D presentation… although the dizzying time-lapse photography that is arguably the centerpiece of the picture might make people’s heads explode. Fricke’s cinematography is one of the most gorgeous things you will ever see on a screen, and the constant parade of dazzling imagery could not fail to enthrall even the most Hollywood-hardened mainstream viewer. Older viewers might also feel pangs of nostalgia for things in the film that are no longer with us — Crocker Bank, Twinkies, a thriving domestic automotive industry — but in a way it only reinforces Reggio’s depiction of the relentless march of progress.
There is an intriguing array of special features on the Koyaanisqatsi disc. In addition to interviews with Reggio, Glass and Fricke, there is a series of public service announcements Reggio created in the 1970’s warning of the perils of invasions of privacy; these ads are unnervingly spooky… and, if the cavalcade of amateur nudity on the internet is any indication, they were also completely ignored. More intriguing is a trio of “demo versions” of the film, all of which contain some footage found in the finished product but plenty of previously unseen stuff as well. The longest of the three demos is forty minutes long, and there isn’t much of a context to the visuals, as though Reggio hasn’t yet decided what he wants to say about our modern way of life. This version also has no soundtrack, so feel free to crank up something from your own music collection. (I used Pink Floyd, a bit of a cliché I suppose, but it’s a cliché that holds up. Try their 1977 album Animals, which is just about the right length.) The other two demos, at thirty and sixteen minutes long, are both shortened versions of the forty-minute demo, but both have soundtracks provided by beat poet Allen Ginsberg, who seems to have improvised the lyrics he sings whilst watching the film and playing a harmonium: “Neon blinks in blue and yellow and green / Hamburgers are served that are obscene.” I would never discourage someone from trying something outside their comfort zone, but it’s probably for the best that Ginsberg didn’t quit his day job.
Francis Ford Coppola has a presentational credit on Koyaanisqatsi, and for Powaqqatsi he was joined by his old pal George Lucas, who perhaps got into the act for the second film of the trilogy because it reminded him of the experimental film roots he’d always been threatening to return to before making the Star Wars prequel trilogy and experimenting with our patience instead. Possibly the most jarring sight in Powaqqatsi is the Cannon production company logo at the beginning — yes, the people who brought you The Delta Force now bring you this. The focus of the second film shifts from America to countries of the Southern Hemisphere, and from the very start — a scene of workers in the Serra Pelada gold mine — it is clear that we are going to see how their way of life is influenced, for better or worse, by the material needs dictated by our way of life. As before, the first part of the picture explores the natural wonders of these second- and third-world environments, only we are also shown how the people of these regions appear to live in harmony with nature; nary an extension cord is to be found as they utilize tools that could be dismissed as primitive and quaint if climate change weren’t such a deadly serious conundrum.
Inevitably, the idyll is broken as more modern trappings appear: trains, high rises, cars. While it may be presumptuous to assume that these people’s lives are completely improved or completely ruined by encroaching modernization, there can be no doubt that Reggio does not support the exploitation of life in far-flung regions of the world just so we in the States can have our digital shoelaces and iToasters and whatnot — yet another point that has only become more relevant as the hand-wringing over conditions in China’s Foxconn factory continues, largely unaddressed. The theme of the film is probably best summed up in the single image (so on-the-nose it was used as the poster art) of a small boy walking along the side of the road and being engulfed by a cloud of dust kicked up by a passing truck. Indeed, while the message Powaqqatsi conveys is not much fun, it is once again conveyed with breathtaking cinematography, this time provided by Graham Berry and Leonidas Zourdoumis (Ron Fricke went off on a solo career, and films like Baraka and the more recent Samsara are the result). Where Reggio sped up time in the first film, here he slows it down, with numerous slow-motion shots allowing us to practically wallow in the beauty of this world. (Note: there is a shot of an airliner flying over a building that is photographed at such an oblique angle as to suggest that the airliner is actually crashing into it; while the inventive sleight-of-hand was delightful when I first saw it in 1988, the same shot produced audible gasps from a post-9/11 audience. To those who are still understandably sensitive about such matters, forewarned is forearmed.)
Philip Glass’ stalwart ensemble is augmented with “world music” instrumentation this time around, which is not only appropriate to the film itself but also indicative of the evolution of Glass’ music as a whole. From Koyaanisqatsi‘s amplified keyboards and reed instruments of the Ensemble’s early days when they took their sonic sounds to the lofts and clubs of the burgeoning New York art scene of the 70’s, to the exotic sounds, children’s voices and string section in Powaqqatsi, to the full orchestra dominated by the cello of Yo-Yo Ma in Naqoyqatsi, within this trilogy it is possible to experience the full development of Philip Glass’ musical palette in just a few glorious hours. “Anthem” is the recurring musical theme that Glass weaves in and out of the Powaqqatsi score; it may also be one of his most recognizable works, since it has been used in movie trailers — and occasionally other movies, like The Truman Show — about a zillion times. (Two pieces from Glass’ score for Koyaanisqatsi were welded together and used in Zack Snyder’s Watchmen to no one’s satisfaction.) Each time “Anthem” appears on the soundtrack, Glass adds one or two additional beats to its meter, so that while the core melody remains constant, the underlying rhythm becomes more complex and difficult to follow. (Try dancing to it.) This could be a musical metaphor for Reggio’s theme in Powaqqatsi — the notion that the third-world peoples depicted in the film are just minding their own beeswax, living their lives as they have done for countless years, while the world around them brings more innovation, more technology, more modernization that threatens to overwhelm their simpler way of life. Or not. Either way, the very fact that the Qatsi Trilogy invites attempting this kind of interpretation is part of what makes watching it such a gas.
There are not quite as many special features on the Powaqqatsi disc; there is the usual interview footage which is fairly informative, but the best and most significant feature is Anima Mundi, a 29-minute film Reggio directed (and Glass scored) in the early 90’s that depicts dozens of animals of all sizes and varieties. It is by turns beautiful, adorable, terrifying and icky, often all four within mere seconds.
It is with Naqoyqatsi, the conclusion of the trilogy, that Reggio almost appears to have thrown in the philosophical towel. The unrelentingly mournful tone of the picture makes it the least hopeful of the three films — in fact, it would not be too unfair to say that it is an unrelieved downer. Unlike the first two films that take the time to show us some beauty in the world, as if to suggest that there’s still time to turn back from the fateful path we’re on, in Naqoyqatsi the viewer is plunged headlong into a cold and impersonal exploration of our transition to the 21st century. Heavy reliance on digital imagery — literally ones and zeroes in some instances — and digitally-manipulated imagery seems to suggest how much our lives have been engulfed by our ever-evolving technology… or perhaps Reggio is presciently telling us, ten years ago, how much of our lives would be lived in the digital realm of today? The only beauty to be found in this film is the cold beauty of some of the filmmaker’s more intriguing artificial visions, such as collections of corporate logos contrasted with religious iconography; more naturally lovely is a shot of swirling fractals rushing toward the camera that recalls Saul Bass’ hypnotic opening titles for Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo.
Even Philip Glass seems to acknowledge that Reggio’s vision is not a joyful one; while few composers today are as skilled as he is at conveying tension and dread — just ask Errol Morris, who has collaborated with the composer several times for just such an effect — in Naqoyqatsi the score is particularly bleak, as if he were composing a eulogy to a race of people who don’t even know they’re dead yet. For this reason, Yo-Yo Ma is the perfect soloist to convey the haunted sorrow of the film; to my knowledge, no one has ever composed music for cello that could be described as jaunty or jolly — it’s just not that kind of instrument.
Of the special features on the Naqoyqatsi disc, the biggest is a an hour-long panel discussion with Reggio and Glass; there is also an afterword from Reggio in which he talks a little about what he hoped to achieve with these films. The picture quality is of course impeccable, but being made almost entirely of digital or computerized imagery, it doesn’t have quite the same “man-made” feel to it that the other films have. It’s entirely possible that this is precisely the effect that the director wanted. Included in the artfully-designed packaging is a booklet with three essays — one on Reggio, one on Glass, and one on the all-too-relevant environmental message of the trilogy. While I understand the Criterion Collection’s mandate to honor filmmakers, I do take issue a bit with the way the front cover only states “Directed by Godfrey Reggio”… how about “Music by Philip Glass” as well, for his is surely an invaluable contribution to the success of the trilogy. Curiously, I couldn’t help noticing the absence of chapter listings anywhere in the packaging, which I can’t recall Criterion ever doing before; there are chapter titles which can be found on the menus of the discs themselves, and they happen to correspond to the titles of the tracks on Philip Glass’ soundtrack CDs. (Quick weird trivia time: these soundtracks, as well as just about all of Glass’ recorded output, was produced by Kurt Munkacsi, who may be known to fans of more mainstream musical fare as the producer of the single “I Know What Boys Like” by The Waitresses. There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio….)
It’s almost a shame that Reggio couldn’t have waited a bit longer to finish his trilogy (although having to wait fourteen years between Powaqqatsi and Naqoyqatsi was annoying enough). If only he could have seen the awareness of climate change raised by the Oscar-winning documentary An Inconvenient Truth… if only he had seen the first flush of the Occupy Wall Street movement… if only he had seen the rise of Wikileaks and the Anonymous hacktivist collective, he might have been encouraged by the more positive uses of technological innovation and youthful activism, and made his film with a more positive outlook. Perhaps the sentimentalist in me just wants the thing to end on an up note, but while there is a certain degree of validity in Reggio’s despair for the future of mankind, even I — of all people — still believe that we can be better, and that revolutions of the heart and mind can still lead to revolution in the streets that could sweep away the corruption and decay and bring about a better life for everyone.
And it could be that this is precisely the feeling that Godfrey Reggio wants to inspire. Perhaps with Naqoyqatsi he is still sounding the same warning as he did in Koyaanisqatsi and Powaqqatsi, but this time the warning is considerably more dire because the consequences are more dire now than they have ever been before. Perhaps with the final film in the trilogy, the filmmaker is throwing down a formidable gauntlet, and we are faced with the choice of either giving up and laying down or rising to the challenge and overcoming it at last. The seeming hopelessness of the third film is tempered by the hopefulness of the first two, to such an extent that taken as a whole I cannot believe that the ultimate message of the trilogy is that all is lost, and while there is still much to be done, I do believe that we can do it. This is the cumulative inspirational power of the Qatsi Trilogy: the power of cinema not only to change the way the viewer looks at the world, but to encourage the viewer to try to change the world for the better.