Chris's Film Reviews

Godfrey Reggio's "Qatsi" Trilogy

A review by Chris Harris, who has been going to the movies for half a century, so he's seen quite a few films in his time.


Directed by: Godfrey Reggio

Music by: Philip Glass

The internet is a curious beast. Although there is a lot of original creative work out there, there is a lot of recycling going on. Much of the web is constructed from pieces of text and imagery cut and pasted from other sources, given new context based on the ideas and intentions of each designer as he or she assembles their pages. The film equivalent, surely, is Godfrey Reggio's trilogy of films, Koyaanisqatsi, Powaqqatsi and Naqoyqatsi. Although they contain a lot of original work (not least of which is the stunning music by Philip Glass) they also use stock footage of such things as the American space program and military nuclear tests. As a result, they contain a staggering breadth of imagery way beyond the capabilities of any single filmmaker.

The films have no dialogue - they are essentially long form videos set to the music of Philip Glass. In these days of MTV and the like, it is no easy task to maintain an audience's attention for eighty-something minutes, but Godfrey Reggio manages it, and is able to convey his message at the same time. Each film takes its title from the Hopi Indian language; Reggio says that he used this language in an attempt to divorce the film from any preconceptions or interpretations based upon a title.

It's taken a long time for the trilogy to be completed, and it is to Steven Soderbergh's enduring credit that he enabled this creative odyssey to be completed.

The first film to be released was Koyaanisqatsi (1983).

For the Hopi, Koyaanisqatsi means "crazy life" or "life out of balance."

It's by far the strongest of the three films, and the message is stark. In Koyaanisqatsi, imagery showing western lifestyles is juxtaposed with scenes emphasising the destructiveness of technology. Some of the shots stay with you for years, particularly the American family relaxing on a beach - as the camera pans back, we discover that they are sunbathing in the shadow of a gigantic chemical plant. Pushing things even further, advertising billboards give the whole scene a darkly cynical overtone.

The music has become justifiably famous, from the opening, impossibly deep voices intoning the film's title to the frantic rush of the pieces accompanying the timelapse photography. I still think it's some of the best work Philip Glass has ever done, although I do have a soft spot for his opera Einstein On The Beach.

Director of photography Ron Fricke's work borders on genius, particularly the shot of airliners taxying (which sounds simple, but becomes astonishing). Timelapse photography is used to convey the dehumanising aspect of city life: commuters rushing for their trains appear as scurrying ants, metallic lifts close on crowded workers, and shoppers are battered by a frenetic display of images from walls of television sets. Meanwhile, in the wilderness, where no humans are present, all is serene and majestic - the message is not subtle. The final shot of the film is perhaps the most amazing of all, as the rocket motor from an exploded spaceship tumbles back to Earth in what seems like never-ending slow motion. If you haven't seen the film, you should track down a copy and watch it. If you're really lucky, you may even be able to catch a performance of the film with Philip Glass conducting a full orchestra - he's taken the film "on tour" a number of times in recent years.

The second film was Powaqqatsi (1988).

The title comes from the Hopi word meaning "a way of life that consumes another way of life."

There is much more concentration on humanity in the second movie. If anything, the message here is even more stark than in the first film. Where the first film was about the West, the second is about the West's effect on the rest of the world. To some extent, our culture is shown as a vampiric entity, sucking the life out of the very soil to feed an all-consuming desire for beefburgers, toothpaste, and fast cars. Again, the footage shot specially for the film is both breathtaking and disturbing. Perhaps the most worrying aspect of the film's message is that it is far harder to identify where stock footage is being used. Pictures of deprivation, squalor and environmental chaos have become all too easy to come by.

For Powaqqatsi, much of the audio work was done at George Lucas's Skywalker Sound. When I discovered this, it explained why several of the pieces of music reminded me of the special effects work from the Star Wars movies. The sound quality is heavily processed in places, which emphasises the differences between Western and Eastern approaches. Philip Glass produces some of his most atypical work here, using Arabic figures as well as his usual techniques. It works very well, although as happened for Koyaanisqatsi, the soundtrack album misses huge chunks out to fit on the CD format.

The recycling theme continues outside these films; Philip Glass used a movement from Powaqqatsi as one of the main themes in his music to The Truman Show.

The third and final film was Naqoyqatsi (2002).

The Hopi word means "life as war."

I still haven't made up my mind about the third film, having watched it twice so far. The message is no longer as clear as it was, and to a certain extent the film doesn't flow as well. Some of the edits seemed far more obvious than in the previous film - there are one or two points where Naqoyqatsi just stops, before it gets going again. The music, too, has changed. Here Glass writes much of the score for solo cello, played by the phenomenally talented Yo Yo Ma. As a result, the film has a much edgier feel to it - given that it was constructed in a post-September 11 world, this is hardly surprising.

The technology of film has come a long way since Powaqqatsi was made, and the ubiquitous Avid desk has made what was impossible ten years ago look commonplace. So much of the footage is digitally warped, compressed, tweaked, folded, spindled or otherwise manipulated. I feel this actually works against the intent of the film, as technology is to some extent being condemned and celebrated at the same time. However, once again there are some striking images. In particular, I found the pictures of CGI celebrities being greeted on chat shows, mixed in with film of real famous people, mixed in with waxworks of famous people, to be disturbing in a way that I can't easily identify. I'll be watching the film again - all three movies stand up well to repeated viewings.

Chris's ratings:

Koyaanisqatsi - Five Stars
Powaqqatsi - Four Stars
Naqoyqatsi - Three Stars

You may also want to wander over to the Official Site.

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