Koyaanisqatsi, Powaqqatsi, Naqoyqatsi—life outta whack

I hope you all like wordless non-narratives.

Sometimes you just have to take a few great, big steps back and look at things from a different angle. Film can show us new angles we might have otherwise missed. Good cinema conveys compelling emotions. It expounds on provocative ideas about the world we live in or what the world used to be like or what it can become. It may be persuasive. It may be informative. It may have stunning visuals. It may be beautiful and captivating. It may be arresting and ugly. Good cinema may have some of these things mixed together unevenly, but great cinema does it all. Great cinema is exploratory and revelatory and revolutionary. It has all these things, but it does not require the cumbersomeness of words. Director Godfrey Reggio proves this point with his amazing trilogy, Koyaanisqatsi (1982), Powaqqatsi (1988), and Naqoyqatsi (2002). Through this series Reggio explores and explains our world as a glorious and terrifying ballet of images and motion set to a powerful Philip Glass score.

I know what you’re thinking: “those are the most alienating titles I have ever seen.” Well, they each come from the Hopi Indian language and each film deals with a different direction society has taken. Let us proceed in order, shall we?

The first film is entitled Koyaanisqatsi (1982) and translated it means “life out of balance.” It opens with cave paintings and rocket exhaust and then beautiful and powerfully awesome pictures of nature. Dazzling rock formations jut out of the earth and mountains and canyons sculpted by the forces of nature whiz by like an incredible, living mosaic. The music pumps wonder and energy into every frame. Even when the camera lingers on subjects and is still it is nothing short of jaw dropping. Gradually the lush terrain becomes entangled in modern man-made constructs. Billowing smoke stacks protrude out from labyrinthine nightmares of wires and pipes. Towering buildings blot out the sun and mimic the sky as they reflect the shifting clouds. People bustle through streets and subways and supermarkets. Assembly line systems from hell (or maybe Detroit) rage on interminably. Urban renewal wipes out slums and old buildings with merciless precision. Machines whir and hammer away incessantly. Metal sparks blaze forth from the pulsating industry. Modernization spins its web ever faster until moving at an exponential rate. As the music becomes more intense and the editing becomes deliriously fast, the images begin to blur together and transform from a wondrous ballet to an unbearable barrage of nightmarish images reflecting all that is wrong with mechanization. Just when the chaos reaches its zenith, Reggio backs off and gives us more peaceful images (peaceful in the sense that they are slower and the music is quieter). The images themselves are still quite compelling. The last thing we see before the curtain is drawn is a spaceship, the Challenger, launching and exploding in the atmosphere in slow motion. The rocket’s engine tumbles down from the sky as Glass’s score resounds like an ominous funeral dirge. Has mankind flown too close to the sun on wings of wax? Have we spoiled the earth so much and reached too high and too selfishly to the heavens that God has stifled our Tower of Babel a second time? Before the credits roll Reggio closes his film with a parting shot of more prehistoric cave paintings.

If a picture is worth a thousand words then this movie is worth millions. It says so much without vocalizing anything. It is elusive yet definite. It is tranquil yet violent. It is the visual representation of “life out of balance.” It is a history lesson and a science lesson and a warning and a lament all at the same time. And it is beautiful and stirring. Koyaanisqatsi will leave the viewer with much to ponder and all without plot or characters.

The second film always gets flack for “not being the first film” but it is still a great movie. Again Reggio employs both silent images and motion with the music of Philip Glass. Powaqqatsi (1988) comes from the Hopi language again and it means “life in transformation” or “parasitic way of life.” The second installment in the trilogy deals chiefly with the third world of the Southern Hemisphere and those first sooty steps toward the door of industrialization. The images are more about the struggle for life and survival as a forlorn parade of wide-eyed, sallow-faced visages pass from the screen to our eyes. Gaunt bodies and bent backs do work most Americans would never dream of doing. People struggle to work and prepare meals and to entertain themselves. This is the feather-filled pageantry of the tribal world clashing and struggling to become the industrialized doomed nations Koyaanisqatsi depicted. The results are more toxic smoke and fumes. The transition from third world country to mechanized city can be uneven and difficult and the film is no less compelling. Powaqqatsi is the cinematic equivalent of a coke-frenzied flip through several “National Geographic” magazines. If you are going to watch this movie, be prepared to be moved and compelled by the human face. The film is another staggering achievement.

Godfrey Reggio conveys so much without any words. What the filmmakers have done with these two movies is attempt present the world we live in. The meaning and message behind Powaqqatsi may be more elusive than its predecessor, Koyaanisqatsi, but it is no less captivating.

The final installment in the Qatsi Trilogy is Naqoyqatsi (2002) which means “life as war” in the Hopi language. Its message is not so subtle. It leaves subtlety at the doorstep as it opens on the very Tower of Babel and gradually zooms in. It is no longer a process; man has gone too far in Naqoyqatsi. Reggio once again teams up with Philip Glass to bring entrancing symphony to startling imagery. Naqoyqatsi features digitally enhanced footage and inverted colors to create a surreal fascistic nightmare about life as being completely mechanized and totally artificial. Nothing is natural or organic. The world has become an all out war on nature and nature is nowhere to be found. It has been eclipsed by the cold, artificiality of mechanization. The sky is gone. Trees and shrubberies have retreated back into the earth. Technology has dominated society and the planet, leaving only ghostlike figures pointlessly wandering the crowded streets. Soldiers march, satellites rotate, and numbers dance through a void. The whole ordeal is a chaotic orgy of logos, binary, and blurred lights. Hollow technology reigns supreme and humanity has been reduced to spectral cogs in a violently impersonal machine. The tampered with footage and digital imagery is not quite as compelling as the first two films, and the message more closely resembles a sledgehammer than the spellbinding display that provoked so much thought with the first two movies, but it is still well worth the time to watch it. It’s more impersonal, but maybe that’s part of the point Reggio is trying to make…no wait, of course it is.

Like Ron Fricke’s (Reggio cohort and cinematographer on the Qatsi series) Baraka (1992) and Dziga Vertov’s amazing The Man with the Movie Camera (1929), Godfrey Reggio manages to interpret the world in a direct and transcendental way. They move beyond conventional storytelling and conventional documentary making to become something truly unique and mystical. Life is a vigorous battle of both immense beauty and horror. The scope and wonder captured in the Qatsi Trilogy is nothing short of staggering and the delirium with which it is all captured will leave you breathless. I cannot recommend enough that you treat yourself to Reggio’s film work, the Qatsi Trilogy.

picture references:

moviemail-online.co.uk

screentrek.com

smh.com.au

thecia.com.au

narod.ru

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” April 20, 1010

The Movies You Didn’t See…because they’re too short

From Ivan Maximov to Kenneth Anger, some filmmakers excel at the short subject movie. The short film is a tricky beast and not everyone can be so succinct. I like short films and I admire the ingenuity behind the best and most clever ones. Here are a few.

"Meshes of the Afternoon" directed by Maya Deren

“Meshes of the Afternoon” directed by Maya Deren

I Met the Walrus (2007) was directed by Josh Raskin and was animated by James Braithwaite and Alex Kurina. So what is the film? It’s an animated interview with John Lennon. The film opens with a text informing the viewer that what they are about to hear is 14 year old Jerry Levitan (the film’s producer) talking to a candid John Lennon back in 1969. Basically the recorded voices are used as a backdrop for the visual tapestries that will follow. The artists behind I Met the Walrus work very hard to animate Lennon’s words as a sort of illustrated stream-of-consciousness that mirrors both Lennon’s train of thought and Levitan’s impression of the words being spoken. What starts out as a fairly novel idea by itself is stretched to the limits. Every thought, sentence, and syllable moves the vibrant canvas forward. Pictures are upside-down, right-side up, sideways, dancing, still, and all at once converging into the next idea as they are prompted to expand by Levitan’s questions. You get a real sense of the real John Lennon and see his logic unfold and build. Braithwaite handles all of the pen art while Karina manipulates all of the computerized illustrations and together they make the decades old interview feel as alive and trippy as if it were happening today. I Met the Walrus is a magical expedition into the mind of one of the most celebrated 20th century musicians and the filmmakers do a smashing job transporting us there. (approximately 5 minutes).

"I Met the Walrus"

“I Met the Walrus”

The next film hails from Russia and combines the brilliant animation of Aleksandr Petrov and the American story by Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea. This film was released in 1999 and features an animation technique that few do and one that Petrov does wonders with. Using a form of stop-motion that is achieved by carefully altering slow-drying paints on different layers of glass Petrov is able to conjure Hemingway’s simple tale to life with all the beauty and complexity of a rich oil painting. Every frame is a rich oil painting and the layers of glass allow for incredible depth, beauty, and nuance. Every time I see it I feel as though I am being transported into a dream. Petrov’s style is sumptuous and gorgeous and one can’t help but marvel at its stunning fluidity and life. The old man, Santiago, goes off into the sea by himself to fish and there wrestles with a giant marlin and the elements. The movie stays true to its source material. All of Petrov’s films are incredible to look at and this one is no exception. There is an atmosphere and tempo all its own in this world and I strongly encourage you to visit it yourself. (approximately 20 minutes).

The Old Man and the Sea

“The Old Man and the Sea”

The last film on my list today is a black and white live-action retelling of the story of the famous L. Frank Baum character, and it is titled Death to the Tinman (2007). I found this film online after watching director Ray Tintori’s earlier work, Jettison Your Loved Ones (2006). Tintori has also directed music videos including the memorably psychedelic “Time to Pretend” performed by MGMT. I was very impressed by what I saw in both Jettison and Tinman. The style is reminiscent of Guy Maddin and maybe Wes Anderson (if he directed Tetsuo), but something about it is all its own. The story follows the life of a lumberjack named Bill who lives in the town of Verton (the miracle capital of the America) in the early 1900s. Bill is in love with Jane, the pastor’s daughter, as the narrator explains. The narrator also tells us that the town did not like Bill for many possible reasons, one being that his valor makes the other firefighters look like cowards. The pastor has God put a curse on Bill’s axe and so his arms are severed and his old friend Paul Mermlestein fashions arms of tin for him. Other accidents cause him to lose his legs and the rest of his body, leading Paul to make him a man of tin. Meanwhile Bill’s body parts have been stolen and put back together into a “meat puppet,” but they lack the heart that Bill still possesses. Jane, however loves the meat puppet. Things go from bad to worse as Bill does anything he can to win Jane back. The finale is wonderfully sublime, tragic, and heartbreaking, but clever and extremely rewarding. The humor, creative style, and fantastic score by Dan Romer and Benh Zeitlin make Death to the Tinman something you won’t want to miss. (approximately 12 minutes).

"Death to the Tinman"

“Death to the Tinman”

Bonus: Ivan Ivanov-Vano and the amazing Yuriy Norshteyn staged one of the most incredible battles I have ever seen on film with Secha pri Kerzhentse (1971), and they did it all with stop motion religious icons. Check it out. (approximately 10 minutes).

"The Battle of Kerzhenets"

“The Battle of Kerzhenets”

Short films have a certain freedom that many feature films do not. The best ones say more with less. They can be more streamlined and sometimes they can be a lot more weird. Be sure to check out I Met the Walrus, The Old Man and the Sea, and Death to the Tinman, but don’t stop there. Keep looking. One more bonus short film to check out is Coleman Miller’s Uso Justo (2005) which uses found footage from an old black and white Mexican melodrama, but completely rewrites the subtitles into a very clever existential meta comedy in the spirit of Nietzsche and What’s Up Tiger Lily. Most of these films can be found online.

I might have write about more short films in the future.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” June 15, 2010

Nobuhiko Obayashi and the Original Monster House

Now, that's encouraging to a fragile girl's image.

Now, that’s encouraging to a fragile girl’s image.

I forget where I heard first of House, but I definitely remember the first time I saw it. It was several years ago that I first saw it and, naturally, I was ecstatic to learn when it had finally come to be available in the US.

Lucy?

Lucy?

What the currently uninitiated do not yet comprehend is that House is unlike any other movie. Beneath the standard guise of your typical haunted house movie plot are the gears and cogs that frenetically pulse like some sort of mad offspring between psychedelic manga, Dario Argento, Ken Russell (in full-on Lisztomania mode), a bad LSD trip, a fifth-grader’s collage for art class, and a fun-house from hell.

Initial knee-jerk reaction to my first acquaintance with House: no one would ever make a movie this way! The second time I watched it: thank God someone made a movie this way!

Abandon hope, ye who enter here.

Abandon hope, ye who enter here.

House was the feature film debut of Nobuhiko Obayashi, a seasoned commercial director and experimental filmmaker. It seems as though House was designed to be the anti-movie. It is an assault on the senses. Its cinematic style is unprecedented and wild. Although the story is simple enough—Japanese schoolgirls get eaten by a haunted house—Obayashi found ways to film it in a completely unique way. Obayashi and his film crew employed a manic mixture of archaic and cutting edge special effects to heighten the fakeness and surreality of it all. Brightly colored cartoonish matte paintings glimmer in the background, while people dance in frames within frames in a nonstop barrage of collage effects and then random things will become cartoons themselves. The intent seems to have been to create something totally absurd, but at the same time realizing the immense untapped visual freedom of the film medium. House is the wild and visually experimental sort of film that Georges Melies would have been making had he lived long enough to experience the sixties.

I want chicken. I want liver. Meow Mix, Meow Mix, please deliver.

I want chicken. I want liver. Meow Mix, Meow Mix, please deliver.

As I’ve said, the story is fairly rudimentary (but not unsatisfying on its own per se). Gorgeous (Kimiko Ikegami), your stereotypical Japanese schoolgirl, is excited for summer vacation and looks forward to spending time with her friends and her father. A cruel twist of fate should wriggle its way into her life, however, when Daddy reveals his plans to remarry. Furious, Gorgeous decides to spend the summer with her maternal aunt in the country. She invites six giggly schoolmates along with her; Fantasy (Kumiko Oba), Mac (Mieko Sato), Kung Fu (Miki Jinbo), Prof (Ai Matsubara), Melody (Eriko Tanaka), and Sweet (Masayo Miyako). You begin to comprehend the saccharine cotton-candy campiness they were going for with character names alone. Everything is rainbows and butterflies. You half expect Hello Kitty to make a cameo appearance in the first act.

Over the river and through the woods, to Auntie's house we go.

Over the river and through the woods, to Auntie’s house we go.

Well on their way to visit old Auntie, the seven victims *ahem* protagonists titter giddily as they are introduced to Auntie’s sad backstory. Apparently her fiance was killed during the war and she’s been waiting for him ever since. The girls can never know the pains of losing a lover to the horrors of war and may never understand the grim specter of the atomic bomb mushrooming over Japan (as evidenced by their giggling and comparing the cloud to cotton candy), but maybe they will get a taste of supernatural evils. Oh, who am I kidding? They get jacked up by this freaking house!

Auntie dance.

Auntie dance.

Old and wheelchair bound, but strangely ethereal and entrancing, Auntie (Yoko Minamida) welcomes the girls into her home. The film almost seems to be playing a cruel trick on these happy-go-lucky schoolgirl caricatures by trapping them in this dark and sinister spider’s web. If the movie is a light-hearted Disney cartoon before the house, then once within the house it is Scooby-Doo on crack…and the ghosts are real. They certainly get some mileage out of the infectious theme song (which is almost as innocent and catchy as the theme song from Cannibal Holocaust). The music weaves through your head on repeat as a mysterious white cat dances across a keyboard, first forward and then back like the film itself is possessed. Mac (the fat one) is the first to go missing, but her decapitated head is eventually pulled out of a well like a chilled watermelon. It proceeds to float around for a scene and bite a girl on the buttocks. Later on everyone enjoys some watermelon with human eyes in it, and strangely enough Auntie no longer requires her wheelchair (“Mein Führer! I can walk!”).

Don't lose your head.

Don’t lose your head.

If the crazy style did not turn you off by the 30 minute mark then be prepared. The severed watermelon head nonsense is peanuts to what happens to some of the other girls. Mattresses attack, girls are trapped inside bleeding grandfather clocks, a ceiling lamp bites a girl in half and her severed legs fly through the air in classic kung fu pose to dropkick an evil blood-spewing painting, and more. Most famous of all perhaps, is the scene where the piano eats one of the girls, but I digress. It is not the way people die in this movie that is so weird, it is how it is all filmed. House is a film without rules. The colors are brighter, the deaths crazier, and grown men can transform into cartoon skeletons or piles of bananas without explanation. The piano scene is truly an incredible moment in the annals of horror. Everything seems to be juxtaposed onto something else. Chunks of the human body float and spin in place while other pieces claw and flail out of the piano and said piano flashes different colors and a multicolored lightning border circles every ludicrous frame…also a skeleton waves its arms like a disgruntled marionette in the background. It is noisy, raucous, wild, inventive, cheesy, silly, macabre, horrific, and funny. This actually describes most of the film. House mixes comedy and horror to such innovative effect that even at its most quiet it conjures mixed feelings of both dread and delight.

At least you can still play the kazoo.

At least you can still play the kazoo.

More than a horror film and more than a comedy, House is an arty and extremely experimental addition to cinema psychedelica and a vibrant exploration of what the medium of film is ultimately capable of. I look at it like this; most movies I can imagine experiencing (albeit somewhat differently) in book form, but so much of House is so purely cinematic that it defies written description…begging the question, why write a review, bonehead? Well, I wanted to. So there.

Bwahahaha!

Bwahahaha!

Back to the plot or something. Gorgeous becomes possessed with the soul of her Auntie who is really already a spirit or whatever and more weird stuff happens. The girls are bumped off one by one in increasingly cartoonish and trippy ways. The teacher Fantasy is in love with tries to rescue them or whatever. There’s an evil cat doing stuff. The floors fall apart revealing pools of acidic blood stuff. Auntie gets younger. There’s occasional nudity (pretty sure no one’s over 18 so I’m not sure how I’m supposed to feel about that) and there’s tons of googly special effects. The stepmom from the beginning shows up later and more stuff happens. Basically the film is crazy. The traditional mechanisms that hold the plot together and the characters in their place are wholly secondary to the wild inventiveness of Obayashi’s camera.

I love lamp.

I love lamp.

Next Halloween I’m going to have to watch this with The House On Haunted Hill, Hold That Ghost, and Monster House. In many ways House is the ultimate haunted house movie, because just as ghosts do not have to abide by the laws of the real world, so House refuses to abide by the laws of the normal movie world. Ghosts don’t make sense to us and House doesn’t make sense if you’ve seen other movies. Anything goes. It is bedlam, mayhem, pandemonium and it knows it and revels in it and I loved it. For a psychedelic movie about a haunted house that eats a bunch of Japanese schoolgirls, Nobuhiko Obayashi’s House is everything it needs to be and so much more. Thank you, Criterion, for releasing this insane Halloween treat.

Taz spin.

Taz spin.

Top 10 Reasons to Watch “House”

1. It’s definitely unlike anything you’ve ever seen.

2. Although it is a horror movie it is never too proud to incorporate happy upbeat songs (performed by GODIEGO).

3. It’s like Pringles. Once it starts the fun don’t stop.

4. Even the obligatory expository non-horror bits are directed with pizazz and zany rhythm.

5. It’s pretty much an all girl cast and maybe you like that.

6. Many of the ideas for the story and wild things that occur therein were developed by Obayashi’s young daughter.

7. Although the story is formulaic and derivative of other haunted house movies, I would argue that never before has a film had this much fun with formula.

8. Not that there’s a huge list of films in this category, but it is grade A horror-fantasy-comedy.

9. It might even be weirder than Takashi Miike’s Happiness of the Katakuris. Maybe.

10. It’s finally available on home video in the United States so you’re out of excuses.

Well...The 5 fingers of Dr. T. anyway.

Well…The 5 fingers of Dr. T. anyway.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” Nov. 3, 2010.