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 Rape of “Fantasia” — Italian Style!

Walt Disney produced one of the most daring animated feature achievements in history when his studio full of talented artists developed Fantasia (1940). From bow to stern Fantasia is a masterwork, a wondrous marriage of classical compositions and powerful animation. It’s beautiful, humorous, imaginative, and willing to surprise at every turn with each new animated technique used to interpret the gorgeous music. Several years after this celebrated film a little Italian movie was made, a sardonic response or riff on this immortal classic.

12More recently I had discovered that my local library carried an old, worn-out VHS of this strange foreign artifact and, as I’d been searching for it for quite some time, I made ready use of my library card. Sadly it is not available in the United States on DVD of Blu-ray yet. With the film in my bookbag, I traveled to yet another library (my old alma mater and then-current place of employment) to utilize their free VCRs. There I was, alone with my thoughts, a headset, a 9 inch TV screen, and a scratchy, used copy of Bruno Bozzetto’s Allegro Non Troppo (1976).

An over-confident narrator informs us that we will be witnessing an unprecedented event: brilliant, original animations set to legendary classical music compositions…until Hollywood calls him mid-speech and tells him that someone named Bizney or Frisney already did that in 1940. BUT THE FILM MUST GO ON! And go on it does.

13A group of embittered old ladies are harvested into a livestock truck to be escorted to the theater where their instruments await. With the geriatric band of curmudgeonly females in place, the pompous, bloated, cigar-chomping conductor enters (he reminded me of a svelter Mr. Creosote from Monty Python’s Meaning of Life). The tacit animator is brought out of the dungeon to sketch the music live as it is played. The animator’s slanted desk provides much opportunity for slapstick gags and it proves to be a constant struggle for the mousey, mustachioed artist. With the warped live-action re-imagined elements of Fantasia set, the orchestra comes to life.

11Claude Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun is first on the program. A sad, dumpy satyr lopes along through a lush garden inhabited by sleek, sultry, and noticeably nude wood nymphs. The satyr, recognizing his lack of physical appeal, attempts to beautify himself, but nothing works and he gradually shrinks away into misfortune and comical melancholy. The piece presents very human insecurities regarding self-image and unfulfilled desires for sex and love. Like many a great comedy, this short has fun at the expense of its doomed protagonist. This piece has some wonderful sight gags and clever bits of surrealism (such as tempting trees made of legs and boobs, etc.).

You couldn’t have a film like this and not have the ornery conductor beat up on the old ladies. So he does. Don’t worry. But right after his assault on granny we get Antonín Dvořák’s Slavonic Dance No. 7, Op. 46. This cartoon features a man who will do anything to get away from his intolerable society. He leaves the rocks to build a hut, but everyone in the rocks copies him. He next builds a house and a tower, but the rest of the mindless population just follows suit. He can’t get away! It all culminates in a humorous game of Simon Says that doesn’t go exactly the way the little rebel hoped.

17There is a slop break for the orchestra and nasty tins full of gruel are ladled out to the old ladies and the animator (who fights to keep it on his slanted drawing desk) while the conductor and the narrator enjoy a decadent candlelit meal. When all the food is gone and the woeful animator, still not having ingested a morsel, reaches for a Coke that is snatched away and glugged down by the greedy conductor. He then tosses the bottle carelessly into the audience. Taking cues from both his own anger and the image of a flying bottle, the animator proceeds to sculpt another brilliant short to the tune of Maurice Ravel’s Boléro.

6This is perhaps the best segment of the whole film. A nearly empty Coke bottle is tossed by a careless astronaut and left on some unknown planet. The remaining drops ooze out of its glass prison and develop eyes, then a nose, sentience, and finally locomotion. The amorphous blob evolves into more complex and surreal organisms and soon an entire food chain and ecosystem is formed and we are following a parade of boneless, squishy dinosaur-like creatures to Boléro‘s wonderful tempo. A mischievous and rather unscrupulous ape-like creature uses a club to kill random critters. As the tormented procession of evolutionary oddities marches on they are badgered by tornadoes, the cross, a spear, a tank, freeways, and are ultimately done in by a booming metropolis. An enormous statue of a man stands alone, but it too finally crumbles and the ape-like creature emerges from the wreckage and shrugs.

5Back in “reality” a gorilla attacks the animator, it snows in the theater, and there is an impromptu dance sequence. Then it’s back to the drawing board for Jean Sibelius’ Valse Triste. This is the saddest piece on the program as it features the optimistic hallucinations of a starving-to-death stray cat (think Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Little Match Girl”). The cat lives in a ruin of an old house that sits like an island amidst a see of identical cubed buildings. The cat imagines what the house might have been like in its glory days and soon phantoms of past owners appear and fade away. Hungry and alone the cat fades along with the phantoms and what was once a glorious home full of stories, art, and character gets the wrecking ball.

14Next it’s Antonio Vivaldi’s Concerto in C Major. A fastidious cartoon bee meticulously sets her table (a daffodil full of pollen). Her silverware, napkins, and television all in place and the sun just right she prepares to dine, but is disturbed by a necking couple out for an amorous tumble in the field. This delightfully amusing piece is punctuated by a very funny escalating altercation between the conductor and the animator. Will the arts never see eye to eye?

The last musical piece is Igor Stravinsky’s The Firebird (which was featured in Fantasia 2000). The music ever so cleverly reinterprets the saga of Adam and Eve. The twist in this version is that the people won’t take the fruit and so the snake eats it himself…and gets thrust into a hellish world of consumerism and pornography (perhaps the same thing?). The snake is tormented by giant demons and exposed to all manner of diabolical and sexually-charged advertisements and other harvests of materialism.

15When the cartoon concludes the animator runs off with the cleaning woman and the orchestra folds, leaving the narrator with no other choice but to ask the dimwitted “Frankenstini” to find a finale. The finale is a grotesque amalgam of images, violence, and what-have-you set to a disruptive cacophony of musical pieces overlapping each other until finally reaching its delirious apex in a violent explosion.

I’ve heard differing arguments for this film; some praising it, others seeing it as a trivial parody of a classic. I admire this film. It is not Fantasia nor does it wish to be. Fantasia was a beautifully imagined experiment executed with precise artistic flourishes and a languid pace. It is an undisputed classic. Allegro Non Troppo might not be as artistically complex, but it is every bit as cunning and all the more biting with its sharp, sardonic wit. Fantasia dealt with what music makes us feel and imagine and did an astounding job. Allegro Non Troppo uses music to conjure cynical but humorous ideas of society and humanity. It deals with adult themes such as urban development, isolation, modernization, death, pain, frustration, sexual longing, and societal disenfranchisement and it does so all with a wry sense of whimsy. Nothing is ever on so grand a scale as it was in Disney’s classic, but this humble film’s intimacy places it in a unique position for a more subtle social satire without distracting presumptuousness. Only a comedy could muse so sharply and eloquently about such human topics. And some segments beautifully parody Fantasia, such as the satyr bit when compared to the centaur scene or their own distinct takes on the march of evolutionary progress.

9I think the films compliment each other nicely and the music is just as lovely and well utilized to convey an idea or story, although perhaps not quite as memorable. The idea of setting clever toons to classic tunes is a fun one. Heck, even Tiny Toon Adventures did an episode like that. I recommend this film (if you can find a copy of this elusive specimen) for anyone who loved Fantasia…or hated it.

Top 1o Reasons to See Allegro Non Troppo

1. Old ladies get beat up and mistreated. Comedy gold!

2. Although the animation might not be as colorful or grandiose as Fantasia, it has a great style all it’s own that Disney could never have pulled off.

3. One thing Allegro Non Troppo does that might suit today’s ADHD audiences is keep all of its musical segments very short. I love Fantasia, but as a kid I always felt like some of those things went on forever.

4. It’s not the artistic slap in Disney’s face you might be expecting, but it’s probably close.

5. The Boléro sequence is a great bit of animation that definitely rivals Disney’s portrayal of the dinosaurs. The difference being that the Fantasia sequence you might show to a biology class, the Allegro Non Troppo sequence you might show to a biology, history, philosophy, or theology class. Think the intro to the animated Dilbert TV show, but much more sly and smarmy.

26. I won’t tell you it’s more sophisticated than Monty Python’s stuff, but some of it definitely reminded me of their style of humor.

7. The animated interaction with the music is subtle but very effective.

8. You might actually laugh and cry. Maybe you won’t. Shut up and watch it.

9. How often do you get to see this much artistic talent coupled with great classical music AND a snarky sense of humor?

10. It’s cleverness and irreverence is overshadowed only by its humorousness.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” May 2, 2011