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