Now I’m in my new place, roomy but in a way not so much so, with all the boxes waiting to be unpacked, my main entertainment is watching DVD’s on the iBook. My choices might not be yours and even the names are hard to pronounce! How does a night of Koyaanisqatsi and Powaqqatsi followed by a bit of Naqoyqatsi sound?
Yes, I’m speaking Hopi and these are the titles of a trilogy of visionary films, by the famous director Godfrey Reggio. Although you may see the likes of Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas listed as producers, in fact they just wanted their names to appear on the credits to encourage more people to see them. Although, like me until recently, you probably haven’t heard of them, they are some of the most successful films ever made, even now still being shown on the big screen every now and then around the world. This is partly because they aren’t just films, they are experiences.
There is no script, but aren’t silent, as they feature dramatic, hypnotic (some might say repetitive) soundtracks by Philip Glass, but there is no voice, no narrative, other than the occasional chanting of the Hopi words after which they are named. They also have no plot, other than whatever meaning underlies the order in which the images appear and reach no conclusion- the viewers are left to decide for themselves what the whole things mean. Reggio himself lived 14 of his early adult years in a monastery, in silence, prayer and fasting, so seeing the modern world, with all its chaotic complexity must have been quite a shock to him. These films offer a journey through our world from a fresh perspective- if you see them, be prepared for a radically new take on the world we live in.
The first of them and in my view the most successful and watchable of them (some say the most successful movie of the entire ‘80s due to it’s constant replaying at film festivals etc), is, Koyaanisqatsi meaning in Hopi Indian, "life out of balance." It shows first the dramatic beauty of the natural world and then layers upon layers of what we humans have built upon it. Together with the powerful Glass soundtrack, one wonders how much sense our way of life makes at all.
The second, Powaqqatsi, shows the lives of the vast majority of the world, mostly in the developing countries. It shows their various endeavours at different levels of technology- from fishing or carrying loads on their backs to the high-tech neon of Hong Kong. It shows the beautiful moments that all exist simultaneously- the glint in a child’s eyes, the emotion of worshippers. It shows how life is changing throughout the world. The Hopi name means a sorcerer who draws his energy from the lives of others, which I assume means the way the powerful in the cities drain others of life- but with all it’s richness, the film avoids being no more than a mere message.
Finally comes the one I saw first of all, which really impressed me and still does, Naqoyqatsi, an entire film in which not one frame has been left unaltered by digital editing. As the words at the end define it-
“Na-qoy-qatsi: (nah koy’ kahtsee) N. From the Hopi Language. 1. A life of killing each other 2. War as a way of life. 3. (Interpreted) Civilized violence.”
What it ends up being is an exploration of technology, whether it be for peaceful communication, warfare, or both. Just as the very Internet this is being transmitted on was originally designed as a safeguard in the event of a vast nuclear attack, this ‘dual purpose’ of man’s creations is everywhere to be found. What makes this in some ways the most topical of the three is it’s scenes of war in Iraq (albeit in the first Gulf War) and fascination with newer technologies such as Dolly the cloned Sheep. It also comes across as the most cynical; with a dark and brooding soundtrack by Glass bringing the sense that ultimately all technologies really will be perverted by greed and human weakness. Yet it also has images of innocence and hope interspeced…from now on, the world will be as we make it.
One thing that impressed me most of all, other than having the most intelligent use the kind of abstract computer graphics you see in screensavers I’ve yet seen, is the scenes where newsreel of the kind of violent demonstrations you see in the news are interspersed with scenes from equally violent cartoons and video games, all cut to the rhythm of Glass’ music. Disturbing stuff, yes, but it certainly makes you think about what kind of a society we really live in, in which people are pushed to such extremes or on the other hand, such extremes are seen as the stuff of good gameplay.
The film enters the realm of the virtual… as the website puts it,
“NAQOYQATSI takes us on an epical journey into a land that is nowhere, yet everywhere; the land where the image itself is our location, where the real gives way to the virtual. As the gods of old become dethroned, a new pantheon of light appears in the integrated circuit of the computer. Its truth, becomes the truth.
Extremes of promise and spectacle, tragedy and startling hope fuse in a digital tidal wave of image and music. In a poetic nanosecond, NAQOYQATSI give utterance to a new world coming, a new world here.”
If you are going to give these films, now finally available on DVD a try, I’d start with the first Koyaanisqatsi. By having (arguably) the most strikingly beautiful images of the three, it’s the most unmissable. Unfortunately, it’s style has been copied so much it will no longer seem new. But a copy’s never as good as the original. As for the second, I don’t have the patience to watch it all the way through in one sitting, but it has it’s moments. The third really makes you think, I have to say, it’s not always the most uplifting experience out there, but it has it’s own powerful beauty and certainly breaks new ground. It also has the best soundtrack thanks to the rich chords of Yo-Yo Ma’s cello and some of the most ‘spell-binding’ imagery. If you are looking for the kind of experience you got from ‘2001- A Space Odyssey’ in a more recent film, this might be the thing for you.