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Wednesday 1 January 2003

The Qatsi Trilogy

Koyaanisqatsi: Life out of Balance (1983)
conceptualized & directed by Godfrey Reggio
music by Philip Glass

Powaqqatsi: Life in Transformation (1988)
directed by Godfrey Reggio
music by Philip Glass
written by Godfrey Reggio & Ken Richards

Naqoyqatsi: Life as War (2002)
written & directed by Godfrey Reggio
music by Philip Glass

Reviewed by Claude Lalumière

When I first saw Godfrey Reggio's Koyaanisqatsi in the mid-1980s, I was, coincidentally, in the midst of a years-long infatuation with the music of Philip Glass (I never did get into the operas though). By the time the sequel, Powaqqatsi, came out, I'd grown completely disenchanted with Glass's work, and so gave the film a pass. Now in 2002 — the release year of Naqoyqatsi, the concluding film of the trilogy — I've swung back a little bit and can enjoy some (but far from all) of his work. I've now seen all three films.

The soundtrack to Koyaanisqatsi is vintage 1980s Glass music, fuelled by the utopian promises of science, shimmering with the potentialities created by the teeming encounters of ideas, cultures, and people that characterized the bustling twentieth century. In contrast, the music of Powaqqatsi is maudlin and uninspired, often approaching a muzak-like state. While the music in each of the first two films achieves (respectively, for better and for worse) internal consistency, in Naqoyqatsi it's an incoherent mess, ranging from the ominous title theme, to blandly stereotypical Glass riffs, to gorgeously strident cello solos (performed by the ubiquitous Yo-Yo Ma).

In many ways, the music reflects the films very well. Koyaanisqatsi is a breathtaking journey (although its achievements are at odds with its stated goals, but more on that below). Powaqqatsi is an over-obvious parade of clichés and much too clean and polished to even begin to deal adequately with its subject matter (again, see below). As for Naqoyqatsi, it is indeed an incoherent mess — although one that fails to rise even remotely to some of the music's better moments.

(or, The Beauty and Splendour of Cities)

The titles of all three films are taken from the Hopi language. At the end of each film, Reggio provides viewers with translations. "Koyaanisqatsi", we are told, can mean: "1. crazy life. 2. life in turmoil. 3. life disintegrating. 4. life out of balance. 5. a state of life that calls for another way of living." Obviously, we are to understand that the sequence of images and music we have just experienced in some way illustrates the concepts expressed by the word "koyaanisqatsi".

When viewed in that perspective, Koyaanisqatsi can only be considered an utter failure. However, if it is allowed to be free of the filmmaker's intentions (as they can be deduced from the tag line and the definitions of the film's title), then Koyaanisqatsi can be enjoyed for what it unwittingly achieves, although not without reservation.

My interpretation of the film, taken from the images and music, is that cities are beautifully integrated parts of the complex web of Terran life. They are as mesmerizingly seductive as the most awesome "natural" wonder, as teeming with life as the most fertile ecosystem. They are places where the potentialities offered to humans appear profoundly thrilling and unabashedly boundless. And all this is confirmed and emphasized by Philip Glass's technological and metropolitan sounds, drenched as they are in utopian sense of wonder.

What I see in Reggio's film is a beautifully articulated poetic argument against the natural/artificial divide inherent in the scientific/humanist worldview. Humans and human achievements are as much a part of nature as the Grand Canyon, cloud formations, or migrating birds. Reggio's film celebrates that connectedness and most of all the ineffable wonders of cities and city life.

When viewed in this perspective, Koyaanisqatsi is a utopian dream. It does not reflect reality, but rather presents a yearning desire for way of life that is close yet perpetually unattainable. Cities as we know them are not sustainably integrated with their larger environment, but they could be. We have the means, the knowledge, and the technology to make them so. Humans and human achievements are estranged from their own biosphere, not intrinsically so, but because of a hegemonic worldview that dictates that they cannot be otherwise.

Watching Koyaanisqatsi is like peering into an alternate reality, where everything looks the same, while feeling and meaning something other. It's a tantalizing view of a world ever-so-slightly misaligned with ours — one that indulges in the wonders of science without falling into the alienating traps of the humanist/scientific worldview. If this "version" of the film has a flaw, it's that Koyaanisqatsi contains no criticism of the status quo, no hints of a path to follow or the changes necessary for humanity to harmonize its accomplishments with its larger planetary environment.

Where in all this — this eloquent presentation of a life so perfectly in balance — is the promised "life out of balance"? And why is my perception of Koyaanisqatsi so at odds with this film's own stated intentions?

Clearly, the problem is that, when Reggio shows me cities, I see splendour — but what he means to show, I presume, is ugliness. Contrary to my reading of this film, it's clear that Reggio fully embraces the natural/artificial dichotomy, and for him humanity — especially the twentieth-century Western kind — is an artificial blot on the landscape. Reggio sees no beauty in the cities he photographs with such an inspired eye.

For Reggio it is sufficient to simply show cities — because for him the cities themselves are exemplars of the "out of balance" lifestyle — to make his point. And yet, I can't help but think that he wimped out on his own premise and also fell into the easy trap of being seduced by his own keen sense of composition. Reggio can produce beautiful images, so he did, regardless of whether or not they serve his purpose.

Cities, as they are conceived and managed, do not fulfill their utopian potential, or even try to. Examples of filth and pollution and poverty and degradation and pain and misery abound in cities. But Reggio ignored these less photogenic aspects. Was it because he thought cities were repugnant enough without those examples or because he didn't want to mar his beautiful phantasmagoria of images with ugliness? Or perhaps some of both?

And then there's the music. What an odd choice! Glass's music — so inseparable from the promises of twentieth century technology — celebrates the cultural accomplishments that the film purports to decry, further encouraging diametric misreadings.

(or, Rural, Good! Urban, Bad!)

"Powaqqatsi", Reggio informs us, can be translated as "an entity, a way of life that consumes the life forces of other beings in order to further its own life". Of the three installments, this is the one that is most like a narrative film. Probably troubled by the many misreadings provoked by the intriguingly ambiguous Koyaanisqatsi, Reggio this time decided to (try to) make his point clearly. No-one would miss the evil this time! Cities are bad, so there!

After a pre-title "teaser" sequence showing an example of the consequences of "a way of life that consumes the life forces of other beings in order to further its own life", the film tells a straightforward story. Throughout the world there are all these beautiful and wonderful rural people with happy, happy lives. And then: cities! The cities consume the world. The happy, happy people must now work to feed the cities. They are no longer happy, happy people. The bad cities are destroying the (no longer) happy, happy people. But wait; it's all worth it! Because in the end, big, beautiful weapons, like nuclear missiles, are manufactured and they produce big, big explosions that can be so beautifully photographed. Well, maybe that last part is a misreading. Maybe he meant to say: "Even worse: the end result of this process is these devastating weapons of mass destruction! Look at the awful damage and devastation!" But, damn, Reggio sure made those weapons and explosions look mighty nice and attractive. Maybe if Reggio had bothered to show the harm caused by these weapons....

As an absurdly simplified and dumbed-down picture of a difficult situation, Powaqqatsi is a real winner. Reggio's deep hatred of cities blinds him to the fact that there may be deeper and more complex reasons than the existence of cities for the unforgivable enslavement of most of the world's population to satisfy the greed of the powerful. Now accustomed to Reggio's visual grammar, we know that the mere sight of a city signals unspeakable evil. Reggio feels no need to elaborate or demonstrate. As in Koyaanisqatsi, this shorthand hurts the film's ostensible mission.

There are many more reasons why this film is laughably bad. Its condescendingly romanticized vision of rural life is deeply offensive, reducing to the realities of life and the diversity of cultures to stereotypes. Its picture-postcard photography, again, steers clear (with a few, very brief, exceptions) of showing anything truly distressing or ugly. The music is as languorously boring as the images, and as relentlessly banal.

The whole world is sick with inequity and destructive greed, and all Reggio could come up with was this ponderously slow montage of harmless images? Where were the slave factories, the tortured animals, the desiccated fields, the landfills overflowing with stolen and wasted resources, the garishly rich opulence, or the mounds of imported foods thrown away in the rich North while the native producers starve?

For a more intellectually rigorous and esthetically engaging exploration of the similar themes, I recommend Yann Arthus-Bertrand's 2001 book of photographs Earth from Above: 365 Days (and the companion exhibit, should it come near you). Arthus-Bertand's work, like much of Reggio's, is beautiful to look at, but, unlike Reggio's, it succeeds brilliantly in evoking a sense of loss and an impression of "life in transformation" (and not for the better!).

(or, Look at All the Cool Stuff I Can Do with My Computer)

Aside from a few musical highpoints, Naqoyqatsi was one of the most painfully dull cinematic experiences of my life.

I studiously avoided noticing the subtitle or learning the theme of this film before watching it. I wanted to see how well Reggio would communicate his ideas. Koyaanisqatsi is lyrical and seductive in its ambiguity. Powaqqatsi is rebarbatively unsubtle. And Naqoyqatsi is excruciatingly incomprehensible. I was very surprised to learn as the end credits rolled that "Naqoyqatsi" could mean "A life of killing each other", "War as a way of life", or "Civilized violence". I'm at a loss as to how the film shows this.

What makes this film so unwatchable? For one thing, the entire film is composed of digitally altered or digitally created images, many of them shown gratingly in slow-motion in a contextless limbo. CGI enthusiasts need not get excited, though. The images are (with a handful of brief, scattered exceptions) unfailingly insipid and almost militant in their determination to convey as little meaning as possible.

And unendingly long sequences are shown in a "negative" effect (i.e., like a film negative). Such overuse of an already cliché effect is hard to justify, and Reggio makes no effort to do so. After the inspirational photography of Koyaanisqatsi and the message-driven images of Powaqqatsi, Naqoyqatsi is almost aggressive in its relentless lack of esthetic sense. But it's not the content that's unsightly (no, the content is merely banal), it's the medium: badly executed computer imaging.

So what do we see? The tower of Babel. Miscellaneous buildings. People laughing. Lots of competitive sports. Close-ups of political celebrities. More sports. Cheesy 1980s cyberspace effects. More cheesy 1980s cyberspace effects. Babies showing off their genitals. People no longer laughing. Lots of slow-motion negative photography. More cheesy cyberspace stuff. More sports. News footage. Various stuff I can't remember. All distorted, with no clue as to the grammar, if any, behind the various distortions.

I can't even begin to discuss the film's relation to its theme. To me, Naqoyqatsi is merely a long, meandering, meaningless babble. Mmm... the film did open with the tower of Babel... Is that a clue? If so, try as I might, I still can't grasp how the film was trying to convey its theme of "life as war".


Reggio fails to use his chosen medium — light and sound — to convey his ideas. The films' subtitles and end-credit definitions announce an intention to show the hideousness of contemporary life, but Reggio neglects to present any truly distressing images. His picture-postcard photography at best dazzles and at worst bores. And his attempts at computer imaging are laughably amateurish.

Meanwhile, his ideas are badly articulated and too easily sink to the level of maudlin cliché, reductively offensive towards even those groups the films ostensibly champion.

Reggio seems to find the very concept of cities repugnant, but shows surprising skill at evoking their alluring splendour. His choice of musical collaborator, Philip Glass, bespeaks a similar contradiction: Glass's music often celebrates what Reggio tries so ineffectually to condemn.

Finally, Reggio is himself trapped within the humanist worldview that forever alienates humanity from the web of Terran life: for example, nonhuman animals are few and far between in the anthropocentric Qatsi trilogy. The Qatsi Trilogy fails to challenge the paradigms that create the situations it deplores, because it is blind to its own cultural biases and assumptions. It perpetuates "life out of balance".

To discuss this column, and genre fiction in general, visit Claude Lalumière's Critical Speculations on the TTA Press message boards.

Claude Lalumière is a columnist for Locus Online, Black Gate, and The Montreal Gazette. His short fiction has most recently appeared in The Book of More Flesh and Interzone. 2003 will see the release of three anthologies he edited: Island Dreams: Montreal Writers of the Fantastic (Véhicule Press), Open Space: New Canadian Fantastic Fiction (The Bakka Collection/Red Deer Press), and, in collaboration with Marty Halpern, Witpunk (4 Walls 8 Windows). See for news and links to his online publications. Publishers: please send review material to 4135 Coloniale, Montreal, QC, Canada, H2W 2C2.

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