Godfrey Reggio’s Qatsi trilogy is a brilliantly realized, influential piece of cinema that bridges the gap between experimental film and documentary. Completely free of dialogue or any sort of obvious narrative, these three films combine visuals and music to provoke a visceral and intellectual response from the audience, allowing themes to emerge from seemingly disparate images in a freedom of interpretation. The Criterion Collection has finally given the series an HD upgrade and outside of one exception, I’m pretty thrilled with the results.
The first film in the series, Koyaanisqatsi (life out of balance), is definitely my favourite. The film casts wider conceptual and thematic net, allowing the audience to decide for themselves what they take away from its imagery, if anything at all. It claims ownership over the originality of its visuals, indulging in long sequences of time lapse photography set mostly in cities and factories. This brand of high speed imagery has been replicated over the years, growing consistently dull with time. Nowadays, the first thing somebody does with their new digital DSLR is shoot a nighttime cityscape at high speed. Still, I can imagine seeing Koyaanisqatsi at the time of its release was a revelation. The combination of Philip Glass’ amazing score, Ron Fricke’s beautiful cinematography, and Reggio’s overall vision has gone on to establish a cinematic language that has infiltrated music videos, commercials, and fiction cinema. Whenever I watch Koyaanisqatsi, I’m waiting in anticipation for the 21 minute segment which I’ll identify by the name of the piece of music that accompanies it; the grid. Philip Glass bridges the gap between melody and sonic aggression as his arpeggiated synthesizers assault the audience for almost a third of the film, accompanied by images of congested highways, packed subways, and mall food courts set against complimentary images of factory workers assembling cars and packaging processed meat. It’s one of my favourite sequences in cinema set to one of my favourite pieces of music. A provocative chapter that’s both viscerally and intellectually stimulating. The following two films in the trilogy never manage to reach this level of cinematic bliss.
Powaqqatsi (life in transformation) focuses on the southern hemisphere, looking at the affect of industry and technology on third world countries. Time lapse photography is minimized in favour of slow motion, emphasizing the physicality of life in the third world. This is most evident in the opening sequence of Powaqqatsi, filmed in a gold mine in Brazil. Men struggle to carry bags of dirt up the side of a giant pit, the walls of which are about equal to a 60 story building. Reggio’s slow motion photography in combination with Glass’s bombastic score make for a physically laborious sequence that works as a perfect aesthetic and thematic introduction to the film. From there we travel around the world watching as various cultures engage in ritual and routine as the industrial world looms over them, continually threatening to erase tradition. Glass maintains a worldly sense to his music throughout, but the highlight of his score is definitely the section titled ‘Anthem’, which is reprised three times in different forms throughout the film. Some might recall the use of this piece in Peter Weir’s The Truman Show. Here, it works to great effect as a triumphant anthem that builds and crescendos against celebratory images of life in the third world. In fact, some accused Reggio of glorifying poverty with Powaqqatsi, much like the criticisms hurled at one of this year’s best films, Beasts of the Southern Wild. His response suggests that one of the goals of Powaqqatsi is to challenge the idea of normal living, suggesting that technological and industrial amenities aren’t a requirement of life nor a measurement for the success or failure of a particular culture.
Finally, the trilogy concludes with the unbelievably disappointing Naqoyqatsi. Executive produced by Steven Soderbergh, this entry tackles technology, consumerism, and celebrity among other things. The film seems to be made up of mostly stock footage, utilizing a number of horrendous video filters to transform the clips into a severely dated brand of video art. This collage includes bad CG renderings of the inside of a twelve year old computer, celebrities posing for photographs, naked babies replicated like sperm under a microscope, and rotating corporate logos flying at the screen. The imagery is anything but subtle and much of the commentary is either way too obvious or simply dated at this point. Where Koyaanisqatsi and Powaqqatsi provide a unique perspective both geographically and historically, Naqoyqatsi feels way too familiar in its themes and images. From a filmmaking perspective, the lush 35mm cinematography of the first two films has been replaced by video, most of which has been manipulated in mostly unoriginal and uninteresting ways. Simply applying a negative filter to a piece of video does not inspire. While the other films feel more like litmus tests, this entry is manipulative and desperate to articulate its themes and opinions. Where Koyaanisqatsi and Powaqqatsi illuminated natural landscapes and cultures to create an organic sense of art and beauty, Naqoyqatsi is overtaken by some blunt editing, cheesy video effects, and a tasteless sense of aesthetic that might be of its time (2002), for better or worse. Luckily, Philip Glass still manages to deliver a worthwhile score, even if it’s missing some of the epic and memorable themes to have come from the first two films in the series. Naqoyqatsi is the Godfather III of the Qatsi trilogy.
I was very curious to see how the Qatsi films might benefit from an HD upgrade and I have to say that overall I was extremely pleased with the results. One must keep in mind that the films contain a generous sprinkling of stock footage from various sources, so occasionally the picture quality may fluctuate. However, with that in mind the overall presentation is astonishing. Koyaanisqatsi and Powaqqatsi were both filmed on 35mm, so there is a fine layer of grain present. Some might expect image quality on par with Baraka or Samsara, but those pictures (directed by Koyaanisqatsi cinematographer Ron Fricke) were filmed in 70mm and benefit from a much higher level of resolution. Still, I think Godfrey Reggio’s slightly raw photography works well within the context of these films and is aesthetically consistent with the time period in which they were shot. On the other hand, Naqoyqatsi is simply an ugly film and hardly benefits from the upgrade. Its photography is laden with digital noise, aliasing, and other symptoms consistent with its video presentation. As for bonus features, this collection is loaded with various interviews with both Godfrey Reggio and Philip Glass. Probably the most interesting feature is an early fourty-minute demo version of Koyaanisqatsi with a temporary soundtrack provided by Allen Ginsberg. On top of that, there’s some behind the scenes footage of Reggio’s original concept for the film, which includes some surreal imagery of a number of extras inserting a massive plug into a giant, golden power outlet. It’s an interesting look at what could’ve been and thankfully wasn’t. Probably the best supplement is the inclusion of Reggio’s 28 minute short film Animal Mundi, which features a Philip Glass score set to images of animals in their natural habitat. So, overall this is a great package that will definitely please fans of this groundbreaking documentary experiment. — Jay C.