Tuesday, August 30, 2005

An Unforgettable Experience: Two Films by Godfrey Reggio

This summer while on holiday in Scotland we stayed a few days at a friend’s home on the Black Isle near Inverness. One morning I noticed a shelf of DVD’s and on it, a boxed set of two with strange unpronounceable names. I noticed that the sound track to both was by Philip Glass.

Intrigued, I asked my host about them. “Take a look,” he said as he headed out the door to his work. I did. I watched both films and with increasing awe, realized that I had seen something that would stay with me for a very, very long time.

Difficult to describe, the two films contain no spoken dialogue only a succession of images from many different countries set over against silence or the strangely beautiful and repetitious music of Philip Glass. The two films are focused first, on the West and, second, on the Third or Developing World. I was mesmerized by them.

Later, not having written the titles down, I did a Google search on “Philip Glass and soundtracks” to locate the unpronounceable films once again then searched further to find out more about the films.

Turns out both films (the project began in 1975) were directed by Godfrey Reggio who had, himself, lived in a religious community for many years and whose first directing effort was the first of these two films done with a small budget. They later attracted the interest and support of Francis Ford Coppola. The third was completed in 2002.

What follows is from the website http://www.koyaanisqatsi.org/aboutus/aboutus.php

KOYAANISQATSI is the first part of the QATSI Trilogy. POWAQQATSI, the second film, was completed in 1988. NAQOYQATSI, as yet unfunded and in search of an angel/investor, will complete the Trilogy. [This is what the website says though Amazon lists the third film as completed in 2002] As KOYAANISQATSI focuses on the north and POWAQQATSI on the south, NAQOYQATSI will project its gaze on the global world. With NAQOYQATSI’s completion, the QATSI Trilogy will stand as a cinematic utterance to an untellable event – the technological transformation of the planet.

….Like the oxygen we breathe, technology is the big force, omnipresent and inescapable. It appears as a force of nature. Who can question nature or acts of god? Something this prevailing, this present, is normally taken for granted. Only the heretic could dare to be so blasphemous.

Could it be that our language is no longer capable of describing the world in which we live? Perhaps, the world we see with old eyes and antique ideas is no longer present. Do we inhabit a technological universe the laws of which are unknown? The world we see is being left behind.

A new untellable world is unfolding. As the human race accelerates into the twenty-first century, we enter a virtual, digital environment, a world where far and near, past, present and future are simultaneous realities. The human center of gravity seems to be blasted into the void. Our bodies are less central to our lives; our physical involvement with an increasing synthetic world grows less. Have we arrived at an unthinkable post-natural and post-human condition? Does this singular event offer to all that will, the extraordinary opportunity to re-name the world in which we live? Are we, appearing to be human, already the cyborgs of the fiction of science?

These are the questions that motivated KOYAANISQATSI, the other films of the Trilogy and, hence, the website that we offer for your participation, inquiry and dialogue. This is our beginning effort to supposit these films into the web, to mainline the QATSI Trilogy.

In closing we offer two reflections that articulate the point of view of this site: one from Elias Canetti, a Nobel Laureate for literature, the other from French philosopher and writer Jacques Ellul.

“A tormenting thought: as of a certain point, history was no longer real. Without noticing it, all mankind suddenly left reality.”

- Canetti

“...The crisis that we are approaching today is of yet another order. For it entails the transition, not from one form of society and power to another, but to a new environment...The present crisis...is a total crisis triggered by transition to a new and previously unknown environment, the technological environment....The present change of environment is much more fundamental than anything that the race has experienced for the last five thousand years.”

- Ellul

So much for what the website says. I would add to this rather vague language that the films are powerful, moving and beautiful. They are also disturbing. They, particularly the first, show scenes of modern city life, nature, people, traffic, the demolition of buildings, the playing of children, the work of men and women and hundreds of scenes of moments in time captured with what can only be described as honesty and time.

They do not preach, yet are eloquent in their visual statements. They are what the titles, from the Hopi Indian language suggest: Koyaanisqatsi “Life out of Balance” (the Hopi word means “a state of life that calls for another way of living”) and “Powaqqatsi” “Life in Transformation” (the Hopi word means “a spirit that lives off the life force of another”). Neither are films that will appeal to those who think every day in every way we are getting better and better or that unbridled market expansion is the key to human happiness.

We in the West are that life force living off the lives of others and the film makes that case without preaching but, as the best sort of education does, just by showing.

Juxtaposition of powerful though often simple images expertly filmed (and none is computer animated!) does the job whether it is the slow motion shots of jets or workers at a casino standing eerily smiling into the camera. City streets at rush hour but slowed down so that the dust motes in the late afternoon sun can be seen and thought about. Old faces, likely now dead, buildings now gone, time passing. Or, again, in the second film, poor people singing, making baskets, driving carts, washing by a river and all slowly, lovingly, focused on the details one would see if one were there. Long lingering shots on the faces of children, aerial flights over a Tibetan monastery or a rice paddy, the inside of a cave, dripping water off leaves, a cart driven by a little girl with her drunk or sleeping father sprawled beside her as she beats the donkey with a stick; image upon image upon image. One would have to watch them many, many times to catch everything and even then the experience each time would be different. Like train rides through familiar countryside.

The films are, in short, poetic and will reward thoughtful watching. They would be ideal as a background to discussion.

I recommend watching both films and with the entire family. There is nothing gratuitous. No sex and the only violence is the violence of our world’s conditions. The opening scenes of the second show, I think, a mining site in South America with men toiling to carry sacks of mud up a slippery slope only to dump the sacks at the top then descend again in the backbreaking cycle of slaving poverty is hard to watch as is the extremely slow motion shot of a dead worker being carried up - - reminiscent of the crucifixion, on the back of another worker.

The truth of the scenes is undeniable and the conditions they show all too deniable.

Find them, you will not regret it. KOYAANISQATSI and POWAQQATSI, two hard words to remember, but two films that I predict you will never forget. My biggest question is “why had I not heard of them before?”

I look forward to seeing the third of the trilogy and only hope that it lives up to the first two masterpieces.

Iain T. Benson©

Friday, August 26, 2005

The Theocratic Temptation in Religion and Law: The Pat Robertson Problem

There was once a comedian who told a story about his uncle, who, on his deathbed, gave to his nephew a bullet that he always wore on a chain around his neck.

Anyway, as the uncle was giving this precious object to his nephew he said: “(cough, cough)….my boy, take care of this because if it wasn’t for this bullet, I’d have been (wheeze, wheeze) dead years ago.”

The nephew, a bit surprised by this, lowered his lips to the uncle’s ear and gently asked: “But, uncle, how did this bullet save your life…..?”

The uncle responded: “Well, (cough) I always used to wear it around my neck and one day, many years ago, when I was younger, I was walking along a street in Atlanta and suddenly this crazed evangelist appeared on a balcony above me and started preaching and yelling and, looking down, he saw me and before I knew what had happened, he had taken aim and thrown his bible at me (drum roll)…and if it hadn’t been for the bullet, the bible would have gone straight through my heart!

This rather twisted joke came to mind and assumed a certain strange relevance when I read that noted American Evangelist Pat Robertson has recently suggested that the USA should “take out” Venezuelan dictator Col. Hugo Chavez, using covert operatives. His original comments and a recent (August 24, 2005) “clarification” can be found here: http://www.patrobertson.com/pressreleases/hugochavez.asp

In essence Robertson argued that it is easier, quicker and safer to have covert operatives get rid of an enemy of the USA than it would be to declare a war against Venezuela and in the process risking American lives and costing money. All of this, of course, avoids the fact that there is rather a big difference between the “public” dimension of a war and the “covert” aspect of knocking someone off in secret. Public wars have, as we have seen with U.S. involvement in Iraq, massive public and international debate. This tends to limit what a country might think of doing publicly. Not surprisingly, his comments caused considerable debate in the States.

Yale law school educated Robertson issued a clarification. You can read it on his website. This reads, in part: “Is it right to call for assassination? No, and I apologize for that statement. I spoke in frustration that we should accommodate the man who thinks the U.S. is out to kill him.” So failure to “accommodate” the U.S. can be grounds for death. Is this worrying?

As a matter of fact, a review of his website shows that he does not issue a retraction nor point out what was wrong with his original statement. This is because he doesn’t retract and isn’t sorry. In fact, he goes on to repeat the same strategy in his “clarification” right after having, supposedly, apologized. He says this: “when faced with the threat of a comparable dictator [to Saddam Hussein] in our own hemisphere, would it not be wiser to wage war against one person rather than finding ourselves down the road locked in a bitter struggle with a whole nation?” Sounds like the original statement to me, and, therefore, a call for assassination. He then has the gall to quote Dietrich Bonhoeffer as if the situation and principles were the same - - under Hitler or Chavez.

Unfortunately, his sloppy thinking and ill-considered public statements will be used quite gleefully against other Christians by those who have always suspected this kind of “ready, fire, aim” approach that gives so many of us the shakes.

Many people today are critical of Muslims who do not speak out against Islamicism and the terrorists that emerge from it like acne. The same could be said of Evangelicals who don’t speak out against Pat Robertson’s comments. Assuming this is not just a sign of senile dementia and he actually meant what he says, the man’s ideas about the U.S. and its role in the world are dangerous and so are the theocratic ideas that underlie this and the “theologies” that support this kind of stuff.

In fact, when you think about it, the theocratic temptation, whether Muslim or Christian (or atheistic come to that) is, like the poor, always with us and is everywhere a danger to proper freedom and the rule of law. Throughout history there have been those who attempted to justify murder with religious arguments just as there are those who have justified it for other reasons (race, class or what have you). But to link assassination with Christ is obscene and that is what Robertson, a noted evangelical, does.

Jesus, the teacher that so many Christians purport to revere, made it clear that Caesar has a realm and God has a realm and the two are not the same. They need to be carefully demarcated. Unfortunately, the precise application of the principle was not set out by Divine command and so Christians have had to work this out over a very long time. Many have still not figured out what makes sense as Robertson’s statements show.

Christian theocrats fail to get this point of basic theology and continually speak in such terms that show they don’t get it. For example, far too often one comes across theologians who speak in terms such as this: “our country is founded on the rule of God…” Is that so? Do they mean this in some general sense as in “all of creation depends upon Grace for continued being”? If so, then there might be common ground for discussion but the question would still remain as to how to apply differing theological interpretations to the public order of law and politics.

On the other hand, if they mean that its laws must be based upon a particular sacred text then who will interpret it and administer the law? We can see the result of States that purport to run along the lines of the Koran to see what kind of societies this produces. Christians can’t even agree about Christian doctrines amongst themselves (this is the essence of the fragmentation of denominationalism) so how can they possibly agree about general biblical interpretation so as to rule the State? The fact is that they cannot. It would be better in fact, if they went back to the Scriptures and considered again that important discussion about Caesar and God and what should be rendered to whom.

Robertson believes that “we the people” are “Caesar”. O.K., but what then of those of us who are not Christian? And what of those of us “in Caesar” who are also, “in Christ” - - here he doesn’t give much guidance.

There is a darker reason why some favour the rule of Caesar by those who follow God.

Who, we might ask, are the ones who get to determine the rules in a theocracy - - those who say they speak for God, that’s who. And who are they? Well, the theologians and religious leaders, of course! But before we jump all over religions as the cause of the problem we have to ask whether this problem of rule by the few over disputed texts is simply a problem rooted in religion? When we consider the matter we can see that it is not so. It is a problem rooted elsewhere.

For, if the problem was religions, then in a time (call it “secularization”) when religions are being marginalized by secularism, we should be better off. This is not, however, the case. Consider this. As judges replace the priesthood (and law increasingly replaces religion as the general public guiding force) we see that the same theocratic temptation exists with the lawyerly cast as has always existed with the priestly cast.

Just as Caesar must be separated from religions for the good of both, so law must not swallow Caesar either. The separation of church and state also applies to the separation of law and state. In addition, church and law must have a certain separation lest the rules of the common order are applied where they do not have a place. Those who wish law to occupy the role of theocracy, however, wish law to rule all aspects of society. Readers of this blog will have seen this comment before in relation to Chief Justice McLachlin’s article in the Centre/McGill volume (see elsewhere on the website) and the response to it by Jean Bethke Elshtain.

The signs are that many contemporary jurists do not see the necessarily limited jurisdiction of the law in relation to politics and religion and as a result we can anticipate a whole new period of social strife caused by the over-reaching of the role of law. Under the guise of “justice” as much damage can be done as under the guise of “faithfulness” once we move, as we have done, from an epoch of religious dominance to one of judicial dominance.

“Whited sepulchres” is what Jesus called religious authorities who claimed to understand the letter of the laws without penetrating to its spirit. Sadly, there appears to be no shortage of religious figures today who have a partial conception of how the pieces fit together and from time to time, despite what they try to “clarify”, their theocratic slips show through.

One thing is sure. Most would rather be ruled by those who understand the rule of law and the dignity of the person and the role that freedom plays in human beings than by those who profess to love God while killing those with whom they disagree or who profess to administer justice while extending law where it has no proper jurisdiction believing that law and its “holy texts” (i.e. the Charter or the Constitution) are sufficient to rule all aspects of society. At the end of the day, Islamic fundamentalists, Christian theocrats and contemporary “court Salvationists” all drink from the same unhealthy streams.

Like religion and politics, law has an extremely important role: but it is a limited one. Woe to us when we attempt to turn Caesar into God or God into Caesar or law into either politics or religion.

Iain T. Benson©