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©