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One of the most desired titles on DVD, Koyaanisqatsi has been out of print on a fuzzy, flat VHS for almost twelve years. The light-'em-if-you-got-'em film fans who smoked up screenings of 2001 and Fantasia went nuts over this wordless, seamless 87 minutes of boiling clouds, blurred freeway traffic and hallucinogenic views of Las Vegas, open pit mines, a Hostess Twinkie assembly line, and every scenic wonder in the great West. A lot of the film is done with time-lapse photography, which speeds up action by taking only a frame or so a second, instead of 24 each second. In my editorial circles, we therefore called it TimeLapseskatsi.
The emphasis here is on technology: things, machines, vehicles, and rockets. A lot of the footage is from stock libraries, particularly Louis Schwartzberg's Energy Productions, which had an ad in Daily Variety each week for twenty years. Atom bombs explode and rockets surge skyward, and we hold on the stock shots longer than usual, making them seem all the more strange.
Hypnotic repetition patterns are built into the music, and much of what we see is cyclical or repetitive as well - the hot dogs coming out of a meat processing machine, traffic surging in cyclic fits in New York. It is a relief to see human faces, although many are just pedestrians in motion, dwarfed and dominated by the activity around them. The poetry of Alphaville, with its talk of the city as a huge breathing ant hive, has become reality. And as in Alphaville, the nighttime cities with their traffic represented by unbroken rivers of streaking headlights seem to exist in some other temporal dimension.
The absence of voiceover or other overt messages causes us to concentrate on the visual patterns, perhaps becoming absorbed by them. Encouraged by the sussuring Glass rhythms, it's easy to imagine Koyaanisqatsi as one long, unbroken meditation on the modern world. Godfrey Reggio is basically a modern guru. His Institute for Regional Education commercials and short subjects were overtly subversive, but all messages are sublimated here.
MGM's DVD of Koyaanisqatsi is an immaculate transfer where even the sometimes-grainy stock footage is curried and combed to perfection. The disc's best feature is the Greg Carson-produced interview-docu with Reggio and Glass. The composer comes off as an earnest collaborator proud of the creative freedom he and Glass had to rescore and recut sections of the film until both were satisfied. Reggio's interview is self-described as a 'rave' and resembles nothing less than a slightly subdued version of Dennis Hopper's character in Apocalypse Now. You get the feeling that Reggio lets loose with twenty-minute monologues like this at the drop of a hat. With almost perfect diction, excellent speaking skills and nary an 'umm' or 'ahh', he rattles off in record time 1000 observations, descriptions and comparisons relating to his film, never breaking his stance of enlightened enthusiasm. He starts with his use of a Hopi word for the title and goes from there. The docu should be seen after the feature, so as not to dull the impact of some of the visuals, but it will really be an asset to Koyaanisqatsi fans seeking more insight into this remarkable artist.
If Koyaaniskatsi is TimeLapseskatsi, then Powaqqatsi should be called SlowMo-skatsi. Less popular (but preferred by Savant) mainly because of its non-distribution by an uncomprehending Cannon Films, Powaqqatsi consists almost completely of new photography of indigenous people going about their real lives. Shot for shot, it contains more remarkable and original footage than its predecessor. The visual poetry has a tendency to become precious - one silhouette of a wise man with a staff is rather annoying - or to show the politics of its makers, but this follow-up has a strong emotional impact to add to the first installment's intellectual headiness.
Powaqqatsi celebrates humans over technology and has warmth that the first film lacks. There are dozens of beautiful faces in this show - kids, men, women, and wizened oldsters of every race and origin. We see them at work, happily at first. There is a section in the first third where every cut, from a circle of women threshing wheat to the spinning skirts of an Andean dancer, is so beautiful one cannot help but exclaim out loud. Man is shown to be able to live practically anywhere: crammed into stilt houses around any body of water, on remote islands, in the middle of deserts and on the tops of mountains. An Indian mud village, with its painted stucco walls, is orange and immaculate; the ritual costumes of Africans, Indians, and Andeans become a collage of color and diversity and pride.
The imagery is then subverted by the ugliness of modern reality, with its endless ore cars, regimented native troops, grim and grimy sweatshops, and roads shared by vehicular traffic and barefoot, rickety-legged men with impossible loads on their backs. There are images here that burn into the memory: a kid who couldn't be more than seven beating the ox that pulls his huge cart, while his father tries to rest beside him. Tons of rocks and garbage pour into a bay, possibly being dumped as landfill. A hundred toothpicks sticking out of an abstract grid are revealed to be a sideways shot of laundry hung from high-rise windows, as a jet passes at an impossible angle. A kid in Hong Kong marvels at the beauty of dozens of superimposed neon signs. A brief shot of soot-covered men carrying heavy loads up soot-covered stairs in a hellish, smoking work yard is a more potent image of brute labor than anything in Metropolis. Television is reduced to a constantly morphing display of commercial goods, rapturous faces, and violent weapons, becoming the Hopi Powaqq - an evil, seducing sorcerer that sucks the life force of other entities to further its own life.
Unlike the abstract Koyaanisqatsi, opposing content is used to form new meanings and messages with a decided political intent. The author's contrast of victims and oppressors becomes all too clear and rather strident here, with blasts of music accompanying huge closeups of 'oppressed' men staring down the camera with accusing, bitter eyes. One little black boy holds up two fists defiantly, but trembles - with fear? A bejeweled woman in a sari holds her child and gazes seemingly right into our souls.
A very spiritual man, Reggio concludes Powaqqatsi with an extended lento passage, returning to natural images, especially water, to end on an endorsement of faith as the true center of human value. The face of a toothless shaman, smiling in rapture, mixes with the almost perfect reflections in an Indian river. It's a return to calm and peace that becomes a visual meditation on the fate of mankind. Whether the show's theme is an oversimplification is debatable ... other minds would argue that the idyllic lifestyles of primitive peoples were long ago spoiled by overpopulation, disease, war and slavery, without benefit of modern technology. And there are plenty of arguments for man's spiritual diversity being warped into fundamentalist oppression. Powaqqatsi is a poem, not a coherent political treatise.
Powaqqatsi is perhaps the highpoint of Philip Glass' musical output. The score isn't dominated by hypnotic synthesizer noodlings or dissonant Invaders from Mars-like choral effects. There's instead a wide range of music stylings, much of it suggested by rhythms and instruments from the Third World, and often rising to a pitch that drives the images on screen instead of simply accompanying them.
Powaqqatsi looks even better than its predecessor because so much of it is pristine original footage shot by high-speed cameras. MGM's generous compression brings it all out in breathtaking detail and sparkling color. We sometimes wish there were optional subtitles saying where individual shots were filmed, as scenes jump from continent to continent with abandon. It's like 50 volumes of National Geographic images, arranged as that company would never arrange them. Godfrey Reggio is again fascinating in his 'raving', and it's best to just listen and let his ideas flow over you than to try and decipher each phrase as you hear it - You don't talk to Godfrey, man, you listen to him. He doesn't stress the relationship, but this is clearly the work of a man of faith: he says his dozen or so years in a monastery ended decades ago, but that's still the man he is.
Both discs have a new trailer for Naqoykatsi, a phantasmagoria of altered images that would probably be dubbed Digi-skatsi by my old editorial crew. This one means 'War as a style of life', and promises to be more controversial (and welcome) even than Powaqqatsi. The trailers for the first two films are on both discs as well.1
There's a website for the Institute for Regional Education, the producers of the -Qatsi trilogy, with info on the new release, with more information about Godfrey Reggio and his films.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Koyaanisqatsi & Powaqqatsi rates:
1. While at Cannon, Savant cut the trailer for Powaqqatsi when
Godfrey Reggio insisted that the cutter of an earlier promo for the film (then called North/South:
Powaqqatsi) be given the trailer. It was a plum assignment that put me ahead of 3 or four
senior cutters who wanted it, and got me from the misery of cutting things like
Penitentiary 3. Reggio visited to criticize my first cut, which for him was 'too
pretty', too musical, and too 'Film Board of Canada.' After a solid fifteen minutes of the thickest
graduate-film student lingo I'd ever heard (Reggio lives and breathes that stuff) I got the message - make the
trailer less rhythmical and less closely tailored to the music track (which was one heck of a difficult
music cutting job). The Powaqqatsi trailer was shown almost nowhere, but graced the front of
the old VHS release. I hustled an article on my trailer in AdWeek (how do you sell a movie
with no stars,
no plot, no commercial hook?), a self-promotional coup that sprung me from the sinking ship that was
and into my first real trailer boutique job, cutting a 70mm advance distributors' promo for The
... ahh, one doesn't remember the long stretches of unemployment, just the good times. MGM had no copy of
the trailer, so I loaned them my stereophonic copy on video for the DVD.