"Life as War".
Sure, the above title is given away on the cover art, but that's the underlying theme (and literal translation) of last year's Naqoyqatsi, a strange trip through our modern world by means of digital photography, stock film and an eye-opening score by Philip Glass. Is it doomed be lost in the mass of current commercial releases...or is that the general point?
This unique combination of sensory overload had been done more than once before by Reggio, chiefly in the film's two predecessors, 1982's Koyaanisqatsi and 1988's Powaqqatsi. Each of these roughly translates to "Life Out Of Balance" and "Life In Transformation" from the Hopi language. Koyaanisqatsi in particular was hailed as a masterpiece, a ground-breaking picture of spiritual proportions that featured a perfect blend of photography and music to immerse the viewer in its ambiguous meaning. Both were elevated to cult status, but were obviously never destined to succeed as commercial releases. It's just as well; these are some of those select films that you wouldn't care if your friends liked them or not; they undoubtedly hold a greater personal meaning for you alone.
These were both released before I was old enough to really develop a taste for such movies, but they were thankfully released on DVD last year by MGM, just in time for the theatrical release of Naqoyqatsi. Interested in the concept alone, I hunted them down and enjoyed almost every frame. It truly was a moving experience, and will especially open the eyes of anyone who's never left their home country. It would benefit anyone remotely interested in this release to hunt down both Koyaanisqatsi and Powaqqatsi prior to this release. For more information, DVDTalk.com reviews for both can be seen here. In short, I could write for hours and dig up tons of meanings found here in these movies, but I wouldn't want to overshadow your viewing experience. If you truly appreciate Koyaanisqatsi and Powaqqatsi, you'll want to reflect and analyze what you've discovered long before you move on to Naqoyqatsi.
Koyaanisqatsi and Powaqqatsi were gambles themselves, although Godfrey Reggio didn't create them to turn a profit. To revisit similar ground with a third effort (almost 15 years later, no less) would be considered suicide to most movie studios. Thankfully, the project was backed by many, including producer Steven Soderbergh, and Naqoyqatsi was given a limited theatrical release last year. Although many other fans of this series had been waiting for much longer to see this important release, I was still eager to give it a spin on DVD.
In short, "Life as War" is no understatement...this is the younger, angrier brother of Koyaanisqatsi and Powaqqatsi. Recent times have reflected a more aggressive world view, ripe with fear and paranoia. This is largely in part from the barrage of media and news reports (as well as political matters and terrorist threats) existing on every scale. We're scared, we're angry, and yet we sometimes still can't admit there's anything wrong. Naqoyqatsi looks this fear right in the eye. While it certainly doesn't tell us anything new, it presents it in a truly eye-opening way. As mentioned earlier, Philip Glass (assisted by cellist Yo-Yo Ma) has returned with another brilliant score, both calming and spiritually jarring at the same time. Images flash and blur across the screen like a slightly muted version of A Clockwork Orange. Once again, there's no narration, no plot, no character development. This is a personal journey. If you have an open mind and 90 minutes to spare, it might change how you see things.
Comprised mostly of stock photography, Naqoyqatsi was not meant to be clean, sterilized, and pretty. With personal visions aside, what we do see looks as good (or as bad) as it ever did. Since I never had the chance to see this theatrically, I can't compare the two, but it looks good to me...this is a newer release, and is in excellent shape. Once again, virtually all dirt, grain, or other ugliness is meant to be there, so digital-film-Episode-II buffs might be a little disappointed. Naqoyqatsi was filmed in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, and the DVD thankfully preserves this. For what is presented, I can't really find any major faults with this release.
The audio, in short, sounds terrific. Of course, there's no dialogue present, so we've only got the music to grade here. The 5.1 mix really shines, and makes great use of all channels. Since the music plays a greater part here than most other movies, it had to deliver. As it stands, it really pulls you in to the experience and won't disappoint in the least.
The first two DVDs in the "trilogy" didn't get many bells and whistles...a few trailers and a short interview or two, but nothing major. While a step in the right direction, Naqoyqatsi is still a little thin on the extras. Included here are Trailers for both Koyaanisqatsi and Powaqqatsi, but not for Naqoyqatsi itself (strange, since the previous two contained all three trailers). Also on board is a Conversation with Philip Glass and Yo-Yo Ma, where they share a bit about their experiences with scoring the fantastic images. The ambiguously-titled Life is War is a very brief overview of the movie (similar to the "foreward" in a book), and features Soderbergh and Reggio sharing a bit of personal experiences. Although these three are much too short to go into any great detail, a pleasant surprise is the NYU Panel Discussion of Naqoyqatsi, featuring Reggio, Glass, and the film's editor, Jon Kane. This runs for nearly an hour and really goes into some nice detail about the underlying themes of the movie. Although a scene-specific commentary would have been nice, this is an excellent addition. Overall, not a bad mix of bonus materials.
Menu design and presentation:
Menus were a little plain...they feature collage-type imagery of certain scenes from the movie, but I was hoping for some music to go with it. Navigation is plain and simple, as it should be. The cover art is also pretty neat (a crash-test dummy in a business suit), and fits the theme of the movie. I don't have the full packaging, so I'm not aware of any insert material (although the first two didn't have anything), but I'll update this section when the full packaging arrives.
Should anything else have been included?
It's a real shame this couldn't have been part of a box set. Rights issues aside, it would have been awesome to have a 3-disc Special Edition box of the Qatsi Trilogy. By itself, Naqoyqatsi features a nice little set of extras, but it could have had a little more. While the NYU Panel discussion features Reggio quite prominently, it's a shame he couldn't have appeared more often...he's an excellent, intelligent speaker. Overall, it's a more satisfying release than the other two DVDs in the extras department, and the audio and video are great too.
Long story short---if you liked the other two movies is the Qatsi series, you're bound to get something out of this. Miramax's DVD presentation serves up a fine A/V presentation paired with a handful of helpful extras. Highly Recommended for established fans of Reggio's work, but new viewers may want to dip their toes in the water first.
Randy Miller III is a part-time cartooning instructor hailing from Harrisburg, PA. He also does freelance graphic design projects and works in an art gallery. When he's not doing that, he enjoys slacking off, general debauchery, and writing things in third person.