A film with five people credited as “Hopi Prophecy Consultants” would normally send me bolting to my panic room, but “Koyaanisqatsi” (1983) is my time-lapse crack and it provides such an immersive audiovisual experience that I struggle to achieve any critical distance. It can be viewed as New Age-y spiritual noodling, environmental alarmism, or the hysteria of a knee-jerk Neo-Luddite. I don’t agree with any of those assessments, but I also wouldn’t care either way. I simply love this movie, the experience of this movie, and I always want more.
The title derives from a compound word from the Hopi language that director Godfrey Reggio interprets as “life out of balance.” His film is not out of balance in the least, but rather one of the more harmonious marriages of image and music that has ever received even a modest commercial release. Like all of the films in the trilogy, it is free of dialogue and location sound, just picture cut with a driving, repetitive score by Phillip Glass that is so idiosyncratic and so magnificent it is impossible even to conceive of a minute of the film without the music. Reggio has always emphasized the collaborative nature of all of his work, also giving ample credit to cinematographer Ron Fricke (who worked on “Koyaanisqatsi” before directing his own Qatsi-esque masterpiece, “Baraka.”)
I’ve already used the word “experience” twice so it can’t hurt to use it again. In “Koyaanisqatsi, “ Glass’s keyboards and brass pulsate over stunning aerial footage of the rocky terrain near the Four Corners (some of the most achingly beautiful natural sculptures o the globe) or over time-lapsed footage in some of America’s most populous cities. Reggio doesn’t need words to establish a clear dichotomy between nature and the technological/industrial world that humans have crafted for themselves. This is a North America in transformation, a landscape being overrun by a creeping grid of crisscrossing wires and belching smokestacks, and human behavior is increasingly synchronized to a more frenetic rhythm and bathed in artificial light that knows no natural cycles.
For skeptics, the discrepancy is too pat. Reggio and Glass are not reluctant to stack the deck with some of the direst music saved for images of electrical transformers knotting up the desert landscape, but I see a filmmaker who is documenting, in his stubborn fashion, a reality that simply is; it is one that is terrifying because it is so difficult to comprehend, but Reggio understands that it is also here to stay and we simply must find a way to deal with it. Can the early adapters and Panglosses allow a little space for someone to feel intimidated by such a radical change?
The first time I watched and listened to “Koyaanisqatsi” I missed many of the details while losing myself to the sheer rapture of the audiovisual symphony. I was so transported by the experience (that word again) that I failed to notice the grimmer aspects of the film, which may be ineffably beautiful to a fault. Even the supposedly ominous industrial and urban shots are luminous or rendered so by Glass’s music. A city sequence set mostly in New York in which time-lapse photography captures crowds bustling in and out of the subway and traffic pulsing along asphalt arteries is genuinely transcendent and flat-out exhausting; when this elaborate montage ends Reggio cannily cuts from some of Glass’s most frantic work to prolonged silence, allowing for a much-needed recuperative beat. Would Reggio shudder to know that someone found this frenzied sequence, surely not intended as a city symphony, to be transcendent? I don’t know, but this section is consonant with my own feelings when I find myself in a city space, a combination of near-panic and grudging acknowledgment: “It’s absolutely amazing what people can build; now if only these throngs of people would go away so I could appreciate it.”
A repeat viewing (I didn’t wait long) made the plainly obvious, well, plainly obvious. “Koyaanisqatsi” is as much lamentation as celebration, and probably more so, but it’s ability to contain both modes simultaneously gives it a rich life and opens it to multiple interpretations. I don’t believe that Reggio romanticizes an unsullied, pre-industrial way of life (“Qatsi” means “way of life”) but is attempting in his very insistent way to make us step back and think about changes that are so ubiquitous we don’t even notice them. The techno-scaping has, of course, proceeded without limit, and it is no small irony that some of the images of cutting-edge technology in this nearly thirty-year old film would now actually be greeted by many viewers with a heavy tinge of nostalgia: oh how cute, look at those giant circuit-boards, clunky old TVs… and Q*bert!
“Koyaanisqatsi” was a surprising commercial success, and by surprising I mean absolutely shocking as it went on to gross north of $3 million, not bad for a movie that couldn’t even be categorized. Anticipation built up over the ensuing five years before the release of a second Qatsi film. Unfortunately, “Powaqqatsi” (roughly translated as “life that consumes other life to survive”) proved no match for its predecessor. The location shifts to the Southern Hemisphere, cutting between South America and Africa and focuses mostly on impoverished laborers and commuters in motion, the ones whose low-salaried work makes the North American lifestyle of “Koyaanisqatsi” possible.
Reggio abandons the sped-up, time-lapsed aesthetic of the original for an almost exclusive reliance on slow-motion footage, some of which is truly lyrical. In the opening shots, Brazilian gold miners trudge up a muddy hillside in extreme slow-motion; at a similar speed, farm-workers balance heavy loads on their shoulders as they slog through fields. There are other extraordinary shots, including a lengthy one of a train hurtling by, but by sticking only to a slow-mo gear, the pacing has little variety and the film feels more bound by literal constraints, less free-flowing in its montage. For me, it never enters the contemplative space that makes the first Qatsi so special.
Also, Glass’s composition, filled with whistles and percussive beats, seems more redundantly welded to the images this time. I make precisely no claim on being a music expert; I can only observe that I don’t like Glass’s score anywhere near as much as in the first film. Regardless, “Powaqqatsi” is noteworthy for its gallery of mesmerizing, sometimes mysterious faces staring directly into the camera; critics who have accused Reggio of not particularly liking people need to explain away the ample time devoted to studying such lovely visages.
It took another fourteen years for the completion of the Qatsi trilogy, and by 2002, it appears that critics had had enough. “Naqoyqatsi” was absolutely savaged by the press, and at the time I didn’t disagree. But a decade later, the film has much more resonance for me. The apprehension expressed in the first Qatsi has come to full bloom as Reggio confronts the digital age on its own turf. A stark contrast to the rural and urban panoramas of the first two films, “Naqoyqatsi” (“war as a way of life”) exists partly in a virtual landscape, and even its photographic images are mediated in very blunt ways, flipped over as negatives, distorted, distended, or, to use Reggio’s term, “tortured.” Perhaps the biggest shock for Qatsi fans is that the final installment can be so damned ugly for long stretches. We hardly ever get a direct look at anything, the way our eyes would perceive it in nature. We’ve fabricated our entire world out of recent technology by now and we cannot help but see everything through it.
If “Naqoyqatsi” works better for me today than ten years ago, it’s because I now spend far too much time despairing over the all-consuming nature of the digital revolution that has largely left our bodies behind. What do we do with our flesh casings when the world is connected by endless and completely abstracted streams of data? Are we even needed as conduits anymore? Similar questions are raised by two of the best films of 2012, “Holy Motors” and “Cosmopolis,” and “Naqoyqatsi” feels a bit like an estranged uncle to them. I can hardly believe that “Naqoyqatsi” was made before people became umbilically attached to their iPhones and before the massive expansion of drone warfare . How much more rueful would it be if it was made today?
I’ll admit that Reggio doesn’t have a lot of great ideas on how to visualize this new world: shots of giant streaming zeros and ones and pepper-spray montages of formulas and Greek symbols are way too on the nose. Intercutting images of marching troops and other military arrangements doesn’t really advance much of an argument either. But he’s tapping into something deeply personal here, at least for me. I know plenty of friends who can’t wait to load another hundred books onto their Kindles and think I’m absolutely nuts when I tell them how profoundly that depresses me, even paralyzes me. I guess the last Qatsi won’t make a lick of sense to you if you’ve never sat in front of your computer screen late at night and thought, “So this is it? This is really… it?”
It works for me, though, and the plaintive strings of Glass’s score (especially Yo-Yo Ma’s cello) are a vast improvement over “Powaqqatsi.” It still comes nowhere close to the radiance of “Koyaanisqatsi,” a movie and, yes, an experience that I’ve been thrilled to revisit time and again over the years. And one that I just got to experience for the first-time in high-definition, so you’ll excuse me if I’m still feeling the buzz.
All three films were release on SD back in 2002 or 2003.
The high-definition upgrade is significant though of varying effect among the three films. “Powaqqatsi” fares the best of the three, and looks pretty fantastic throughout; the image detail visible in close-ups of faces is sometimes startling and a major boost from the already strong SD versions. “Koyaanisqatsi” is not quite as uniformly great, but the weakest parts are attributable to source material; one extended sequence uses military test footage and this looks rather rough in high-def, perhaps more so than in SD. I also suspect that we need even more detail to flawlessly capture the filmed look of the high-speed time-lapse footage (the 2K resolution transfer still isn’t enough to present seamless motion here), but overall the image detail improvement is distinct. Once again, it’s most discernible in close-ups of faces, though the traffic sequences and aerial nature footage benefit from the high-def treatment as well. Colors in both films are rich, especially in “Powaqqatsi” which has a brighter palette overall.
“Naqoyqtasi” doesn’t fare nearly as well, but I would think there were quite a few challenges presented by the source material. For one the CG animations are sometimes rather crude and this is actually accentuated by the high-def treatment. It is a hodge-podge of sources and the no-doubt extensive color correction needed doesn’t produce a particularly lush image, but this was never a particularly beautiful movie, unlike the first two.
This is where the high-def upgrade really shines. All three films gets DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround tracks. Obviously, Phillips Glass’s score is an essential part of the experience of all three movies, and the lossless audio treats it very well indeed. I’ve never claimed to be an audiophile, but the score sounds much crisper and deeper than on the SD releases and doesn’t exhibit any sign of distortion even when cranked up too the highest possible volume that wouldn’t wake up my neighbors. There are no subtitles, of course.
Each disc in this Criterion boxed set is housed in its own slim cardboard keepcase and all three cases are tucked into a cardboard sleeve.
The set offers a mix of new features and features imported from the old SD DVDs. The features are sprinkled across each of the three discs.
On “Koyaanisqatsi” we get the 2002 interview with Reggio and Glass (25 min.) from the prior SD release. New for this release are a 2012 interview with cinematographer Ron Fricke (16 min.) and a 2012 interview with Reggio (5 min.) about the original visual concept for the film that he soon abandoned, with some on-set footage showing what might have been.
Also new for this release is a section titled “Privacy Campaign.” Some of Reggio’s earliest filmed work was an ad campaign shot in conjunction with the collective IRE (Institute for Regional Education). Teaming up with the New Mexico Civil Liberties Union, the IRE shot a series of ads designed to emphasize the ways in which technology was being used to invade our privacy. These very idiosyncratic, sometimes downright creepy ads aired on New Mexico television. This section includes a 2012 Introduction by Reggio (5 min) and eight different televised spots, running a total of six minutes.
More new stuff: In the “1977 Demo Version” section. Reggio cut together a silent 40-minute demo reel of footage for “Koyaanisqatsi” (much of which doesn’t appear in the final film) and took it to the Naropa Institute in Colorado where he convinced poets Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky to “react” to it. The reaction involved an improvised scratch musical track complete with Ginsberg chanting and playing harmonium. This section includes a 2012 Intro by Reggio (4 min.), the Silent Demo Footage (40 min.) and two Sound Clips (31 min. and 16 min., respectively) of Ginsberg and company’s scratch recording, synched up to the footage. Full disclosure: I only got about thirty seconds deep into each clip.
“Powaqqatsi” also imports a 2002 interview with Reggio and Glass (20 min.) from the old SD DVD. Reggio also records a new 2012 interview (18 min.) in which he discusses his artistic and philosophical influences, among them Guy Debord and Luis Bunuel. All other features are new to this Blu-ray.
“The Qatsi Trilogy” is a 1989 episode (19 min.) of a new Mexico Public television show in which journalist V.B. Price interview Reggio about his plans for the entire trilogy.
Perhaps the neatest extra is the short film “Anima Mundi” (1992, 29 min.), directed by Reggio and with another Glass score. The film consists mostly of close-ups of animals of seventy-plus species mixed with some time-lapse nature footage. It’s not the most substantive film you’ll ever see, but I like it when animals look into the camera.
“Naqoyqatsi” imports two features from the old SD DVD: a 2003 interview with Glass and cellist Yo-Yo Ma (7 min.) and a Panel Discussion (54 min.) shot in 2003 at NYU, featuring Reggio, Glass, and editor Jon Kane. The discussion is moderated by artscritic John Rockwell.
New on the Blu-ray are a short “Making Of” piece (4 min.) and a 2012 Afterword by Reggio (16 min.) discussing the entire trilogy. He repeats some points from the interviews on the first two discs, but it’s still good to hear a new take from him.
All three discs also come with Trailers. All supplemental features are in high-def.
The 36-page insert booklet includes an essay by author Scott MacDonald on the entire trilogy, a piece by arts critic John Rockwell focusing on Glass’s contribution to the project, and an essay by Bill McKibben discussing the ways in which “Koyaanisqatsi” sounded an early alarm about global warming even though the term was not yet introduced into popular culture. McKibben wrote “The End Of Nature” in 1989, described as “the first book on climate change for a general audience.”
Even if the final two installments never achieved the majesty of the first, The Qatsi Trilogy is a unique achievement in contemporary cinema, one of the rare instances of genuinely experimental cinema actually finding a commercial audience, both in theaters and later on home video. This Criterion set presents strong high-def transfers with the major benefit being the audio boost to Glass’s compositions. Extras are a varied selection that draw more attention to some of Reggio’s less publicized work. If you’re willing to give yourself over to a non-verbal cinematic experience, there’s nothing quite like a Qatsi.