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Double bill of the first two of Godfrey Reggio's influential half-documentary/half-experimental visual extravaganzas that form part of his "Qatsi" trilogy, served in one neat package. "Koyaanisqatsi," or "Life Out of Balance," is a non-narrative, non-dialogue film made by director Reggio, cinematographer Ron Fricke, and composer Philip Glass as a visual compendium of humanity and our advancement toward a more technological way of existence. But it never specifically tries to spell out a single possible interpretation, Reggio instead wanting the audience to make up their own minds as to what the movie means to them. Shot over the course of seven years, beginning from Utah's unmolested Horseshoe Canyon, and steadily introducing humans into the equation, our technology, and our "hectic lifestyle," consisting of both original and stock footage, this movie is a visual and aural masterpiece, employing both slow motion photography as well as time-lapse techniques on top of regular filming styles. What comes out is a spectacular film that can be read as an environmental message movie, a warning to our over-reliance on technology, an ode to human ingenuity and technology, or anything in between. It was to be highly influential in popularising the use of different filming techniques in our everyday entertainment, as well as showing new ways of portraying our normal world in a way we had never seen it before. It furthermore made Philip Glass' name boost into the limelight outside of classical music, his cyclic and pulsating score becoming an indelible part of the film's experience that drives the visuals forward with an almost elemental torrential force. All of this makes "Koyaanisqatsi" a tremendous tour de force of film as art that has the power to shake your views of the world, with the final image of the flaming engine of the Atlas-Centaur rocket plummeting to the earth following a destructive explosion being a hauntingly symbolic reference to our over-reliance on the excellence of our own creations.
Its sequel "Powaqqatsi," subtitled "Life in Transformation," premiered in 1988 and employed a similar style of a non-narrative compendium of thematically connected images, this film largely depicting how progress and technology has effected and changed traditional ways of life in third world countries, acting as a counterpoint to the previous film's focus on technological growth within the northern industrial countries. Much more polemically charged than "Koyaanisqatsi," whose messages could be interpreted one way or another, "Powaqqatsi" seems to drive much more of a specific point to show how our technological "development" has impacted on our former way of life in not necessarily a positive way, and which at its worst is doing away with tradition and a simpler - and perhaps happier - way of being. Once more the synergy between the images (this time filmed by Graham Berry and Leonidas Zourdoumis) and the music of Glass are integral, with the latter adopting a considerably more ethnic style to the composer's usual cyclical structures, while the cinematography uses slow-motion photography considerably more than "Koyaanisqatsi" did with its mix of both slow and accelerated footage. However, in its totality, this film somewhat misses the former's doom-laden atmosphere and its sense of technological impact, ending up being somewhat too quaint to truly get its point across with as much power as Reggio likely wanted. There are certainly still plenty of beautiful and striking images littered all over the place (the opening scene at Brazil's Serra Pelada gold mine showing hundreds of people toiling up and down a muddy mountain like ants is a particular highlight), but the impact of the film as a whole just fails to hit as tremendously as with the previous movie. It's still not bad... only it just comes across more "pretty" than truly unforgettable to leave one lingering on its ideas for any prolonged period of time. The trilogy was finished off in 2002 by the belated third part, "Naqoyqatsi," taking as its subject virtual reality and people's attraction to war. (c) berlioz 2014
Koyaanisqatsi (1982) and Powaqqatsi (1988) are two cult films directed by Godfrey Reggio with music by award winning composer Philip Glass and cinematography by Ron Fricke. They are striking montages of images and music to convey man's encroachment on nature and what we have gained and - most saliently - lost in the name of progress. Koyaanisqatsi (the title means 'life out of balance') took five years to compile and takes us on a epic journey over vast desert vistas, wondrous oceans, rugged mountains, through dreamy cloud formations and into cities where cars leave illuminated trails of light and the artificial nature of civilisation is conveyed in a fashion that is simultaneously beautiful and depressing. The time lapse photography is very trippy and hypnotic as images are both speeded up and then slowed right down. This is of course unearthly hour viewing. There are images of belching factories and ominous nuclear plants, military hardware, cities from above with the frenetic dots of light from the traffic circuitously scurrying below, factory production lines, street life in all its varied forms, subway trains racing past with the blank expressions of people reflected in them, gleaming sky scrapers, people standing on escalators like inanimate objects, idle sunbathers, and the moon passing majestically behind the skyline of the city (the film's most iconic shot).
This is a stunningly impressive piece of art that will of course not be for everyone but reward those who are prepared to let their imagination drift away on the images and landscapes Reggio presents to us. The natural landscapes are simply wonderful and the urban sections are often compelling too and not without a different kind of beauty. Buildings being demolished and industrial images like something out of David Lynch or Modern Times. A sort of nightmare of progress where mankind has a taken a slight wrong turn and made life more regimented and alienating than it perhaps needed to be. In a sense this is like a history of the human race with ancient murals on even more ancient caves juxtaposed with the Saturn V rocket blasting off into the blackness of space in all its fiery glory. I prefer Koyaanisqatsi out of the two films I think because it tends to focus more on landscapes than people on the whole.
It reminds me somewhat of a French cartoon called 'Once Upon A Time Man...' I found on YouTube. This cartoon had a chillingly surreal and brilliant opening sequence that went through different periods in history - ending with astronauts in the future desperately escaping the Earth in space rockets before it exploded! Koyaanisqatsi concedes that human beings are extraordinary but just worries about some of the things they've done and where they are going. The most fundamental message is that nature represents a kind of perfection and we should try to preserve its beauty and respect it more than we do. It's a very singular and strange experiment and succeeds in making us look at the world in a new and strange way. It may have been somewhat fresher and more unique in 1982 but it still retains its sense of wonder and awe.
Powaqqatsi (Powaqa means 'negative sorcerer' and Qatsi means 'life' and the title taken together refers to a 'parasitic way of life') is much in the vein of Koyaanisqatsi with haunting music again from Philip Glass. While Koyaanisqatsi pointed its camera at the developed world, Powaqqatsi takes us on a trip through the third world and developing countries - the focus often much more here on people rather than their surroundings and technology. The changing way of life for indigenous people in South America, Africa and the Far East is highlighted and the film begins with a long sequence involving dirt encrusted workers slaving away on the muddy slopes of the Serra Pelada gold mines doing a dreadful job for not much money. The major theme of Powaqqatsi is the exploitation of developing countries to make rich people richer and how traditional ways of life and are being encroached upon by industrialisation. The film is a celebration of the skills, spiritual diversity and creatitivity of ordinary people in these places and expresses a fear and sadness at the thought that some of this might be lost by the creeping tentacles of capitalism and progress.
While Koyaanisqatsi was often speeded up, Powaqqatsi is more sedate on the whole but still blissfully hypnotic at times with some memorable flourishes and images. Among the more striking scenes are one in which a little girl with a red lunch box stops in front of a wall covered with political slogans to look at the camera across the road and there is also a famous video dream sequence. This cuts together random images from adverts and television programmes in the countries Powaqqatsi looks at and these images constantly change and morph into something new. This trance inducingly strange interlude is probably one of the best parts of the film. There a fairly clear theme as we go from people working on the land to gaudy neon signs, masses of cars, gleaming skyscrapers and - of course - people being bombarded with advertising at every turn trying to sell them all sorts of things that they don't really need. You could say that Powaqqatsi is rather simplistic in its message at times and could be guilty of stating the bleeding obvious elsewhere but these films are more of an experience than anything. I tend to think the simple message of these films is that human beings are remarkable and should be doing a better job of looking after the planet and each other.
There are some wonderful images in Hong Kong in the film and the music seems more experimental here. Glass uses children's voices as a chorus at times to add to the atmosphere and while I'm not a fan of all the music here much of it is very poetic and more melodious than the first film. I believe one section of the music here was actually lifted and used to good effect in the film The Truman Show. I probably prefer Koyaanisqatsi on the whole but this is certainly an interesting companion piece. It's more of a travelogue than the first one and slower and less trippy. Occasionally I found my attention wandering here and you sometimes wish the film would move onto something new after it lingers on a particular group or person for too long. Some of the things we see in the film though are very strange and entrancing like poverty stricken people living in houses that have walls missing so you can see straight into them. Powaqqatsi ends with images of water and calmness and sort of comes full circle. While I probably prefer the first one, I believe many felt Powaqqatsi had more of a heart and is somewhat underrated when the two films are discussed. They won't be for everyone but Koyaanisqatsi and Powaqqatsi are unique experiences with some wonderful images and music.
At the time of writing you can buy this DVD containing both films for around a fiver. For each film you get a couple of trailers and a featurette. Essence of Life in the case of Koyaanisqatsi and Impact of Progress for Powaqqatsi. These featurettes are both about 20 or so minutes long and feature Godfrey Reggio and Philip Glass discussing the films and what they mean to them personally. It's a shame you don't get a major documentary but these interviews are quite interesting with Reggio one of those people where even if you don't always know what he's going on about you always sort of know what he means. It's not an extensive range of extras but it is nice to own both of the films together.
DVD box sets seem incredibly daunting when you look at them. I'm sure I'm not the only one who's been bought an entire TV mini-series for Christmas, and thought "I can't justify plonking myself in front of the telly for THAT many hours, when there's so much else to do." And your heart sinks, cos you know you'd have to watch it all in one go, because if you don't, you'll forget the characters and plot if you leave it half way through. Especially if it's dull. And if you'll be seeing your donor again by New Year, you'd best at least make the effort.
Well, if your nearest and dearest are going to insist on buying you box sets, tell them to get this one from Santa. It couldn't be better - no script, no characters, no plot to discuss. Nothing.
What each of the Godfrey Reggio's Qatsi trilogy consists of, in fact, is a visual tableaux of images set to the musical score of Philip Glass. That's pretty much it, but I won't be doing it justice by just leaving it there.
"Koyaanisqatsi" is a Hopi Indian word meaning "Life Out Of Balance", and is chanted in basso profundo at the beginning and end of the work. In between, we are presented with sequences of time lapse and slow motion photography, initially concentrating on the forces of nature, such as flowers, waves and clouds, and then moving on to man's imposition of technology and industry on the world, such as the Navajo Generating Station, the explosion of atomic bombs, and the movements of the networks of people and traffic throughout New York City. The viewer is left to their own interpretation of each segment of this trilogy - for what it's worth, Koyaanisqatsi brings home to me how wrapped up in technology mankind has become, and how cut off we are from the natural resources which ultimately keep us alive.
"Powaqqatsi", the sequel, can mean either "Life In Transition" or "Parasitic Way of Life" in Hopi. This work concentrates on the impact of modern technology on developing or Third World countries, especially in conflict zones. The images on this occasion concentrate more on people, usually those living a traditional way of life, in their work and their worship. For me, there is also a highlighted contrast between urban and rural life, and while there are less visual tricks here, this is to more accurately reflect the reality of the lives of the people shown, and reminds us we all move to the same beat of the chronological drum we call Time.
"Naqoyqatsi" (not a part of the product description but included by me for the sake of completeness) means in Hopi "Life As War" and has the musical soundtrack again set to accompany the images, but on this occasion, a cello plays a single line running through the whole piece. Much use is again made of archive footage, digitally processed, and again it flashes before us almost subliminally. For me, it describes mankind's transition between a nature-based to a technology-based way of life, to the extent that mankind can no longer function without the technology it has created for itself.
As you've probably worked out for yourself from my clumsy attempts, Reggio's films are better experienced than described. Whereas Disney's Fantasia was meant to be an animation that complemented the music, Glass's score seems to have been created specifically for the film, or at least created at the same time. The effect is that these hypnotic works should provoke thoughts, ideas, emotions and interpretations in the viewer, and so the reception will be largely subjective. Some who have seen this tell me it is inspiring, some say frightening. It's all in the eye of the beholder, and for those of you interested in psychedelic experiences, it's worth your while knowing there's enough in these works of visual art to enhance whatever trip you may be on. Unlike the Mad-chester music scene, however, you don't need to be on drugs to appreciate Reggio's works, just the time and space to enjoy them.
This review is about Koyaanisqatsi
Koyaanisqatsi is the first of the Qatsi Trilogy, the second movie being Powaqqatsi and third movie Naqoyqatsi. The title is a Hopi Indian word meaning "life out of balance" and the meaning of the movie certainly conveys this. Created between 1975 and 1982, the film is an apocalyptic vision of the collision of two different worlds - urban life and technology against the environment it lives in. The musical score was composed by Philip Glass, well known for haunting music and strong tunes. Produced and directed by Godfrey Reggio with Ron Fricke as the Director of Photography, Koyaanisqatsi sends a powerful message and is painstakingly created. Created as an "experimental documentary", Koyaanisqatsi was shot mostly in the desert southwest USA and New York City on a small budget with no script.
There is no actual plot as such in Koyaanisqatsi. There are different sections of the movie that change according to the landscape of the environment (eg, cityscape, mining field etc) and the music changes within these sections. Basically the movie is made up of short segments showing human impact upon on the environment and human habitation within the environment by the use of aerial photography, special effects, fast motion effects and landscape photography. By viewing segments of natural land, building, habitation and cities, Koyaanisqatsi imparts how humans change the environment around them into a new environment. Only the short parts showing for example, bombs, give the added touch of pointing out this is a bad environmental decision. Most of the film concentrates on giving the viewer a good cinematic experience, without too much heavy stuff on environmental issues.
The special effects are created by time-lapse shots (alternately peripatetic and hyperspeed), props and film editing, a bit like the film "Microcosmos" but not magnified. A spectacular scene is when a segment is shown of cars at night rushing along a road and when speeded up, they appear to have the same pattern. A lot of the speeded up effects in Koyaanisqatsi show patterns we might not perceive and these add to the meaning of the film. Another memorable pattern segment was the food production scene. Many props were used in the making of Koyaanisqatsi, but I don't believe hardly any of these were staged as they look so natural and not fabricated. Airplanes, buildings, crowds of people, bombs, food, desert, rockets and lights are just a few of the more common props used throughout.
I just love watching Koyaanisquatsi. Not only do I feel sad when listening to the fantastic soundtrack but I am fascinated with the special effects, interested in what is shown and felt that the film communicated a fundamental truth. Can be a little slow at the start, but speeds up well. It's better than Microcosmos by far and much more dramatic and emotional. If you haven't seen it, you are missing out. Big time.
It is possible to buy Koyaanisqatsi and Powaqqatsi as a 2-DVD pack.
Koyaanisqatsi/Powaqqatsi is available at Amazon for $11.97 new.
Actors: Include Christie Brinkley, David Brinkley, Dan Rather, Pope John Paul II, Cheryl Tiegs (among others)
Director: Godfrey Reggio
Format: Box set, PAL, Widescreen
Number of Discs: 2
Release Date: 13 Jan 2003
Run Time: 178 mins
Godfrey Reggio's Koyaanisqatsi ("life out of balance") and Powaqqatsi ("life in transformation") are the first two parts of a trilogy of experimental documentaries whose titles derive from Hopi compound nouns (2002's Naqoyqatsi, or "life in war", is the third). Both feature indispensable musical contributions from minimalist composer Philip Glass. Made in 1983, Koyaanisqatsi was shot mostly in the desert southwest USA and New York City on a tiny budget with no script. But it then attracted the support of Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas and reached a much wider audience. Its techniques, merging cinematographer Ron Fricke's time-lapse shots (alternately peripatetic and hyperspeed) with Glass' reiterative music (from the meditative to the orgiastic)--as well as its ecology minded imagery--crept into the consciousness of popular culture. The influence of Koyaanisqatsi has by now become unmistakable in television advertisements, music videos and, of course, similar movies. Dating from 1988, Powaqqatsi finds the director somewhat more directly polemical than before, with Glass's score stretching to embrace world music. Reggio reuses techniques familiar from the previous film (slow motion, time-lapse, superposition) to dramatise the effects of the so-called First World on the Third: displacement, pollution, alienation. But he spends as much time beautifully depicting what various cultures have lost--cooperative living, a sense of joy in labour and religious values--as he does confronting viewers with trains, airliners, coal cars and loneliness. What had been a more or less peaceful, slow-moving, spiritually fulfilling rural existence for these "silent" people (all we hear is music and sound effects) becomes a crowded, suffocating, accelerating industrial urban hell, from Peru to Pakistan. Reggio frames Powaqqatsi with a telling image: the Serra Pelada gold mines, where thousands of men, their clothes and skin imbued with the earth they're moving, carry wet bags up steep slopes in a Sisyphean effort to provide wealth for their employers. While Glass juxtaposes his strangely joyful music, which includes the voices of South American children, a number of these men carry one of their exhausted comrades out of the pit, his head back and arms outstretched--one more sacrifice to Caesar. Nevertheless, Reggio, a former member of the Christian Brothers, seems to maintain hope for renewal. --Robert Burns Neveldine