Naqoyqatsi
A film written and directed by Godfrey Reggio


The new film from writer-director Godfrey Reggio is the third installment of a trilogy that includes the earlier films Koyannisqatsi and Powwqatsi. As in his two earlier films, Reggio here breaks new ground in presenting a film in which the medium - the image projected on film - is truly the message.

The titles of the films are taken from the language of the Native American Hopi tribe, whose spiritual tradition is based on an attempt to reverence and develop the harmonious interaction between man and nature. Reggio focuses on different aspects of that relationship in all of his films.

Koyannisqatsi - which means "life out of balance" - highlighted the contrast between the limitless grandeur of the natural world and the squalid and destructive manipulations modern man has imposed on it. Powwqatsi - which means "life in transition" - examined the confrontation between simple indigenous societies and technology, and the ways in which this encounter can be seen to distort and destroy the cultural harmony of those societies. Naqoyqatsi - which means "life at war" - concentrates even more closely on the effects of modern technology on human life and the human spirit.

Although it seems fair to conclude that Reggio has deep reservations about our current faith in technology as the savior of mankind, expressed primarily through his frequent return to images of the vast destruction we are capable of unleashing, he is far from a Luddite. It not only for the sake of irony that he has employed the most sophisticated film and computer-generated-imagery technology in the creation of this commentary on technology.

Reggio is giving us data, rather than "argument" in the traditional logical sense. He has said that his purpose is not to promote a particular conclusion, but rather to provoke a discussion - to raise questions that trouble him, and to which he has no answers.

In the same way, his films are not "narrative" in the traditional sense, and their imagery is not presented in a linear fashion. It is the juxtaposition of images rather than the "progression" that makes the material powerful. Reggio continually forces the viewer to try to make leaps of understanding, to create connections between dis-jointed images and in making those leaps and connections, to create an overlay of "meaning."

To communicate in this unusual way, Reggio has employed film-making of an unusual kind - to create quite a different experience than most of us are used to when we enter a movie theater. Rather than "tell a story" as most films try to do, Reggio employs techniques more reminiscent of advertising (from which many of his images are drawn) or music video. Images cascade, overlap, dissolve, fade in and out, jump from vision to vision, and the audience is engulfed by them.

The object seems to be a kind of non-verbal "immersion" that breaks down our normal habits of processing information and allows us to receive these images and respond to them on a more direct, primal level than our ordinary consciousness. Of course, this is exactly what advertising has learned to do - as when we see images of exceptionally attractive people presented in juxtaposition with a particular product - to create an "association."

Reggio harnesses and amplifies this technique to, among other uses, invite us to examine it and its impact on our lives. On another level - and this is a film that consciously seeks to operate on multiple levels simultaneously - the visceral reactions we can't help but feel operate to highlight the emotional connections we make, usually without even being aware of it, in what we imagine are "rational" and "intellectual" judgments.

The film was reportedly created from the images themselves. Reggio and his creative team, working from only a very general sense of the final structure they wanted to create, first selected images, then manipulated them to create sequences. Only then, when all the individual sequences were prepared, began to assemble them into some sort of continuity.

Reggio has likened this work to composing a piece of music - and indeed, composer Philip Glass's original scores are an integral part of all three films. Glass was a part of the process from the beginning, and especially with this latest film, the music and the visual sequences developed in tandem. In Naqoyqatsi, Glass has created what is essentially a series of movements for an 89 minute orchestral cello concerto.

In an interview published in the press notes for the film, Glass describes the generation of the score this way: "Godfrey and I surmised early on that the best musical complement to the images would be something more in the traditional orchestral vein since the images are so disconnected from the familiar world. The orchestra provides some kind of entrance, like a doorway, into the film. I feared that if the piece were too abstract people wouldn't connect with it. For that reason I went with a very acoustic, symphonic piece that could be played by a real human orchestra."

The aural component of Naqoyqatsi is an integral and equal part of the experience with the visuals. Glass's music and the stunning solo performance by cellist Yo-Yo Ma, while certainly powerful in and of themselves, are significantly inflected and enhanced by the images with which they are linked. The experience of the interaction of these different sensory inputs is part and parcel of the sense of simultaneity - the sense of many different things happening at once, while our attention shifts among them - that Reggio is working to evoke.

A former novitiate in a monastic order, who spent 14 years in silence and contemplation, before opting for a life in the world of community service and communication, Reggio brings almost and "outsider's" sensibility to mass culture. He seeks to awaken us to new perspectives on familiar experiences and images, to open us to new insights about the world in which we live, and the ways in which we interpret that world.

Reggio has made only three feature films (and a couple of shorts) in a career that spans nearly thirty years. The amount of work he has put in on each film reflects a deep commitment to his vision of a different kind of cinema - much more interactive, provocative and open-ended than the conventional. That this vision is understood, appreciated and responded to by more than a fringe, art-house audience it demonstrated by the fact that such industry heavy-weights as Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas and Steven Soderbergh have all supported his work and served as Executive Producers.

The production values of the film are literally in a class by themselves. More than 80% of the film, according to media-technologist and Co-Producer Joe Bernie, is "found footage," culled from advertising and industrial films, news archive footage, documentaries commercials and even television programs.

"We broke down the scope of potential visual transformation of every image into color, contrast, image layering, grain structure and resolution, pattern and texture, aspect ratio, scale, speed and transition dynamics and used a comprehensive battery of these techniques in the film." Bernie says, "Most of the images in Naqoyqatsi are presented in a transformed state, but it is the dynamic interaction of images that is most transformed."

This attention to detail, the intense focus on each frame and the amount of manipulation applied to create the images, their transformations and their integration is something that has never been applied to an entire feature-length-film before. The results are nothing short of spectacular. Reggio's intention is clearly to take us beyond the bounds of anything film has offered before, and he succeeds.

The departure Reggio is working to achieve is no less extreme and important than the transition from "realism" in 19th Century art to the various "modernist" schools of impressionism, abstraction and the like that grew up in the 20th Century. It is a similar move - from attempts to capture "objective" reality in a narrative framework (in the vast majority of contemporary film and in 19th century realist and romantic art), to a quest to evoke different levels of response and even "interaction" in the viewer, through confrontation with an altered reality - highly-personal, idiosyncratic, subjective reflections of experience.

It is an experimental process, even after nearly thirty years and three fine films. As in any experiment, there are some uneven spots, in spite of all the careful labor. But in its broad objectives and its innovative approach, it is remarkably successful. It is a film designed to provoke, to stimulate, to awaken, to enrich, and it does all that.

Koyannisqatsi and Powwqatsi are newly available on DVD - and seeing them thus, on a large enough home-theater screen, is certainly better than not seeing them at al. But Reggio's films, more than almost any I have ever seen, demand quality projection and sound systems. They are not films that will have anywhere near the impact on a television screen. They are designed to immerse, overwhelm and engulf the audience, and only the scale, clarity and high-quality audio of a theatrical screening can do them justice.

Unfortunately, because of its complex and unusual nature, Naqoyqatsi has been seen as something of a risk for distributors, so you probably won't see it at the local multi-plex. But it is a film worth seeking out in a high-quality screening facility. Like Van Gogh's paintings in the 1880's, that were too unconventional and challenging to find popular acceptance, so Reggio's films may be rediscovered with astonishment and appreciation by future generations.

But if you'd rather not wait, if you are willing to make a little effort, you can be among the lucky few who enjoy the full experience of a theatrical screening, as the film which opened nominally in one or two theaters nationwide last October, finally trickles into your region.

 

That's my take on it. What's yours?