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Wednesday, Feb. 18, 2004
A bombardment of images leaves riddles in the rubble
While all the attention has focused on "The Matrix" and "The Lord of the Rings," another trilogy, 20 years in the making, has finally reached its conclusion. Godfrey Reggio's "Qatsi" trilogy -- featuring 1983's classic "Koyaanisqatsi," 1988's "Powaqqatsi," and now 2002's final chapter, "Naqoyqatsi" -- has a far lower profile than these other triplet films, but it is no less visionary, and, one suspects, will prove to be just as enduring.
When Reggio, a former social worker who also spent 14 years in near silence as a Christian monk, set out to make his first film at age 43, he figured he'd be lucky to finish that one, let alone a trilogy. But when "Koyaanisqatsi" finally appeared, its groundbreaking visual symphony won major backing from George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola, and became a massive art-house hit. (It also cemented the rep of its soundtrack composer Philip Glass, who was still driving a cab in NYC at the time.)
Reggio used a pulsing, hypnotic score by Glass to propel the viewer on a flight through pure imagery. Without story or a readily apparent structure, Reggio worked the contrast between awe-inducing natural vistas and industrial eyesores to make an unstated but inferred comment about mankind's place on the planet. This "God's-eye-view" of Earth was reinforced by the film's constant use of pixellation, shooting at extremely slow speeds so that every movement would seem incredibly sped up on playback. The contrast between the stillness of the Arizona desert, with a mere drift of clouds and shadows, to the frenetic, lurching convulsions of Los Angeles freeway traffic became obscenely clear. "Koyaanisqatsi" is a Hopi Indian word meaning "life out of balance," and Reggio's work was a brilliant elaboration of this one, simple suggestion.
After the disappointing "Powaqqatsi," which largely followed the tropes of its predecessor, "Naqoyqatsi: Life as War" emerges after a long period of rethinking, and with a particularly poignant synchronicity between its theme and world events of the past two years.
Where the first two "Qatsi" films required extensive location shoots all over the planet, "Naqoyqatsi" required none: It is made up entirely of found imagery, tweaked and juxtaposed with newly created digital imagery and effects. While this may seem like blasphemy to viewers accustomed to Reggio's pristine, breathless shots of natural locations, it's equally impressive, and a direct reflection of Reggio's intention with this film. Nowadays, believes Reggio, the image has become more real than reality. It's a statement not far removed from what "The Matrix" was trying to say, but "Naqoyqatsi" is both more of a direct comment on the here and now, and also far more allusive, not to mention thought-provoking.
The sequence in which a giant white frame is pulled into a black void, gradually revealing itself to be a "zero," followed by a "one," and then a literal flood of digital code -- interspersed with the raging tides of a typhoon -- is as mind-blowing as anything in Neo's world, reminding us that technology is not only altering the environment, it has also become an environment. It is in this virtual world that the film's trips take place.
After two films that reveled in the majestic beauty of the planet, and the varied peoples and places upon it, "Naqoyqatsi" is a frightening welcome to the desert of the unreal, what Reggio describes as "the Los Angelesation of the planet," a colonization of real-world minds and cultures by this virtual terrain of media imagery.
The film is structured into five movements, divided by shorter, pensive interludes in which flowing cello solos by Yo-Yo Ma break up the propulsive arpeggios of Glass. Images fly at you fast and furious: Mandelbrot fractals spin off endlessly before sinking into a swirling wormhole of clouds; crowds at a stadium shake their fists and mouth "U.S.A.!" while a missile bursts out of an underground silo, revealing the same letters on its side; a ridiculously slowed-down fast-food commercial shows a slim supermodel feigning what looks like orgasmic ecstasy as she bites into a hamburger; walls of processors and chips pass by as we glide through the insides of machines.
The best sequence of "Naqoyqatsi" should be broadcast as a loop on video screens above Shinjuku and Times Square, or better still, disseminated as a virus to computer screens worldwide: A cascade of logos and icons twirls above a void, one morphing into the other: the hammer and sickle, the dollar sign, the Anarchy "A," the swastika, the peace symbol, the radioactive mark, the Christian cross, the crescent and star, om, the star of David, @, the McDonald's "M," the Benz emblem . . . on and on they dissolve, one into the next, as ideology, religion and brand become one and the same.
One sequence involves multiple shots of DNA, human cells, X-rays, MRI scans and the human body reduced to an amalgamation of parts. This is followed by shots of athletes -- gymnasts, runners, swimmers -- racing against the clock, their exertions seemingly agonizing in Reggio's trademark slow-motion. The connection here isn't necessarily clear, nor is the larger connection to the theme "Life as War." Unless, of course, you pause to think: Reggio is suggesting that we have quantified the body, and have hit our natural limits, but continue to struggle against the measure of time, against biology even in our incessant addiction to competition and constant improvement. There is no ideal of perfection, only a maddening sense of always wanting a bit more. Hence the TV-advert shots that arrive later.
There's a point here, but it's up to you to find it; "Naqoyqatsi" is free-associative to a fault. Unlike "Baraka" -- a meditation on religion and progress by "Koyaanisqatsi" cinematographer-turned-director Ron Fricke -- "Naqoyqatsi" resists any clear thematic thrust; its groupings and juxtapositions of images are expertly woven together, but sometimes hard to follow. Reggio himself resists definition, saying there is no one right answer to the riddles his film poses, hinting only that "however crooked the paths may look, they're all connected." He's right.