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Sunday, Oct. 12, 2003

A symphony of the senses


Special to The Japan Times

When Godfrey Reggio's "Koyaanisqatsi" first appeared in 1983, it was instantly hailed as a revolutionary film. Two decades on, it remains so. With the exception of 1994's "Baraka," by "Koyaanisqatsi" cinematographer Ron Fricke, virtually no other filmmaker has tapped the potential it opened up.

With "Koyaanisqatsi," Reggio dared to imagine a film without dialogue, where image and music alone could combine in a new kind of symphony. Reggio uses haunting slow-motion and time-lapse cinematography to create a profound sensation of majesty and awe. In shots that cut from pristine desert vistas and tranquil cloud-filled skies to endless urban sprawl and relentless industrial processes, Reggio says nothing while speaking volumes. It's as if the viewer is seeing everything through the eye of God, slowly taking in what had befallen the planet.

Philip Glass' pulsating arpeggios and meditative, trancelike compositions -- often a bit austere on their own -- are the perfect accompaniment, flowing like a current that propels the viewer through this journey of extreme contrasts.

"Powaqqatsi (Life In Transformation)," the 1988 followup, follows the fate of most sequels: More of the same, only not as good. The film looks as amazing as before, but its flow of imagery is less tight, its themes more diffuse and Glass' overly dramatic score stomped all over it.

Fortunately, the long-awaited final chapter in the "Qatsi" trilogy -- "Naqoyqatsi," opening early next year -- is not only a return to form, but also a great leap forward. Glass is still up to his usual arpeggio tricks, but they benefit by the addition of long, flowing interludes of solo cello by Yo-Yo Ma, and some subtle use of airwave babble and other found-sound deep in the mix.

This time Reggio embraces the fluidity and surreal potential of digital editing and computer graphics, mixing his trademark breathtaking landscape shots with purely virtual collages as well. Ironically, he uses this technology to reflect the feeling of speed, of rushing toward the precipice, that the digital age has brought upon us.

With its subtitle, "Life as War," "Naqoyqatsi" seems eerily prescient of the here and now (it was completed in 2001), but its hypertextual race through the relationship between technology and human existence is both trippier and more thought-provoking than anything in "The Matrix." The U.S./U.K. DVDs of the "Qatsi" trilogy are already out, but don't miss the chance to see any of these on the big screen. These aren't just films; they're experiences.



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