Features and Columns · Movies

Godfrey Reggio’s ‘Qatsi’ Trilogy and the Diminishing Returns of Pure Cinema

By  · Published on January 30th, 2013

The Qatsi series is made up of several compelling contradictions. On the one hand, the first film, Koyaanisqatsi (1983), was a unique-for-its-time, one-of-a-kind event; but on the other hand, that film used many of the same cinematic tactics and strategies common to “pure cinema” (or “absolute film”) projects that characterized experimental filmmaking in the 1920s, like Dziga Vertov’s Man with the Movie Camera, Fernand Leger’s Ballet Mechanique, and the geometric filmmaking of Viking Eggeling. On the one hand, the Qatsi series is often celebrated as a series, or as an accomplishment characterized by a long-term vision realized across several films; but on the other hand, celebrations of the weight and accomplishment of this series are often relegated to the first film. Koyaanisqatsi’s sequels, Powaqqatsi (1988) and Naqoyqatsi (2002), are only mentioned a fraction as often as the landmark first film.

On the one hand, this trilogy is one of the most radical critical critiques of capitalism and industry to arise from a relatively mainstream release; but on the other hand, the aesthetic “purity” of these films enables the major risk of a message lost. And on the one hand, Koyaanisqatsi launched the film careers of cinematographer Ron Fricke (whose most recent feature, Samsara, was exhibited in 70mm last year) and avant-garde composer Philip Glass; but on the other hand, these two have become considerably better known through their contributions to movies than the trilogy’s ambitious director, Godfrey Reggio.

The Qatsi series is at once a single vision and an inspired collaboration between three unique talents. It’s these contradictions that make the trilogy both fascinating and frustrating, moving and monotonous. Perhaps more so than any commercially exhibited film of the last thirty years, the Qatsi series exhibits the power of pure cinema; but it also makes a case for its limits.

Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance

Koyaanisqatsi is a beautiful, accomplished film, and one whose influence has become so pervasive that both Fricke’s photography and Glass’s score have pretty much become a stock footage prototype of what cerebral, abstract filmmaking of the IMAX variety means. Watch or do anything to Glass’s music and it feels profoundly important.

One of the film’s most famous sequences is “The Grid,” which follows New York City as the work day begins. Koyaanisqatsi’s time-lapse capture of the movement of people between consumption, commutation, and industry is one of the starkest and most beautiful portraits of the mechanical flow of capital ever captured onscreen. It’s classic Marxist critique realized perfectly through the juxtaposition of sound and image, illustrating the 20th century end result of an overwhelming industrial logic that makes people products on an assembly line. The idea Reggio illustrates was hardly anything new to 1983 (though it’s a more effective critique of Reaganomics than Wall Street four years later), nor, for that matter, is the way this idea was visualized. Here Reggio continues the legacy of Sergei Eisenstein, employing the juxtaposition of various images to convey a political critique without the use of continuous characters or a stable narrative.

Vertov’s Movie Camera attempted something similar – and, like Koyaanisqatsi, it manifested an abstract yet intricate vision of a modern life infused by media technology. Except here, Reggio’s ideas about global systems and flows that connect people and destroy nature are attended by Glass’s hypnotic and cyclical musical style.

But in showing the supposed depravity, the depthlessness, the loss of the human element in modern life, Reggio, Fricke, and Glass combine their powers to construct images of mesmerizing beauty. The same was true, of course, of films by Vertov and Leger, but with Koyaanisqatsi, this beauty seems to threaten Reggio’s argument. How can we critique the loss of nature when we’re asked to view human innovation realized in such a mesmerizing way? Doesn’t the majesty and spectacle of a space shuttle launch potentially overwhelm the destruction and debris it brings, especially as depicted by a movie that operates purely through aesthetics?

Perhaps this contradiction itself is meaningful enough; in taking a macrocosmic view of modern civilization, Reggio not only asks us to marvel at its seeming impossibility, but feel alienated by how uncanny this whole project of modernity is. However, it’s telling that, in order to see the cracks in the superstructure, Fricke’s lens has to zoom in on a single detail for the film’s concluding shot.

Powaqqatsi: Life in Transformation

Powaqqatsi, in which the subjects of Reggio and Glass’s concern move from the “civilized” West to the “developing” East, is full of beautiful and haunting imagery as was the first film.* But Powaqqatsi is clearly more invested in the microscopic details that accumulate into a larger picture rather than lingering on the larger picture itself. And it’s the details that one comes away from Powaqqatsi with. Rather than a fleet of people moving through Grand Central Station or a fantastic space shuttle launch, the images that will stick in your head after this film will likely be of children: a boy who disappears amongst the debris of a truck on an unpaved road, or a girl steering a horse drawn cart as her father (?) lies exhausted nearby.

But in focusing on the particular rather than the general, the political intents of Reggio’s work begin to fall apart.

While the subject matter is notably different, as in Koyaanisqatsi, editing is utilized in Powaqqatsi to convey sameness, uniformity, and a loss of humanity. It’s strange that these same strategies are used to convey the humanity and authenticity of “native” societies. In exploring the cultural practices between peoples, cultures, and communities of Latin America, Africa, The Middle East, and Southeast Asia, Reggio both erases and exaggerates difference: the film sees no cultural specificity to the people of any of these societies; they’re simply “not us” and therefore uncompromised by the ills of modern life (for the first forty-five minutes). Like Koyaanisqatsi, the result is beautiful yet alienating, but likely not the kind that the filmmakers intended. We’re never invited to identify with these world populations, only to observe impeccably photographed conventions of shared “difference” through an Orientalist framework.

Powaqqatsi is profoundly uncritical anthropological filmmaking. Reggio doesn’t seem to see culture and society as always in flux; it either exists in its pure form (represented by agricultural labor) or its compromised form (represented by commerce, industry, and advertising which always only renders people into passive cogs or helpless victims). “Civilization” for Reggio isn’t an ever-evolving construction, but a zero sum game. While the music is, once again, stunning, the result is a far less convincing critique than the first film in that Reggio posits a paradise lost not in nature itself, but through an oversimplified construction of the “Third World” filled with fellow humans that – through Reggio, Glass, and cinematographers Leo Zourdoumis and Graham Berry’s* aesthetic distance – we can never possibly know or understand with specificity. What Reggio ultimately says about the negative effects of industrialization and imperial influence on these communities is doubtlessly true, but the way he gets there is unnecessarily simple.

Naqoyqatsi: Life as War

Naqoyqatsi is the only work of the trilogy missing a key member of its artistic triumvirate: Ron Fricke.* In his place is editor Jon Kane, as Naqoyqatsi is a work of assembling existing footage, not of capturing images. In relegating most of his visual material to that which already exists, Reggio creates a fitting apocalyptic end to his three-part journey. Naqoyqatsi presents a world of pure simulacrum, in which all we know is information that we’ve already received through media. There is no “reality” to hold onto, much less capture on film. Instead of the big industrial picture realized by the first film, or the picture of disparity and globalized labor captured in the second, Naqoyqatsi instead investigates a collective subconscious made manifest through the Internet, dehumanized warfare, and wax museums. Reggio wants to show a world no longer composed of things, but rather representations and images of things.

Naqoyqatsi is the least known and least celebrated of the trilogy, likely in part because of the absence of Fricke’s stunning visuals. But while this film is the least striking in terms of aesthetics, it is, strangely enough, the most transparent and straightforward in terms of its politics. It’s admirable that Reggio would finally use ugly visuals to illustrate ugly ideas instead of engaging further in the portrait-ready gestalt of his prior two attempts at Marxist critique.

Fricke later expressed regret that he didn’t shoot Koyaanisqatsi on 70mm (an ever-more-rare format to which he devoted two features, Baraka and Samsara). But Naqoyqatsi is Koyaanisqatsi’s perfect inverse: it’s a film decidedly better experienced on small screens, where the media images recycled here most often exist. These aren’t special effects meant to wow us, but to make us realize how pervasive such images – ranging from crash test dummies to corporate logos to computer interfaces – have become. For the first time in the Qatsi series, we’re asked to be desensitized, not shaken, by montage.

Final Thoughts

While far from perfect, the Qatsi series is an unparalleled and audacious collection of compelling images, sounds, and ideas. While the series demonstrates the vast opportunities and considerable limitations that such a rote purist approach to filmmaking can entail, its uniqueness makes one wonder why – outside of museum-made cinema – there aren’t more films that approach big ideas with such inspired artistry.

Perhaps Reggio has more to say in the future.

*Writer’s Note: Originally, this article incorrectly stated that Ron Fricke was the cinematographer for Powaqqatsi. Leo Zourdoumis and Graham Berry were the cinematographers of Powaqqatsi, and deserve note for their artistic contribution. Nevertheless, it is this author’s opinion that Fricke’s collaboration with Reggio on Koyaanisqatsi had a decisive influence on both the look of Powaqqatsi and Fricke’s later directorial work.

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