Arrow Films have released Godfrey Reggio’s first two classic films Koyaanisqatsi and Powaqqatsi together on Blu Ray for the first time. Gorgeous-looking films such as these could well be what the format was invented for.
In characteristic Arrow style, the release comes with a wealth of extras. These include: a whopping 72-page booklet, featuring a number of essays and a collection of contemporary reviews, as well as filmed interviews with Reggio and composer Philip Glass, and the director’s 1992 short Anima Mundi. All this is very much welcome as neither film contains a single word of dialogue and you could quite easily end up wondering what they are all about.
Firstly, the names. Both films have been given names in the language of the Hopi people of the Southwestern United States. Qatsi means life, and Koyaanis means craziness or turmoil, while powaq means sorcerer. So, Koyaanisqatsi translates as a life out of balance, and Powaqqatsi means life in transformation, which are also the subtitles of each film. The first film came out in 1982 and looks at America. Powaqqatsi came out in 1988 and focuses on the developing world.
Both films present an extended montage of the natural and human worlds, set to pulsing, rhythmic music by Philip Glass. Koyaanisqatsi starts with a stunning sequence of images of the natural world, often out in the deserts of the South Western USA. The colours and textures are rich, both landscapes and individual features form intricate patterns. Koyaanisqatsi was filmed by Ron Fricke, who went on to make the gorgeous montage films Baraka and Samsara. The film takes its time, lingering over the almost abstract beauty of the desert, yet there is a sense of anticipation. Something seems to be brewing out of this vibrating, bubbling concoction of images.
It is humanity that we are waiting to see. When, after almost 25 minutes, we are finally introduced to people, the film becomes more emotionally complex. Cities – beautiful, wasteful, diverse, cruel and unequal, and ultimately the site of so much of the richness of human activity. Sometimes Reggio’s camera looks down from above (well, from a helicopter) at the folly of humanity trapped in office blocks and traffic jams. This is balanced by catching people close up, often staring straight into the camera somewhat similar to a Bill Viola video installation.
Powaqqatsi begins in the Brazilian open cast gold mine Serra Palada made famous in Sebastião Salgado’s photographs. Thousands of men slathered in blue mud, carry bags filled with ore up a slippery maze of paths to the top of a vast crater. Here, as well as the despoliation of nature, Reggio seems to be focussing on human suffering. The film takes a world tour of human toil, sometimes shocking and at others beautiful. We see the strange beauty of crowds, high rise buildings, religious ritual (even circuit boards) – the ballet of ordinary life – and throughout it all faces, faces, faces.
Godfrey Reggio was brought up in a religious household and left home at age 14 to join the Roman Catholic monastic order of Congregation of the Pontifical Brothers. Until the age of 28 he spent his time ministering to Latino gangs in the barrios of New Mexico (so not too far from the Hopi reservation in Arizona). It is easy to see Reggio’s roots as a man of faith in both the meditative and moral force of these films. With its church organs and sonorous chant-like vocals, Philip Glass’s music adds to their liturgical, hypnotic effect.
In an interview with The Guardian Reggio has acknowledged the influence of “one mentor, friend and genius, the Armenian docu-poet Artavazd Peleshyan“. A little known figure, Peleshyan (or Peleshian) started making documentaries in the 60s and coined the term ‘distance montage’ to describe his technique. This is quite a complex concept, but roughly means the montage expands to include the whole film rather than just segments of it, and all images are equally important to the whole. Further, in distance montage sound and image merge to form a sort of synaesthesia where images can be heard and sound seen. This all goes to create what he calls ‘absent images’ in our minds.
The Seasons, Artavazd Pelashyan’s most famous film.
Phew! As director and composer Gary Tarn puts it in his introduction on the Blu Ray, we are “left to draw our own conclusions”. We are indeed, but it is hard not to feel that nature is beautiful and human beings are at once abusers and abused, that life is not just in transition but horribly out of balance. Still, the voyage is beautiful as well as shocking, and possibly something else as well. Quite what that might be, Reggio (and his mentor Pelashyan) would probably not want us to pin down.
Koyaanisqatsi and Powaqqatsi were out on Blu Ray on Monday 12 May, 2014.