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Godfrey Reggio's genre-defying trilogy explodes in Criterion high-definition...
Criterion / 275 Minutes / 1982-2002 / Unrated / Street Date: December 11, 2012
What is Koyaanisqatsi? The word itself comes for the Hopi language meaning "life out of balance." Godfrey Reggio's film - and its two follow-ups, Powaqqatsi and Naqoyqatsi - are a collision of images, elaborate wordless montages depicting the flow of modern life. From the beautiful austerity of the desert to the frantic bustle of the city, the camera has a way of capturing patterns in nature and human life, transforming familiar objects and scenes before our eyes, and forcing us to question how we think of them. Seen in time-lapse, the movement of traffic through busy streets becomes an arterial flow of blood; clouds roll and crash like waves in the ocean; a satellite view of Earth changes into a computer chip. It's like opening your eyes fresh to the world for the first time. It is haunting, majestic, riveting, intoxicating.
Reggio has a message to all of this, about the advance of technology onto nature. He sees it as an intrusion, a conflict. Unfortunately, he is not a very subtle filmmaker in this regard and parts of The Qatsi Trilogy can be terribly preachy. Although some images are undeniably powerful, as when we see sunbathers relaxing on a beach in front of a power plant, at other times his juxtaposition of man and nature is just too heavy-handed.
What redeems these films is the fact that Reggio also seems intent on celebrating man and his achievements while criticizing them. He shows the beauty and ugliness of both sides of his issue, and through many scenes of ugliness transforming into beauty (car tail lights at night blur into a lovely abstract painting of colors and shapes) he leaves just enough ambiguity that the message hardly ever becomes too tiresome. Some injections of sublime humor, such as the marvelous sequences set in hot dog and Twinkie factories, also liven up the proceedings.
Of course, what people most remember about the films are Philip Glass' remarkable scores. Mixes of driving electronic rhythms and full-blown orchestral compositions blending seamlessly into one another, Glass' music is melodic, hypnotic, playful at times (some scenes evoke a wonderful fairy tale mood), and bombastic at others. It gives life to the images and is utterly unforgettable.
The Qatsi Trilogy has a deliberately slow build until, by the end of Naqoyqatsi, it explodes in an orgasmic frenzy. The scenes that have always left the biggest impression on me, however, are those that capture people's faces in slow motion. Without word or dialogue, the camera picks individuals out of large crowds and provides them with distinction and personality. A simple face of a random stranger has rarely been so compelling. That is the power of these films - their ability to surprise us with those things that we most take for granted.