Written for the Colorado Daily
Director Godfrey Reggio is hopeful about his next project. “Always hopeful, because there’s no guarantee. I’m like a freak show at the circus. It depends on if they think my freak act will work if I get the money.”
His “freak show” includes some of the most visionary, groundbreaking work in cinema. Reggio is the man behind the non-narrative films in the Qatsi trilogy, all three of which will show at the International Film Series next week, starting on Wednesday September 24.
Reggio will be visiting Boulder as part of the Conference on World Affairs Atheneum and will appear in person to introduce Koyaanisqatsi on Wednesday. Powaqqatsi and Naqoyqatsi will show on Thursday and Friday, respectively.
The Qatsi Aesthetic
For the uninitiated, Koyaanisqatsi and its sequels are unlike anything you’ve ever seen at the movies. Koyaanisqatsi is what music would look like if music were film. There are no characters and no plot, but there is form and structure. It’s a poetic blend of image and music, arranged to comment on our modern, technological way of life.
“There is the possibility if you do come to this film you’ll have an experience, rather than telling you a story,” says Reggio. “I think Einstein said that ‘fish will be the last to know water.’ My film is premised on the idea, the tragic feeling, that humans will be the last to know Technology. That’s technology with a big T, not all the gadgets that we call technology, but Technology as the very terra firma.”
The word “Koyaanisqatsi” comes from the Hopi language. Reggio said on the recent DVD release that he would have preferred the film not to have a title, just an image. But forced to choose one, he deliberately picked something without any mainstream cultural baggage. The word means, roughly, “crazy life,” “life out of balance,” or “a way of life that requires another way of living.”
Whether or not you appreciate the film’s deeper critique of modern life, anyone can enjoy the form and beauty of the film. The photography is beautiful. Scenes of nature in the first half are surrounded and replaced by scenes of traffic and assembly lines, all sped up through time-lapse photography in the second half. Music by Philip Glass is in turns hypnotic and frenetic, but always appropriate to the composition of the film.
While in Boulder, Reggio will speak as much about his philosophy as his movies. “I think my comments will focus on the new and comprehensive environment, kind of the new pantheon, the new divine. Technology is not something you use, but technology is something you live. Technology is the new terra firma. Also, I’ll ask the audience to seek the darkness, as it were, from the blinding light of technology.”
Reggio’s ideas come from a lifetime of ascetic living. He spent the second fourteen years of his life in a Catholic monastery. “When I was a young man at the age of fourteen I joined the Christian Brothers. I learned something rather remarkable upon all the other things that happened. The most practical thing in life is to be idealistic.”
That may not sound particularly Catholic, but Reggio says it’s universal. “We learned all the esoteric forms of religious practice, which are fairly universal no matter what faith one has — the norms of asceticism, what it is to be in a corporeal state and be able to transcend it. The exoteric forms are quite different, but the esoteric forms are remarkably similar. Remarkably.”
In other words, enlightenment is enlightenment, no matter whose rituals you use to achieve it. “All of those things are amazing to learn and you’re certainly not going to learn them in high school.”
A Dream Called Santa Fe
Moving on from the monastery, Reggio found meaningful work in Santa Fe, NM, where he continues to live. “When I was a Christian Brother one of the vows the brothers take is to teach the poor gratuitously. I was in New Mexico and the poor were abundant. They were 30 or 40 percent of the city at that time. They had no access to primary medical care, et cetera. Instead of acting as a social worker I got the permission of my superiors to work as an organizer rather than as a service provider.”
It was here among the street gangs of Santa Fe that Reggio learned of the power of cinema. “I found, through a friend, a movie by Luis Buñuel called Los Olvidados which was just a very moving experience for me and for most of the gang members that saw this film. I was so moved by it I bought a 16mm copy of it. I was asked to show this print weekly. It had a profound effect on myself and on the gangs. It acted as a medium for a spiritual, or a transcendent, or a poetic experience. It touched our souls rather than entertained us, because somehow it was a mirror of the very life that we were living in the barrios of Santa Fe. It was very powerful, like being touched by a magician.”
Eventually, Reggio got into producing public service announcements, where he met Ron Fricke, the cinematographer who would eventually shoot the first two Qatsi films. But before that would happen, Reggio took a trip to Boulder.
“It was the very early days for me. I went there when Naropa was starting. I went to see Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky. And they actually were willing to do an example of what sound and image could be like. I did it at a studio called North Star which at that time was on Pearl street. That was in 1977.”
This early film by Reggio and Ginsberg still exists, and he may bring it with him to Boulder, along with another short film made in the 1990s called Evidence of Children Watching Television.
“Evidence is a film that I’ve wanted to do for years. In Rome at a little studio of a friend, through volunteers — basically people that responded to Koyaanisqatsi — I put the word out for casting children to come watch television. So this is a film about children watching television.”
“The film itself is an unrelenting look, right into the eyes of children who are watching television, or more properly being watched by the television. We did that through a series of mirrors. These kids appear to be on Prozac or some heavier drug. Their breathing slows down. Their eyes are transfixed. They’re drooling, there’s shallowness of breath. And it’s what goes on nonstop around the globe; an unexamined consequence of our technology, when we’re all concerned about what’s on television rather than the nature of the dynamic involved in technology.”
Maybe Reggio will show Evidence and his early project with Ginsberg next Wednesday, but even if not, the IFS will still be the place to be. Reggio’s introduction and the rare 35mm print of Koyaanisqatsi should be enough to wow any cinephile.