Written for TurnerClassicMovies.com
Godfrey Reggio, director of the films in the Qatsi trilogy, has a commanding presence that doesn’t show up on video or over the phone. He has a commanding voice to match. When he spoke at the University of Colorado in September 2003, he refused to use a microphone, instead choosing to let his booming baritone wash over the capacity crowd.
The appreciative audience applauded him when said that computers were remaking the world in their own image, and they cheered when he said he vowed never to work at a regular job. He even drew laughs from the crowd. He said that when he went to Italy, one of the locals told him that “Koyaansqatsi,” in Italian, meant “cock and balls.”
His impact was most visible, however, on the individual faces in the crowd. In the lobby after a dinner attended by Reggio and some CU students, one young man looked as though he was ready to take on the world. Nearly glowing, he said to a friend “I just had dinner with Godfrey Reggio. He said ‘Don’t let your diploma be your death certificate.’”
After he spoke, Reggio showed his own personal 35mm print of Koyaanisqatsi, a rare treat, since the restoration he’s overseeing won’t be complete for another year or two.
For the uninitiated, Koyaanisqatsi and its sequels, Powaqqatsi and Naqoyqatsi, 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 [watch] 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.
Reggio spoke as much about his philosophy as his movies. “I 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.”
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.”
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.”
Since then, Reggio has become a magician himself, touching audiences with his Qatsi movies for 25 years.
Reggio brought with him a lesser-known 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.”
There was more than a decade between when the LaserDisc of Koyaanisqatsi went out of print and the DVD was released. It was a long decade for fans of the Qatsi movies, when even the art-house theaters couldn’t find anything better than a 16mm print. “There was a big legal fight, yes,” says Reggio. “The films had been bought and sold by a number of companies.”
Reggio said his primary interest was that the films “be presented in the clearest and best possible way, given the medium. Many times shortcuts were taken by the owner of the distribution rights of the films, and they were not reproduced properly so we felt it shortchanged the audience. Now that it’s rectified I’m happy to say that Naqoyqatsi will come out on DVD this October. And also the films will be available, I would imagine, in a box set in 2004.”
Reggio spoke about his most recent movie, which is radically different from the first two films. “The ‘locations’ for Naqoyqatsi are themselves images. The subject is unrelentingly the iconic. What that does is the following. Instead of recomposing the image that comes to us through the cropping the image... if I put any format into 16:9, it recomposes the image without losing any information, in fact it increases the information on the screen. There’s more light and darkness. Even Breugel got put through the grinder,” says Reggio, referring to a distorted version of the Flemish master’s painting The Tower of Babel that opens the film.