After a decade in legal limbo, the first two films in the acclaimed Qatsi trilogy are available on home video. Not only are they available but they are available in their original widescreen format for the first time ever on home video.
I’ve been a big fan of the series ever since I saw Koyaanisqatsi at the Marquee in Boulder back in the eighties. Later I bought a copy of the movie on VHS, and later still on LaserDisc, both of which went quickly out of print. As for Powaqqatsi, it played for exactly one week in Boulder at the Arapaho Village 4 theater, and then it vanished. It was available on video for a very short time, and then it too went out of print and was only available to collectors.
So today is a great day for me and the handful of loyal fans who have been waiting eagerly for a proper video presentation, not to mention the promised third film in the trilogy (due out in theaters later this fall).
- Interviews with director and composer
- Trailers for all three films in the trilogy
Koyaanisqatsi is among my all-time favorite movies. Made in 1983 by Godfrey Reggio and Ron Fricke, it was the first film of its kind: a commercial-length non-narrative film consisting only of stunning photography and a brilliant score composed for the film.
Koyaanisqatsi is non-narrative; there is no story and there are no actors. That’s not to say that the film is without structure. In fact, Koyaanisqatsi has a very clear structure, and that’s what makes it so good. It is what music would look like if music were film.
The film has three distinct acts. The first is a picture of a pure, rugged planet, unmarred by complex life. Philip Glass’s music matches the visuals with a slow repetitive drone; somber voices chant the film’s title while lonely flutes and horns form simple, drawn-out melodies
The second act sneaks up on the first. The once-pure landscape becomes invaded by machines and buildings, slowly and one at a time. Soon there are shots of buildings, cars, and airplanes, all interacting with the natural landscape.
In the third act, the landscape is forgotten; only the hustle and bustle of the cities gets the camera’s attention. Fricke’s camera catches crowds collectively. The action is sped up so that human forms take on an ant-like sense of purpose. The small human figures move about instinctively, working in factories, standing in lines, traveling from A to B.
People pour through a train station as neat and orderly as hot dogs through a production line. Meanwhile, cars zip through the city, their corpuscle taillights coursing through the arteries of the city’s streets. Everything keeps moving faster and faster as Glass’s music — the same repetitive notes but now frantic and frenetic instead of calming and relaxing — builds to an unstoppable pace.
Only at the end does the film explain the title; it is a Hopi word meaning life out of balance; crazy life; a way of life that calls for another way of living. The film’s stated message, that modern culture calls for another way of living, is somewhat convincing, although it doesn’t seem to be the most important achievement of Koyaanisqatsi. What makes this film great is its structure, the fact that photography, editing and music alone can combine to form an epic, 90-minute composition that coheres and makes sense.
The “sequel” to Koyaanisqatsi also has a translatable title. “Powaqqatsi” is shortened to “life in transformation” on the cover, but the longer translation is “a way of life that consumes the life forces of other beings in order to further its own life.”
Powaqqatsi is also non-narrative. It too has a structure, but one that’s not so clear. Its structure is more subtle and hard to find, although I think, after four or five viewings, I finally get it.
Where Koyaanisqatsi uses a lot of footage from New York and Los Angeles Powaqqatsi travels to Third World countries to capture images of both noble beauty and also crushing poverty.
The film opens on a long distance, slow motion shot of muddy human figures carrying sacks of dirt to the top of a hill. The hill is swarming with these men, looking like a hive of ants. That we can’t understand why these people would need to haul mud in wet bags up a hill only emphasizes the foreign-ness of the situation. At the end of a sequence, an exhausted body is carried off by four other men. Again, it looks like an ant hill, with four drones carrying a carcass off to the garbage pile of the hive.
Already the film has started to make its point — that the individual is consumed for the sake of the hive. And after this opening sequence, the film begins in earnest.
Early scenes in the film show the nobility of work. Tribal people carry straw or hay or water in ones or twos or threes. As more people come together, simple settlements, culture and agriculture spring up. There are adobe dwellings, celebratory dances, and beautifully terraced plots of land.
As the movie progresses, it moves more and more toward city life. There are fewer ones and twos and more and more crowds. People still labor with burdens of water or hay, but the nobility is gone. They are no longer working for their own survival, but as wage slaves in a larger economy.
One of the most striking images in the film is of a young person — it could be either a boy or a girl — with wild hair and dirty, raggedy clothes, driving a cart. An adult sits on the seat next to the child, but limp, as though dead or sick or drunk. The cart is harried by cars and trucks trying to get around it. Meanwhile, the child uses what looks like a stalk of corn or bamboo to savagely beat the donkey pulling the cart.
Here is a child, still living with primitive clothes and tools, caught in the middle of a new urban reality without even the support of parents or family, left entirely to fend for himself, and taking it out on the one creature lower than him in the hierarchy — his donkey.
The music is better in Powaqqatsi than in Koyannisqatsi. It is more mature, and it now has a worldwide flair to it. Glass uses Islamic-sounding wailing voices, whistles, drums and other nontraditional orchestral instruments, all highlighting the droning orchestral score.
Until recently, I would have said Powaqqatsi was worth seeing, if only for the music and spectacle. But now, having finally gotten the form and message for the first time, I recommend it just as strongly as Koyaanisqatsi, particularly on DVD with its rich and vivid presentation of color and sound.
Picture and Sound
The new MGM DVDs are the best way to see first two Qatsi films, unless you have access to Reggio’s vault. And yet, I’m disappointed with both the picture and the sound on these two discs. These new discs do not deserve to be called “definitive” editions. Maybe in another 20 years, someone else will do them right.
Both movies are presented in a letterboxed 1.85:1 format. I am pleased, because until now, the only choice viewers had was a full-frame version. But a few years ago, studios were releasing discs with two versions of the film: widescreen on one side and full frame on the other.
I really wish MGM had done so with the Qatsis, because the widescreen effect is achieved with a matting technique. If the films had been shot anamorphically, the entire image would be a wide rectangle. To only show a TV-shaped square would be to cut off the left and right sides. But the Qatsi films were not shot anamporhically, and so part of the full-frame picture is actually covered up by black bars on these DVDs.
Presenting the movies with both full-frame and widescreen versions would have been the best solution for true afficionados like me. MGM has done this before, putting one version on side A and the other version on side B. But this time, they only give us the widescreen version.
An avid listener to the Qatsi soundtracks, I’m disappointed by the sound on the Koyaanisqatsi DVD. Too much signal is sent to the rear and not enough is sent to the front speaker. Over the crumbling buildings, when french horns are playing against synthesizer, the synthesizer is brought way up and the horns are almost indistinguishable. Compare that to my soundtrack CD or to my LaserDisc, where the horns sound crisp and bright, balancing the synthesizer instead of being drowned by it.
Other people in the room who had never seen the movie before were not distracted by it. They probably think Glass uses orchestra as a backup for his synthesizer, instead of integrating the sounds. But for a long-time fan and snob like me, the sound on Koyaanisqatsi is an unfortunate mistake.
It’s unlikely that my amplifier is out of calibration because Powaqqatsi sounded fine. In fact, it sounded great. There was no LaserDisc edition of Powaqqatsi, and the best I had been able to muster was a monaural videotape. On DVD, the sound was beautiful, and not significantly different from my soundtrack CD.
Each of the two discs contains a trailer for Naqoyqatsi, the long awaited third film in the trilogy, due out in October or November. The novelty of this extra will wear off eventually, but between now and the release of Naqoyqati, it’s one of the most exciting extras.
Each disc also has a feature called “Essence of Life,” a short documentary featuring interviews with Reggio and Glass about the movie. The Koyaanisqatsi documentary is a little longer, and it has great insight into the origins of the series. The Powaqqatsi documentary is shorter, and it offers good insight into the shape of trilogy — the differences and similarities between the first two movies and third one to come.
I wish the DVDs had had an “Essence of Life” documentary on the third film, but I suppose I’ll have to wait until it’s on DVD.
If there had been another edition of these movies on DVD, the new MGM releases might have proven to be something of a disappointment. In particular, the soundtrack for Koyaanisqatsi counts heavily against it.
But because the VHS and LaserDisc versions of these films have been out of print for so long, any new release is welcome. And because DVD offers such a clear, vivid, and rich experience, both visually and aurally, this first DVD edition of the first two Qatsi movies is an exciting moment in Qatsi history.