November 7, 2012

On a crisp Colorado night in September of 1982, I was walking along the main street of Telluride, where the annual film festival was in full swing. As I approached the outdoor theater—not a theater, really, just a grassy space with a screen hung across the starry night—I heard some incredible music and stopped to look at the movie being projected there.

What I saw was an amazing, mad rush of images: time-lapse photography of clouds scudding across a city skyline, speeded-up shots of escalators vomiting people through a shopping mall, fast-motion images of cars racing over strips of highway like ripples on a snake’s back.

What I was seeing was Koyaanisqatsi, a remarkable film by a man named Godfrey Reggio. Reggio’s non-narrative movie is composed entirely of arresting images and the rhythmic, trance-inducing music of Philip Glass. Koyaanisqatsi—the title is a Hopi Indian word meaning “Life out of balance”—quickly became many things to many people.

It was a touchstone to other filmmakers, including Francis Coppola, whose Rumble Fish was markedly influenced by it. It was the ultimate MTV movie. It was a head trip. It was a New Age lullaby.

Reggio himself simply went out and made the next installment of what he plans as a trilogy, Powaqqatsi, and it is in the same manner as the first film. But in Powaqqatsi Reggio ranges much farther through the world to find his images.

This time more of the movie focuses on the Third World (filming took place in Kenya, India, Egypt, Nepal, Peru, and elsewhere), and Reggio opts for many slow-motion sequences. The most bravura sequence is the opening, as Reggio surveys the slowed-down, dreamlike efforts of workers to haul stones and mud from a quarry (Glass’s music is particularly forceful here).

Again like the first movie, Reggio uses the progression of images to suggest the soullessness of mechanization, as opposed to the simplicity of primitive life. In the Hopi language, Powaqqatsi translates as the sorcerer who lives by consuming other ways of life. Reggio makes his point, but you have to wonder how aware he is of the irony of using ultra-sophisticated film stock and helicopter shots as he glorifies the peasant grinding corn with a rock. And in some ways, Reggio’s films seem to encourage a mindless sensory experience rather than political awareness.

The interesting thing about Reggio’s two movies is that they are larger experiences than either his social concerns or my critical quibbles. Quite simply, Reggio finds ways of looking at things that no one else has seen in exactly this way before: a pink tree alone in a terraced yellow-and-green flower garden, a man lugging a fish as large as he is to market, a child ferociously driving a horse-drawn cart through a street, a Nepalese house perched on what appears to be the top of the world. The mandate of the artist is to show us things anew; at this, Reggio succeeds.

First published in the Herald, April 1988

This one, which never quite matches its opening, was considered a dropping-off from the K-movie. But it looks good next to Reggio’s 2002 film Naqoyqasti, which crossed the line into hectoring.