review by Gregory Avery, 18 October 2002

Naqoyqatsi, the title of Godfrey Reggio's new film, derives from the Hopi and translates, so the film tells us, as either "life as war" or "civilized violence".

And Reggio's film, the third in a trilogy begun with Koyaanisqatsi in 1983 and Powaqqatsi in 1988, is done in the style of the symphonic montage films, such as Berlin, Symphony of a City and Man with a Movie Camera, only utilizing a host of modern technologies (photosonics, thermal videography, laser film processing) to distort images, combine them, or radically degrade or retool them. Reggio gives us a lot, and he's entirely in earnest, even when he asks us to indulge him. There are some risible moments, as well as some images and sequences that are impossible to dismiss outright, especially in endangered times such as these.

The film shows the same fallibility as in Reggio's previous two films, though, in that he tends to favor the decorative quality of images rather than the drama that may be inherent in them.  He cross-cuts footage of the W.T.O. riots in Genoa with P.O.V. footage from violent video games, to genuinely chilling effect; he turns isolated faces engaged in and reacting to (apparent) conversation with each other into something altogether suspect just by the way they're lit and photographed; skydivers jumping out of the back of a plane are multiplied into an endless stream of people who look like they are swarming out into space. We're given sinisterized images of Albert Einstein, and a montage of famous faces -- Arafat, Mandela, Abraham Lincoln, Colin Powell, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Princess Diana, John Paul II -- which turn out to be wax effigies from Madame Tussaud's. (There are also brief appearances in the film by Osama bin Laden, and, at one point, Dolly the sheep.)

But what's the point? There's the obvious: The tyranny of modern technology. The soulless nature of modern society. The adverse effect of modern media. But, like the figures in the closing sequence, Reggio leaves it all spinning in the air. He doesn't provide the solutions to the problems, but wants us to come up with the answers ourselves. (Which was a number of people asked me both before and after the film's screening: "What's this movie about?") But the film doesn't give us enough substance to stimulate thought -- it's in danger of putting itself in the position of simply being one big phantasmagoria that only elicits a big "wow".

When it first came out, Koyaanisqatsi (or, "life out of balance") made an impression by providing super-clear views of unspoiled terrain in the American Southwest that registered with incredible detail, then contrasting it with super-fast footage of people and traffic in modern cities that wasn't blurry but moved with incredible velocity. (Both filmic techniques were subsequently appropriated, and exhausted, by commercial media.) Powaqqatsi (or, "life in transformation") was made up primarily of footage made in Third-World countries, but, as David Denby noted, the film gave only passing regard to people and situations a single one from which another director like Satyajit Ray could have elicited an entire movie. Naqoyqatsi uses original footage shot in London and in the U.S. -- the opening shot, which goes from the "Tower of Babel" by Pieter Brueghel the Elder to an urban building, with broken, gaping windows, located in Detroit---but no single shot in the film registers in the same way as the closing shot for Koyaanisqatsi, where Reggio stretched-out a shot of a fragment of an exploding rocket falling to earth in such a way that it started turning into something else and took on a whole new, wholly unexpected significance while you were watching it, simultaneously causing you to hold your breath to see if the sequence would sustain itself and continue its momentum. (That moment was also greatly aided by Philip Glass' original music; and his score for Naqoyqatsi, while featuring some beautiful, mournful cello solos by Yo-Yo Ma, is, unfortunately, not among his best.)

André Bazin wrote that films can provide a means not only for entertainment but for the audience to define their relationship to the world around them. Naqoyqatsi, and Reggio's previous two films, are a good attempt, a striving attempt, a dedicated attempt, a challenging attempt, and a noble attempt. But it may not be enough to change the world.

Directed by:
Godfrey Reggio

PG - Parental
Guidance Suggested.
Some material may
not be appropriate
for children






  Copyright © 1996-2005 by Nitrate Productions, Inc. All Rights Reserved.