The Qatsi Trilogy

There’s nothing quite like Koyaanisqatsi. Some six or seven years in the making, the mid-1980s arthouse favorite was a genuine screen spectacle that gave audiences a taste of the avant-garde and elevated Philip Glass to the status of popular musician. It’s the 1970s brainchild of Godfrey Reggio, a progressive activist and community organizer who lived in New Mexico and took a dim view of industrialization in general and the information revolution in particular. Accordingly, it exalts the natural landscape, recoils from the computer-chip gridwork of the modern city, and wallows piteously in the human condition.


Although it’s often described as a non-narrative film, that’s not really correct. Koyaanisqatsi is partly a work of collage, assembling several types of disparate material into a cohesive whole, but that doesn’t mean it lacks a story. There is original cinematography, mainly including picturesque helicopter shots of the American Southwest, time-lapse city photography, and candid footage shot on the streets of New York. Those shots are interspersed with stock footage from the NASA archives, the U.S. Geological Survey, and elsewhere, as well as the occasional image snatched from a TV screen. All of these component parts are assembled in a way that breaks the film into several “movements,” to borrow the obvious term from musical composition, and they’re set to a similarly structured score by Glass. (The film was sometimes billed on the festival circuit as Koyaanisqatsi: Concerto for Film and Orchestra.)

Koyaanisqatsi‘s narrative leads from the birth of civilization (symbolized in the opening image of millennia-old pictographs in Horseshoe Canyon, which precedes a close-up of the Saturn V rocket from the Apollo 12 mission lifting off) through the growth of industry (smokestacks, power lines, military hardware), cities (aerial views of urban decay followed by time-lapse shots of people and automobiles, shuffling through their lives like so many assembly-line cakes and hot dogs), and the adoption of modern technology (overhead views of city gridwork are juxtaposed with close-ups of microchips), followed by a mournful fall from grace that recapitulates the opening sequence (a rocket, launched into the air, explodes and its pieces tumble earthward). More pictographs are shown and a title at the very end explains that Koyaanisqatsi is a Hopi word with several shades of meaning, one of them “a state of life that calls for another way of living.”

Even without that morsel on the table, it’s difficult to miss the point of the film, which opens with a survey of unspoiled landscape in Reggio’s backyard–New Mexico, Utah, Nevada. We’re about a quarter of the way into the running time before a human being is seen, and Man arrives in this desert paradise driving a coal truck and accompanied by a thick cloud of black dust that almost immediately obliterates the evidence of his existence as he dumps his load. Electrical towers and power lines stretch across the desert landscape, recalling the human shapes of those desert pictographs, and smokestacks jut up from the painted earth in apparent mimicry of the stone towers of Monument Valley. Mushroom-cloud explosions remind us who the destroyer of worlds actually is. The images themselves are often striking, though their assemblage here doesn’t have much of a rhythm of its own. But when they’re carried aloft on the pulsing strength of the dominating musical score, the combination occasionally approaches the sublime.

Part of Koyaanisqatsi‘s appeal has always been that it’s a fun film to describe. You can call it a nonfiction film, but that doesn’t convey Reggio’s zealousness as a commentator. These days, it might be pigeonholed as an “issue documentary,” in line with other nonfiction films that urge straight-up political action, but that exaggerates its specificity. It’s not quite an essay film, at least not in the same way that Sans soleil, with its meditative voiceover and rigorous intellectual inquiry, is an essay film. Some have described it admiringly as a nonverbal film, and that may get closer to the gist of Koyaanisqatsi‘s sound-and-vision attack. But that term tends to overstates the case for the film’s uniqueness, coming as it often does from people who consider Koyaanisqatsi to be the first film of its type.

That’s the annoying thing about Koyaanisqatsi–its fans tend to mis-identify it as an innovation in form, discounting its famous nonverbal progenitors, Berlin: Symphony of a Great City and Man with a Movie Camera, films that exhibit a prodigious and playfulness missing from the serious and single-minded Koyaanisqatsi. It lacks the enduring journalistic value of a Frederick Wiseman documentary, or the appeal to truth of direct cinema and cinéma vérité. And Reggio never exhibits the wit of found-footage artist Bruce Conner or the structuralist rigor of Ernie Gehr and Hollis Frampton, nor does he share anything like the Romantic sensibility of Stan Brakhage. Reggio’s shtick is to highlight contrasts, and he does catch some pretty good ones. I’ve always been fond of the telephoto shot–it immediately follows the mushroom clouds I mentioned above–of beachgoers who are revealed, as the camera zooms back, to be sunbathing in the shadow of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station in California. That’s about as close as Koyaanisqatsi comes to exhibiting a sense of gallows humour appropriate to its subject matter. The rest of the film is pretty straight-faced, though there’s a bit of a smirk in its comparison of the daily rush of New York commuters up and down escalators and through narrow corridors to the journeys of plump little Oscar Mayer wieners on their way through the sausage-making machinery. (The similar shots of Twinkies being made tend to provoke little gasps of delight from cinema audiences who grew up eating the oily, spongy things.)

That’s not to say it’s inconsequential or disposable. On the contrary, Koyaanisqatsi has proven to be one of the most influential films of its era. Unfortunately for Reggio, it hasn’t increased consciousness about environmental matters so much as raised the bar for slick time-lapse and other kinds of landscape photography. It’s a landmark in scenery porn. And the film’s score also endures. While Glass takes a lot of crap for the allegedly repetitive nature of his music (his compositions sometimes feel like they could have been written with the aid of a pocket calculator), Koyaanisqatsi is an arresting marriage of sound and vision from its opening minutes, when the roiling fire of a rocket engine igniting in slow motion, ice tumbling languidly down the screen like a strange new kind of weather, is set to a passacaglia for organ with a basso profundo vocalist intoning the film’s title over and over as mournful arpeggios begin to echo through the higher registers. The music ebbs and flows through the film’s running time, swelling to portentous, monster-movie proportions in the section depicting the razing of the Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St. Louis, then becoming a layered, ever-more-frantic accompaniment to images of postal workers, supermarket checkout lines, videogame players, bowlers, and even (another sideways wink) moviegoers.

The image isn’t cut slavishly to sound, though there are exceptions. The movie’s conceptual climax comes a little more than an hour in, when Glass’s score drops out completely, replaced by a quiet drone, just before a distant overhead shot of an unnamed city’s gridwork dissolves into close-ups of a computer chip, underlining what Reggio clearly believes are eerie visual similarities. (It plays as an answer film to “Organism,” the 1975 short film from director Hilary Harris that used very similar time-lapse images of New York backed by electronic music to compare the city, perhaps more flatteringly, to a biological organism. Surprisingly, Reggio says he didn’t see “Organism” until late in the production of Koyaanisqatsi, when he hired Harris as a cinematographer and even licensed some footage from “Organism” for his own film.) From there, Koyaanisqatsi becomes darker, stacking the deck against city life by focusing on similarly dressed businessmen jam-packing an elevator, documenting disorder in the streets during the New York blackout of 1977, and showing the floor of the New York stock exchange as populated by indifferent double-exposure ghosts. It’s in this section that the film hits its low point, during a portrait montage of New Yorkers on Manhattan streets. We see one gent incongruously shaving himself with a green disposable razor and a well-dressed woman grinning at the camera as she strides by at pace, followed by a remarkable shot of a man, apparently homeless, with the saddest face on earth. But when this fellow turns to face the camera, it’s synchronized perfectly with the entrance of choir voices on the soundtrack, which cheapens the moment considerably–and draws unwelcome attention to the crudely manipulative nature of Reggio’s project. I winced, and not because the film was affecting me emotionally.

I find it impossible however, not to regard Koyaanisqatsi with some degree of awe, not least for its indelible finale, which includes a single shot, more than three minutes in length, depicting the ill-fated launch of a rocket that explodes in the sky. The camera tracks the path of its debris, settling on a single, slowly tumbling chunk of metal that spins gently, in sympathy with the harmonizing organ arpeggios and rumbling incantations that have returned to dominate the film’s now crushingly sorrowful audio track. HUMAN FAIL.

Ironically enough, Koyaanisqatsi‘s look is technology-driven. The primary DP, Ron Fricke, is an inveterate gearhead who designed the film’s complicated double-exposures and built his own camera-control equipment to pan and tilt at precise speeds in between the frames of time-lapse shots and to finesse the delicate motions required to keep the body of a Boeing 747 at Los Angeles airport in frame through the impossibly narrow viewing angle of a 1000mm (!) lens. It’s not Reggio’s fault, necessarily, that, as the 1980s dragged on, his film got a reputation as a stoner classic–a mind-expanding thrill-ride for a crowd that was too self-conscious to be caught waiting in line for Laser Floyd at the local planetarium. Reggio’s sociopolitical ambitions inspired visuals so extravagant that they meshed well with the glossy commercial sensibilities of their decade, subsuming the 1970s-style environmental consciousness that originally inspired its making.

For Powaqqatsi, Reggio took a different approach. Rather than shooting in the U.S., he made his subject the emerging economies of developing nations. The film’s opening sequence is its most arresting. Philip Glass seems to be having a blast, announcing himself with a shrill whistle that sings out before the first image even appears. The soundtrack comes to life with Brazilian drums beating and horns blaring in urgent staccato patterns. Once the children’s choir pipes up, we’re a world away from the solemn, mesmerizing Koyaanisqatsi score. Interestingly, and a bit jarringly, this music plays in counterpoint to images of hundreds (thousands? Tens of thousands?) of Brazilian labourers hauling bags full of ore up the steep cliff face of the Sierra Pelada gold mine. Like much of the film, most of these images are overcranked so that the men are moving in majestic slow-motion. The visuals suggest the famous monochromatic photographs of the Sierra Pelada miners by Sebastiao Salgado: unsettling snapshots of back-breaking work on a mammoth scale. But Powaqqatsi‘s celebratory, almost jubilant score makes the scenes play more like Leni Riefenstahl’s celebrations of human athletic achievement in Olympia. In this context, Reggio’s sentiment feels uncomfortably like poverty tourism (these people! their labours! their noble souls!) writ in 35mm on the big screen. I experimented by watching the picture from Powaqqatsi accompanied by the music from the previous film, which transformed the scene radically from “Heigh-Ho” to industrial hellscape.

Powaqqatsi posits its own dualities, comparing the traditional lives of various cultures with the aggressive modernization that’s clone-brushing vulgar SimCity apartment blocks across the landscape of cities like so many oversized Legos. Powaqqatsi spends about 45 minutes outside the cities of Brazil, Egypt, India, and elsewhere, marvelling at the scale, precision, and choreography of physical labour (mining, farming, fishing) and the cultural traditions that sometimes go hand in hand with poverty and hard work. Then, after a transitional shot depicting a freight train zooming past the camera for more than a full minute of screentime, Powaqqatsi takes to the city streets, beginning with soaring overhead shots that explicitly recall Koyaanisqatsi‘s city views. It’s here that the score most strongly echoes the previous film, as Reggio’s camera tilts slowly up the metal body of an antenna tower, occasioning a montage of found commercial footage from the 1980s–some of it superficially multicultural and some of it authentically so, smiling faces pushing makeup, cars, toys, bubblegum, you name it, in a variety of languages. (The Pope appears in this section of the film. David Brinkley and Christie Brinkley, too.) This sequence culminates in vaguely menacing fashion with animated diagrams of a computer network, before segueing to a slow pan across what appears to be a never-ending series of huge, blank apartment building façades.

Reggio’s time in all these locations pays some dividends as a photo project. There’s one shot from the film’s final passages showing a little girl riding in a donkey-drawn cart through the streets of Cairo. Her father (?) is all but passed out beside her, and she is just whipping the hell out of her animals and looking like she is about to cry. It’s a powerful moment. Alas, denied any supporting information about the girl or her circumstances, what are we supposed to do with this? It’s stimulating like pornography is stimulating, inspiring an immediate, almost involuntary reaction that leaves us secure in our capacity for empathy without teaching us one goddamned thing about how that girl’s world really works. Worse, Reggio seems to have decided at some point that his talent lies in portraiture, and Powaqqatsi brims with images of the dignified destitute, either glaring at the camera or simply staring at it in apparent unabashed wonder. If you’ve ever felt that what you need from the cinema is more close-ups of anonymous but adorable children casting their doe-eyed gazes in your direction, then boy, does Reggio have your number. Otherwise, it’s cloying. (At least when Sally Struthers pulled this shit, she was collecting money for the cause.)

The music is again mostly excellent. Creating a symphony of international styles, Glass leverages culturally specific instrumentation and vocalizations to honour various musical traditions, but the soundtrack still comes off in part as a gloss on real traditions, like a high-end Putumayo compilation. It’s interesting to consider the Powaqqatsi that might have been, made in collaboration with local musicians from the cultures depicted who, frankly, could probably use the publicity. Anyway, given Koyaanisqatsi‘s grim critique of the U.S., Powaqqatsi‘s ambition as an inspirational feel-good picture about other cultures feels simplistic.

But there’s nothing inspiring about Naqoyqatsi, the third instalment of the “Qatsi Trilogy” and a genuinely bad film. A brief introductory segment has a virtual camera zooming in slowly on a version of Bruegel’s 16th century painting The “Little” Tower of Babel, given 3D depth cues by visual-effects software. We’re back in Koyaanisqatsi territory as an aerial camera affords us spectacular views of the abandoned Michigan Central Station in Detroit, with its Beaux Arts architecture. (Both structures resemble the Roman Coliseum.) So far, so good. The footage is striking. Then something odd happens–as the camera pulls back slowly from the train station, the image suddenly seems to separate into separate planes that dip away from the camera, creating an impossible perspective. And it’s here, as we dissolve to grainy footage of ocean waves and more time lapses, that Reggio’s vision goes off the rails.

A computer-generated mountain rises from computer-generated soil, perhaps shoved upward by computer-simulated tectonic forces. Crowds of people are seen walking past the camera in thermographic footage that simultaneously highlights and obscures facial features and makes everyone look a little like the aliens from They Live. The screen fills again and again with computer-animated symbols, including letters from different alphabets, corporate logos, and denotations of political and philosophical systems. Rolling water is tinted green and overlaid, Matrix-style, with streams of zeroes and ones. Paintings are made to liquefy and morph from one into another. Footage of the Brooklyn Bridge is treated with what looks like a mosaic filter from a Photoshop 101 class. Grainy footage of street violence is captured from TV screens, looped, and further manipulated through solarization and other image-degradation techniques. And so on and on and on.

The problem isn’t so much that Reggio lacks ideas–he has plenty of ’em, many of them to do with language and the new iconography that has replaced it–but that they’re not expressed in interesting or engaging ways. The digitally manipulated images he’s chosen to convey them are unremittingly ugly. The CG techniques look helplessly primitive. The majority of Naqoyqatsi comprises overly familiar stock footage, much of it drawn from crappy looking standard-definition video sources. And Reggio’s decision to digitally tweak the majority of his found footage, using solarization techniques, color shifts, and other psychedelic tweaks to even more heinously imbalance this material, is disastrous. I note that reviewers of the theatrical release generally applauded the film’s visuals, so maybe this material is way more impressive when projected from 35mm film on a big screen. At home, Naqoyqatsi is a headache.

Worse than the rampant employment of pathetically lo-res sources–I’d go so far as to call it bafflingly obtuse–is the decision to distort nearly every piece of footage in the film, stretching it out from the 4×3 aspect ratio most of the stock footage originated at to the 16×9 aspect of HDTV, a process that turns circles into ovals, makes people look shorter and fatter than usual, and even widens the letters in the familiar Miramax logo that opens the film. (Interestingly, both the Criterion “C” and the Lionsgate logo are presented correctly, avoiding this indignity.) The CGI footage suffers, too, the yin-yang symbol, various corporate logos, and even the Bruegel stretched out of their normal proportions. It looks for all the world like a mistake, or simply an expression of laziness, but it’s apparently a deliberate decision. Certainly the Criterion release would have offered an exceptional opportunity for Reggio to correct the framing, if he so desired, but the disc case only confirms the 1.78:1 ratio. As far as I’m concerned, Reggio is demonstrating a fundamental lack of respect for the images he’s appropriated, as well as for the audience he expects to decode them. Watching Naqoyqatsi this way made me feel like I was standing in a Best Buy showroom seeing video that had been maladjusted by a shiftless stock boy, and I just wanted to get out. Parts of the film I replayed at 4×3 were much easier to parse. If only I were willing to watch this movie again, ever…

The magisterial Philip Glass score, featuring contributions from Yo-Yo Ma on solo cello, is probably the least distinctive of the three, but it’s still interesting and complex. That means Naqoyqatsi has, as Jonathan Rosenbaum might say, a redeeming facet. Mostly, it’s a baffling cavalcade of unearned heaviosity. I wish Reggio were more of a jester and less of a scold. There is one terrific moment in Naqoyqatsi, and it comes during a section of the film where he seems to be complaining in part about the perniciousness of corporate-controlled media. A woman, made up for television, spends a little too much quality time with a fast-food sandwich, grinning vacuously at the camera before finally touching the sad thing to her lips and pretending to take a bite, eyes rolling upward in feigned ecstasy. It’s a ridiculous, extended charade, its absurdity highlighted by the soaring choral voices of the Glass score that climax as she smacks her lips, condemning the image by exalting it. More reliably, Reggio’s human horror show finally crowds out both humor and beauty in favour of an assaultive, whirlwind cavalcade of misery. Did I mention Powaqqatsi‘s poverty tourism? It’s nothing compared to the punishing images of violence and suffering Reggio appropriates here to support his thesis that people suck, now more than ever. With its insistent lack of faith in science, technology, and humanity itself, Naqoyqatsi is an annoying, aggressive, and depressing capper to the Qatsi trilogy. It’ll leave your optic nerve throbbing.

THE BLU-RAY DISC

The Qatsi Trilogy arrives on Criterion Blu-ray in a three-disc set that presents each title in the best possible light. The first disc contains Koyaanisqatsi, transferred in 1.85:1/1080p at a generous bitrate of 37 Mbps, adequate to accurately render the soft grain of the 35mm source material as well as the coarser textures of the 16mm elements, such as the Pruitt-Igoe footage and a portion of the New York street photography towards the end of the film. The lower-quality source material causes an apparent though not terribly distracting drop in detail. (The liner notes make no mention of the 16mm footage or the stock elements, claiming only that the 35mm camera negative was scanned at 2K.) There is no evidence of aggressive degraining or noise-reduction and there is plenty of dynamic range, with the generally medium-contrast picture retaining lots of detail in the shadows of urban canyons as well as the highlights of sunlit skies. The original four-track Dolby mix has been remastered for 5.1 DTS-HD MA, and the result is a strong, involving soundfield that keeps all speakers firing. Reverb and ambient effects are directed to the surrounds and there’s enough deep bass to keep your room humming.

Powaqqatsi is the most conventionally handsome of the three films on Blu-ray. The picture itself was shot on all-35mm stock and has a finer grain pattern that translates to smooth, richly-saturated, highly detailed 1.85:1, 1080p images. Colors are strong and bright, except where bits of drab footage sourced from standard-definition video were incorporated. Overall contrast is probably a little higher than in Koyaanisqatsi, but highlight details still hold when the camera points skyward and the image stands up well in the shadows, where a dusting of film grain is still visible. Sound quality is exceptional, with lots of low-end rumble, detailed separation of the various instruments in the mid-range, and a lively high-end that never grates, even at reference levels. As far as the 5.1 DTS-HD MA mix goes, this one isn’t especially directional, though it is room-filling, with information again directed to the surrounds. I thought I heard some percussion directed to a rear channel, but when I stuck my ear up to the speaker to check, it turned out that the drum had simply been panned hard to one side. Enough of an echo was coming from the left surround that I was tricked into hearing it with even greater separation. However, some elements, like the children’s voices, do have a stronger presence in the rear soundstage.

The picture quality of Naqoyqatsi is tougher to judge. According to the liner notes, “about 30 percent” of the film was shot on 35mm and scanned from camera negative, and I assume that’s the stuff that looks quite good–the opening shots of Michigan Central Station, the slo-mo black-and-white portraits, the footage of Madame Tussaud’s wax models of world leaders later on. Nearly everything else in the film seems to have originated at NTSC or PAL resolutions. Jagged edges are abundant. The shot of the woman and her sandwich has some strange artifacting going on in the spots where strands of her hair move to and fro in front of the blurry background, and I can’t tell if those are Blu-ray compression issues, remnants of some kind of digital treatment applied to the source, or another kind of artifact baked into the picture during post-production. However, at its best the 1.78:1, 1080p image looks very good and, aside from the damnable 16×9 stretch, I didn’t detect any evidence of over-active sharpening or noise-reduction algorithms that could reasonably be attributed to the Blu-ray mastering process. If they were employed, they’re just part of the picture now. Hanging dots and other artifacts of composite standard-def video signals, on the other hand, are abundant–though they’re unlikely to be a fault of the Criterion transfer specifically. The 5.1 DTS-HD MA sound is unimpeachable, presenting a gripping, dynamic soundstage at the front of the room while getting playful from time to time with directionality. At one point, one of the keyboards running arpeggios starts to spin gently around the room, moving from speaker to speaker in turn. At another, the sound of a slap stick snaps to the front of the mix with such force it made me blink. Very nicely done.

Extras on disc one are plentiful and revealing. “Essence of Life” (25 mins.) is an interview program, upconverted to 1080p, in which Reggio and Glass discuss the making of Koyaanisqatsi in general and their collaboration in particular. (It dates back to the 2002 DVD release, but it’s good enough that there was no point rehashing the ground it covers.) There’s a lot of the usual back-and-forth here, where Reggio and Glass give lip service to each other’s talents, but it feels earned since they’re also forthcoming with details of the collaborative process. Glass describes the process of writing music to picture and submitting it to Reggio, who completely rearranged the correspondence between his images and the carefully-tailored score. He also notes that some passages are inextricably tied to images, like the lightness of choral voices that accompany the huge, not-yet-airborne planes lumbering down the runway at LAX. Reggio, meanwhile, exhibits a practiced humility, describing his cinematographer Ron Fricke as “a legitimate American genius” and detailing the work they did together at the Institute for Regional Education, where they created a series of (fantastic and prescient) TV spots on the subject of individual privacy. Those spots are included on the disc, along with a five-minute intro by Reggio (“Journey into Cinema: The IRE Privacy Campaign”).

Also collected here under the banner “Original Visual Concept” are five minutes of new Reggio commentary plus behind-the-scenes footage related to Reggio’s discarded visual concept for the film. One scene would involve dummies with television heads gathered around a conference table; another was to feature an eight-foot-high electrical socket that a cast of extras would yank a power cord out of. “The action was corny, but the set was to die for,” Reggio says wistfully. Later, he adds, “To me, the biggest teachers are the mistakes that I make, and this was a big one.”

Reggio gets a little more than four minutes to discuss an early idea for the film’s music that led him to visit Allen Ginsberg at the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado. (He says Brakhage was there, too, basically ignoring him.) Ginsberg agreed to record some improvisational poetry in the cadence of a Buddhist chant, accompanied by harmonium, to go along with images from an early demo reel. That 40-minute demo reel has been scanned from the 16mm workprint and is included in its entirety–plenty of new footage for enterprising video jockeys to try cutting into own alternate mixes of the film set to Skrillex or something. The Ginsberg recordings are on board as well, somehow preserved all these years and recovered from the original tapes. The demo footage can be played silent. Two different, shorter assemblages of footage are provided in sync, more or less, with two different Ginsberg recordings. (The two Ginsberg versions total 47 minutes in length–some footage is duplicated between them.) On first listen, I thought they were pretty ridiculous, but they started to grow on me.

Finally, Criterion gives Fricke, who went on to direct Chronos, Baraka, and last year’s Samsara, his own moment in the sun, “Ron Fricke on the Making of Koyaanisqatsi” (16 mins., HD). He talks about using a small amount of seed money to hit the road in the mid-1970s and shoot the first 16mm footage that would become the early foundation of Koyaanisqatsi. He chuckles over the “Busby Berkeley craziness” of Reggio’s elaborately scripted and set-designed concepts. He talks about being fired from the project and later being rehired to help finish the stalled, troubled edit. “I just knew what to do–it was the flow of the images,” he says. “I just didn’t want to listen to what it all meant, or how it was supposed to be structured.” He remembers telling Glass to slow down his music so that the images would cut to it in a way that made sense, then chuckles over the idea that anyone would ever presume to tell Glass how to score the film. Whatever he did, apparently it worked: Fricke comes off as the hero who saved Koyaanisqatsi at the eleventh hour. The interesting thing about Fricke is that he went on to build a subsequent career out of collections of documentary footage that aimed to replicate the visual beauty of Koyaanisqatsi without any of the social or environmental consciousness. They’re apparently quite successful.

The biggest problem with these Criterion supplements is that while Reggio loves to work his jawbone about his themes and theories, he comes up short on hard information about the films. Koyaanisqatsi cries out for more documentation, specifically details about the locations. Parts of the film were shot at the controversial Black Mesa coal mines that overlap Hopi land in Arizona and at the Pruitt-Igoe housing project that was demolished as an abject failure of urban planning, but it never gives a curious audience any background on those locations. A map of the U.S. keyed to a shot-by-shot timeline of the film would be a killer bonus feature, though even a scene-specific audio commentary by Reggio and/or Fricke could prove highly informative.

That goes double for Powaqqatsi, whose far-flung locations can be that much harder to triangulate. The 20-minute “Impact of Progress” is another decent DVD holdover that gives Reggio a chance to defend against charges that his films “romanticiz(e) poverty and oppression and suffering” (his words, not mine). Just two minutes in, he springs this on us: “The utopia of the technological order is virtual immortality, hithertofore only ascribed to the gods, to the divinity. Now we have a new pantheon. The computer sits in the middle of it. The computer, not being a sign, is the most powerful instrument in the world in that it produces what it signifies. It produces this globalization. In that sense, it is the highest magic in the world and something that we’re all in adoration of. And that’s what these films are about.” Later, he talks like a character from an early Cronenberg film: “We do not know the effects of the cathode-ray tube on human maturation, and yet all of us have grown up in the light of that cathode ray tube, which is like a gun aimed right at your body, and we all know that growth occurs through light. We’re cyborged. We’re already cooking in the stew.”

More concrete making-of material does follow the heady stuff. Glass reveals that Powaqqatsi’s opening piece was recorded before the film began shooting in Brazil–meaning Reggio and Glass were actually able to play the soundtrack for the miners during the shoot. Reggio is eager to give Glass credit as a co-creator, granting that the development of the music affected the images as much as the images dictated directions for the music. And, remarkably, Reggio admits that the film’s signature shot, wherein the cloud of dirt from a passing truck completely engulfs a young Egyptian boy walking at the roadside, was a set-up. (He says the crew missed it the first time it happened, and asked the kid if he’d mind letting another passerby blast him with dust so they could get the shot.) He even takes the opportunity to start promoting his concept for Naqoyqatsi, which wouldn’t be finished for another 10 years: “We relocate onto the virtual. We relocate onto the iconic, in this case–those images that describe the world in which we live. And then we revivify them, we animate them, change their motion, colour and speed. We layer them and paint them… we will be recontextualizing those iconic images and questioning the venerated familiar.”

In an untitled 19-minute interview program dating to 1989, Reggio talks with public-television interviewer V.B. Price, who sounds a bit like Kermit the Frog. Reggio drives the conversation down his usual streets, yakking on about the need for humans to question religion and respect their natural world as its own entity. “We could decentralize the mechanisms of the nation-state,” he notes in closing, flashing a grin, “but this is a longer conversation.” The sole freshly-minted extra on this disc, “Inspiration and Ideas,” devotes 18 minutes to Reggio’s discussion of his primary influences–including the Austrian philosopher and social critic Ivan Illich (Reggio calls him “a friend and teacher” but says he “tore [Koyaanisqatsi] apart” on viewing it), political scientist Leopold Kohr, French philosopher Jacques Ellul, Situationist leader Guy Debord, and the Hopi clan leader David Monongye, who Reggio says gave him “theological authorization” to use the term Koyaanisqatsi in his film.

But the nicest of Disc Two’s features is “Anima Mundi,” a short collage (29-minute) film from 1992 featuring only images of animals–birds, lizards, big cats–with its own Glass score. Its meaning is mostly self-evident (wonder, humility), and in its own way it’s a more deeply satisfying sit than the main event.

The wack-a-doodle Naqoyqatsi gets the most noncommital set of extras. Anchoring Disc 3 is an untitled video recording (upconverted with a ton of ringing artifacts from overzealous edge-enhancement SD) of a 2003 panel discussion with Reggio, Glass, and the film’s credited editor and visual designer, Jon Kane, moderated by critic John Rockwell. Your tolerance for talking heads may be tested when Rockwell kicks things off by asking, “Can somebody explain…what’s ‘Qatsi‘ mean? What are all these films about? What’s the connection?” That sends Reggio into familiar territory again, spending the next five minutes talking about his chosen film titles. Philip Glass touches on the difficulty of completing the whole trilogy–an undertaking that took 25 years and the completion of which hinged on a last-second save by producer Steven Soderbergh, who apparently read about the dangling third entry in The New York Times when it was all but a dead project–but quickly moves into specific discussion of his score for the final film, explaining why he opted for a full orchestra rather than harsher digital sounds to match the harsh digital images.

Kane gets a few words in edgewise, describing the process of digitizing stock and archival footage and organizing it as an Avid project prior to editing and manipulating (Reggio actually uses the word “torturing,” which may be more apt than he knows) the raw material. The video is not much to look at, Rockwell is a pretty stuffy moderator, and the whole discussion is fairly soporific. The best moment apparently happens off-screen, when Rockwell asks, “To what extent is there a religious basis to these movies?” and Glass makes some sort of sound or off-camera gesture that cracks the whole room up. Reggio gets the last word, bringing the whole discussion around to the great Luis Buñuel film Los Olvidados, which he says was a profound influence on the street gang members that he used to work with back in New Mexico in the 1970s. It convinced him to make movies not as entertainment, but as a vehicle to “touch the souls of people.”

There is another four-minute EPK piece (SD) with Reggio, Glass, Kane, and producer Joe Beirne, whose talking-heads segments are desaturated and tinted in a way that suggests someone was trying to make the interviews look drearier than the footage from the film. Glass and cellist Yo-Yo Ma get their own seven-minute short (SD, pillarboxed to 1.33:1), which apparently predates the third film’s release. Glass discusses the genesis of the score’s solo cello pieces and explains that parts of the film will be completed to the music instead of the other way around. Beyond establishing himself as a big Philip Glass fan, Ma doesn’t say much. Finally, “In Via: An Afterword by the Director” runs just over 16 minutes, and Reggio takes the opportunity to say his thank-yous, describing his collaborators (specifically Glass, Fricke, and Kane) as “drooling with talent” and giving a shout-out to his investors, whose money he describes as a “burnt offering.” And he describes the conceit of the first film quite concisely: Since academia is fond of applying its intellectual concepts to the lives of indigenous peoples, he seized the opportunity to apply a concept of indigenous peoples to the industrial world.

In the whimper-not-a-bang department, we get the film’s trailer and its perfunctory effort at selling the film. (“First…there was life out of balance. Then…there was life in transformation. Now…there’s life as war.”) A nice booklet contains essays by author Scott MacDonald, who tries to put the films in context, critic John Rockwell, who summarizes Glass’s work on the trilogy, and environmentalist Bill McKibben, who writes about climate change and really does seem to see the Qatsi films as issue docs. It closes out a boxed set that gives us plenty of insight into the mind of director Godfrey Reggio, who is allowed to speak at great length about his work. The contributions from Glass are interesting enough, but they’re also limited, probably largely because he didn’t contribute to the supplements created for this edition by Criterion. I missed seeing footage from a live performance of the score, or of Glass himself divulging much information about his working methods or how he builds a composition layer upon layer. As I dug through all of the special features, minute by minute, I started to warm to Reggio’s plentiful explanations of themes and verbalizations of pet theories–but maybe that’s Stockholm Syndrome. At any rate, fans of the series should be happy with what they get here.

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