Starting off my series of Criterion films, I took a journey through the Qatsi Trilogy (and Anima Mundi.) And boy, what a journey it was.
Back in 1982 a film came out that, by standards even today, broke the mold of cinema, except if you were to compare it to Man with a Movie Camera back in the 20s. Now, a 90 minute film without any talking, actors, or plot may seem daunting, and it is. It requires attention, thought, and patience. Thankfully, though, the first film of the trilogy, Koyaanisqatsi (literally meaning “life out of balance” in Hopi), keeps you locked in thanks to its hypnotic and entrancing footage along with the trance-like music by Phillip Glass that will be stuck in the back of your mind for days to come. Funded by Francis Ford Coppola (the other two were funded by Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and Steven Soderbergh), Koyaanisqatsi explores how out of balance our world has become. Initially showing footage of desolate locations, untouched by man, including the most recognizable Western film set — Monument Valley — and then shifts to how us humans have cut into these natural wonders with our own technology, creating scars on the earth. We are taken through city streets on the hood of a car, through a Twinkie factory, flown through the air, and given closeups of random people pulled aside for the making of this film. They do not speak, but simply look right at you. It is a little unnerving, but it works. These shots are all combined with techniques like time-lapse and slow-motion in order to create art. To say this is one of the most beautiful movies ever is no over-statement, it really is, and it has been reexamined over the years. I would much rather watch this film for fear of the signs of human impact over something like An Inconvenient Truth. But it was clear, though, that director Godfrey Reggio had grim doubts for the human race.
Six years after his triumphant arrival, he returned with Powaqqatsi (meaning something like “parasitic way of life.”) This film, very similar to the first, takes place in developing countries like Africa, Nepal, and Brazil. But as an even grimmer reminder, Reggio is showing us what these countries do in order for us to have the way of life we have. There are shots of men working on a hill, it looks dreadful, but they still work. There is no laziness, it is all they have. Women carry buckets on their head, and the children stare at the camera with a delightful curiosity. So what we have is both an examination of the daily life of the people in these countries, but also a look at the work needed to allow the greedy and destructive lifestyles of the modern countries. If that isn’t bad enough for you, just wait until he returned 14 years later.
But first, 4 years after Powaqqatsi, Reggio released a short film called Anima Mundi, which is simply a look at over 70 different species of animal in just 28 minutes. It is a very quick film. Many of the shots are almost dreamlike, some might even click in your head that you’ve seen them before but you can’t quite place where. You have lions, snakes, frogs, and even bats. It is amazing how much footage Reggio got with the lack of technological advances back in the 80s. I am sure you can find this little film on Youtube, so if you’re an animal lover, check it out.
Anyway, back to what I was saying earlier, Reggio waited 14 years and concluded his trilogy with a very dark message to humans. Naqoyqatsi (“Life as War”) is his most surreal and least accessible of the three. It is mainly comprised of computer generated shots, edited commercials, and bizarrely colored found-footage. There is no easy way to describe some of the scenes in this movie. The gist of it is that the world is now unnatural. In stark contrast to the first two films with all of their natural images, this one is nearly all unnatural. He uses double-exposure shots to show the comparisons between human activities and things certain computers do. Like I said, it is very hard to explain without seeing it. Reggio was trying to show that with computers and technology, our entire language is replaced by something that cannot be described (the opening shot of the film is of a painting of the Tower of Babel), and essentially once that happens there can only be chaos. His point was proven even more when this film was being produced, because 9/11 happened exceptionally close to where the film was being made. In the end, Naqoyqatsi is an exceptionally difficult film to watch, it is not as “entertaining” as the first two, and it will most likely make you feel bad for the human race by the end of it.
The Qatsi Trilogy is a fascinating set of films. They are beautiful, haunting, but most importantly they have predictions that have become true since their releases. All the talks of Climate Change, overpopulation, and the destruction of the natural world have all too close ties with these films. So, if you’re interested, watch these movies as a reminder of what is truly going on in the world.