Miramax // 2003 // 89 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky (Retired) // December 2nd, 2003
"Beneath the omissions, illusions, and lies that make us believe in the necessities of nature or the functional requirements of order, we are bound to reencounter war: it is the cipher of peace." -- Michel Foucault, "Society Must Be Defended"
There is something both mundane and magisterial about Pieter Brueghel's meticulous painting of the Tower of Babel. Its tiny figures mill about their business seemingly oblivious to the looming disaster on the horizon. Its heights are jagged and incomplete, and a storm cloud shudders near its summit. The fact that it is modeled on the Roman Colosseum should be lost on no one: this is a world where bread and circuses keep us distracted.
We move inside the painting, slowly. Ruins haunt us. Our eyes move past abandoned buildings, tombs of a civilization in decline. A plaintive cello weeps in lament as we see cement bleached in the sun. The deluge comes. Stars fall, clouds boil, and mountains tear up from the earth. Ghastly faces sweep past.
This is life under the specter of war.
When Koyaanisqatsi debuted in 1983, its depiction of nature in turmoil was so fresh and radical that it spawned countless imitators. Of course, there were plenty of documentaries on environmental themes in circulation. But Koyaanisqatsi was not quite a documentary, eschewing narration and other prosaic devices for a more poetic montage (still quite formally structured) set to a powerful score by Philip Glass. Nevertheless, Reggio's film became the model for a generation of exploratory filmmaking.
In 1988, the imitators expected Reggio to do it all over again: more stately mountains and time-lapse urban crowds, more musings on the pace of life in the northern hemisphere. After all, they all understood the message of Koyaanisqatsi to be quite simple: western civilization and technology is bad; nature is good. But Powaqqatsi expanded Reggio's vision to the southern hemisphere, to cultures where technology must exist in precarious balance with nature to survive. And most shocking of all, Reggio makes us all complicit in the consumption of the world. To state that humans and nature are in opposition is to oversimplify the problem: we are part of the world, and our technology is part of the world as well. As even Philip Glass' celebratory and percussive score illustrates in Powaqqatsi, the human experience is all we know.
This human experience is driven, more each day, by the need to consume. Indeed, we have created an entire ideology around consumption. We call it capitalism. And America is damn good at it.
When Godfrey Reggio began his "Qatsi" trilogy back in the 1980s, looking to escape traditional narrative language with an experiment in pure film, his attempts to encapsulate the complex relationships between humanity and nature, between art and commerce, seemed almost prophetic. After all, it was only the beginning of the "virtual age," in which the oversaturation of media had finally collapsed the distinction between language and the "real." Philosophers like Jean Baudrillard lamented the loss of the material world, and then the smart ones wondered if we were only fooling ourselves if we thought we could ever understand the world without language anyway. Even Reggio's choice of names for his films were a tease: he picked Hopi words not because he felt some kinship to native cultures, but because his producers insisted that the films would not be marketable without names, so he picked words that sounded alien, almost musical. We are trapped in a world of symbols and simulations. And we made it ourselves. And worse, we need it to form communities and survive if our notion of living in a state of pure being may only be another string of words masking a philosophical illusion.
If Koyaanisqatsi and Powaqqatsi only suggested the difficult trap of language (and as I have already discussed these films here at the Verdict, I will not spend time dealing with them here), Naqoyqatsi embraces our technologically-mediated world with exquisite rage. This is the landscape of the virtual. We have seen its like once before, in the hallucinatory warp of 2001: A Space Odyssey's Monolith, reflected in the blank eyes of its human observer as he travels toward his apotheosis. Stanley Kubrick's experiment in pure film image now makes perfect sense: Kubrick saw the technosphere, the virtual, in its most abstract form. Now Reggio sculpts it into a world with its own culture and architecture and throws us headlong inside it. We have seen some of this world in his earlier films, but Reggio is not content to rehash the same metaphors he used before. Yes, we have seen the wrecked cars and the factories belching smoke and the blur of speedy automobiles crowding highways. Reggio has already shown us these things from a distance. To watch from above, the camera standing back like an impartial observer, is to ignore the fact that we created these things. We are immersed in these experiences and never above them.
So Naqoyqatsi takes the more radical approach. Nearly every shot in the film is digitally manipulated, colored or warped or morphed into something else. We never see the world free from the grip of technology, just as Powaqqatsi always showed technology deployed in the hands of humans. We are immersed in a world of digital noise, and the film never lifts its eyes up from the lines of data, marching like lines of soldiers, that crowd our field of view.
The prevailing visual motif in the film is turbulence. Images of chaotic systems abound. Wisps of smoke transform into waving flags. Flags transform into swirls of currency. Crowds warp into images of militarism, then into the floor of the stock market. This is what Reggio really means by "Life As War," the translation of the film's Hopi title. War is an ordered system struggling against chaos. In a short piece entitled "Society Must Be Defended," philosopher Michel Foucault considers the possibility that we might examine war "as a primary and fundamental state of things in relation to which all the phenomena of social domination, differentiation, and hierarchization are considered as secondary." In other words, is war natural to the human state of affairs, with all other institutions in the modern world modeled on this? Foucault suggests that in war, no subject is alone, but all exist in tension, with no universal truth dominant among combatants. Truth only serves an ideological function, to create a rallying point for the people. In war, chance or chaos, "the web of petty circumstances," upsets all systems of order. "Fury must account for harmonies," he remarks, as if order is only formed out of emotional need, a shouting into the void of nature.
Godfrey Reggio's fury is palpable. Humanity has become cyborg in his vision, and our cyborg bodies are resisting us. A house is built, only to be destroyed; oil pumps from the Earth, only to be set aflame. All art, all beauty, melts together into the face of a single girl crying in pain.
Reggio reminds us again and again in the film that we are capable of using technology to build a world, to reconstruct beautiful bodies, but images of perfect bodies enhanced by science are always balanced with the reminder that the cost of those creations is high. The "natural" world in Naqoyqatsi is rendered alien, as green giraffes run against orange skies, or cities burn like irradiated wastelands on some strange planet. The faces of famous people -- Abraham Lincoln, George Bush -- mix with news footage like the clever opening graphics of some cable talk show.
Part of this confusion, this melting together of simulacra, Reggio credits to the media and its use of technology to distance us from the world through image manipulation, whether though the news or advertising or Hollywood (ultimately the same thing). But the media and its attempts to turn ideology into a marketing tool might be merely another symptom of the larger problem. The virtual in Naqoyqatsi is always an attempt to tame the turbulence of nature simply by replacing it. Reggio shows images of water and swimmers, then shifts to cloning and CAT scans: medicine supplants the body. Commercials and digital information segue into "logos" from the world's religions: spirituality can only be expressed through the techniques of advertising.
Of course, to anyone who has encountered theories of postmodernism before, this critique of the cultural logic of late-capitalism should come as no surprise. Ironically, this only makes Godfrey Reggio on the curve for a change instead of ahead of it. Certainly, the intensity of his vision is far more thorough and complex than every cyberpunk movie ever made rolled together. But Naqoyqatsi is not quite as satisfying or thematically forward-looking as the previous installments in Reggio's trilogy. Perhaps Reggio just seems so angry here, tearing into the material with more desperation and abandon than before. He has every right to be indignant though. The last decade of American culture, indeed the last generation, has seen increasingly aggressive deployment of imperialistic doctrine and technological domination around the world. There is a hopelessness to Naqoyqatsi that was not nearly so pronounced as earlier, as if Reggio realizes that there is no way back from this abyss. We have gone headfirst into the virtual world, into the next stage of cultural evolution. And like Kubrick's Star Child, the only way we are coming back to Earth is in a new form -- with the world as our plaything.
To balance this cyborg manifesto of a film, Philip Glass incorporates the warm tones of Yo-Yo Ma's cello into a full orchestra. This is technology at its best: the beauty of human music. The structure of Glass' cello concerto is more conventional than his earlier works, but this is fairly characteristic of his recent forays into traditional orchestral music. While Glass is still willing to experiment (after all, he has written two symphonies based on David Bowie albums), recently he seems to have entered more "respectable" territory. The formality of his score however, as he notes in the panel discussion included in the DVD extras (discussed below), is intended to provide the audience with some point of access into Reggio's difficult visual structure. So even if the score might not be as artistically risky as some of Glass' other works, it succeeds in anchoring the film quite well.
Given the extensive digital manipulation throughout the film, it is hard to say whether Miramax has presented the film's transfer correctly. Sometimes the colors seem a little overcranked, but that may be Reggio's intention. Everything in Naqoyqatsi is supposed to look unnatural, and in that sense, this DVD looks exactly as it should. Extras are a mixed bag, comparable to those on the MGM discs for Koyaanisqatsi and Powaqqatsi. Producer Steven Soderbergh and Reggio briefly comment on the ubiquity of war in a minute-long introduction, with Soderbergh seeming particularly defensive of the film. Philip Glass and Yo-Yo Ma gush at each other in an interview about their music, although they really do not say much substantive about the score or how closely Glass worked with Reggio on the film (compared to his input on the previous installments).
Much more interesting is an hour-long panel discussion with Reggio, Glass, and editor John Kane in which the three talk in detail about the entire "Qatsi" trilogy. Reggio admits that Naqoyqatsi is more abstract and demanding than the first two films. "We relocated into the virtual," he tries to explain, chatting about the film's theme of "globalization" and detailing how the footage was assembled and treated to "perfected degradation." What a perfect phrase. If Naqoyqatsi is about the Catch-22 of human civilization -- how our very attempts to tame the world through language and technology in order to survive the chaos of the world transform us into cyborgs who cannot escape a chaotic destruction now of our own making, even as we polish it with a digital shine -- then we are indeed in a world of perfected degradation. Enjoy it while it lasts.
Naqoyqatsi challenges its audience to escape from the grasp of the virtual world. And when it is over, we congratulate ourselves on having stepped back into the "real world," where we believe we can control the pace at which technology, the golem we thought we created to change the natural world, changes us.
Naqoyqatsi puts the human race on trial and finds it guilty. This court cannot comment on that verdict (as it is out of our jurisdiction), but does find that Godfrey Reggio and Philip Glass have once again created an artistically adventurous and philosophically complex film worthy of our attention. Case dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 89 Minutes
Release Year: 2003
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
* NYU Panel Discussion
* Music of Naqoyqatsi
* "Life As War" Featurette
* Mike Pinsky on Koyaanisqatsi
* Mike Pinsky on Powaqqatsi