MGM // 1988 // 97 Minutes // Rated G
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky (Retired) // September 2nd, 2002
"What this is, is an attempt, like at the hour of death, to rise above yourself and see yourself in another context. And this context is the technological order." -- Godfrey Reggio
Their movements slowed to clockwork ticks, the mud-caked workers of Serra Pelada haul sacks from a hole in the earth. If any of these bags bear gold, none of these men will ever know. All around the world, human labor transforms the world, as unstoppable and ferocious as a volcano. And it does not merely consume the world, but us as well.
While most of his imitators have been content simply to point time-lapse camera at buildings and deserts, Godfrey Reggio has moved forward both visually and conceptually. Focusing here on human experience rather than panoramic vistas, Powaqqatsi begins (after its Serra Pelada prologue) with a recapitulation of themes. We see earth, air, water -- but this time, humans are already immersed in these environments, working to gather food, travel, and trade, and harness nature to their will.
In Koyaanisqatsi, Reggio kept his attention on the familiar (at least to film audiences): the urban spaces of America and Europe. In this second film, he moves to the rest of the world, Asia, the Middle East, the Southern Hemisphere. It may seem like a vast area, but he eschews typical depictions of pretty scenery to focus on people. How do we live in the world? How do we live with the world?
It is clear from the outset that the pace of the Southern hemisphere is much different from the frantic North in Koyaanisqatsi. Reggio's camera lingers on a house atop a gushing waterfall. The sounds of water mix with the faint chatter of children. Women steadily grind corn, while waves of heat slowly distort the land. In these places, people are already aware of their place in the environment. They pray and thank the world for its bounty. They celebrate, and even daily work becomes a dance. It is perhaps not fair to say these are people "at one" with nature: they do use technology. But there is a sense of balance, of moderation.
Until the trains come, bringing the promise of Northern culture. Television floods our sight with visions of beauty and wealth, whether from America or Russia or Japan -- wherever there is power. Small villages become generic apartment blocks; individuals are lost in the crowd, moving and marching and thinking alike. Life accelerates.
Godfrey Reggio and Philip Glass can find layers of meaning even in the plaintive faces of children. But Powaqqatsi never condescends or sentimentalizes third-world poverty: these are people who are above all alive and vital. And they are never portrayed as paragons or given a moral high ground. In embracing industrialization with as much vigor as the North, the people depicted in Powaqqatsi contribute to the consumption of their own traditions and environment, most often willingly. We never see a world free of technology in the film; we only see degrees and consequences. People bathing in the street? Children picking through landfills? Deal with it. This is just the way people live. This is the 3/4 of the world you have never seen from your comfortable living room with your DVD player and air conditioning. And there are way more of them than there are of you.
And they dream the same dreams. A beautiful child watches neon float by in her car window. But the excitement of the new age brings trash, overcrowding, and civil unrest -- a persuasive sadness even as ordinary life continues. Even the television is no comfort. Something has been lost, even in the midst of all our gain. But we must press on, even when it is unclear where we are going. The driver of a donkey cart grimaces as cars dodge around him on a highway. A boy walking along the side of the road in erased in a wash of truck exhaust. And back in Serra Pelada, work goes on, as a few men hoist an injured comrade over their shoulders and carry him like a sack out of the pit...
Although the "official" translation of the title on the disc's packaging is "Life in Transformation," the title might more accurately be rendered "sorcerer's life," or "a life that consumes another life." In the 20-minute featurette included on the disc, "Impact of Progress," Reggio interprets this notion of consumption in reference to the Southern hemisphere's exploitation at the hands of the North, although he hints that the South is quite complicitous in its own destruction. Reggio is a bit more defensive in this interview than in the one for Koyaanisqatsi, perhaps because he came under more fire from critics on this film. Some claimed that he was a hypocrite for using a technological medium to critique technology, but Reggio responds by pointing out that he has never been in favor of regressing back to some "natural" state out of Rousseau: we are already immersed in technology and we must learn to play the hand we have been dealt. The old meaning-producing systems are gone and "now we have a new pantheon: the computer sits in the middle of it."
Reggio is fascinated by diversity and complexity, but clearly sees the inherent conflict produced by these forces. The world is never at peace: it is always transforming. In this light, the theme of his next film (which he spends a little time discussing at the end of the featurette, after Philip Glass gets to chat about their working methods) takes on added urgency. Naqoyqatsi will be about "life as war," exploring the transformation of the material world into the virtual, and the explosion of meaning that comes along with this new paradigm. Having taught a course inspired by Foucault's suggestion that society operates and evolves in a constant state of war, I am quite intrigued to see where Reggio is heading with Naqoyqatsi, but I will have to wait at least a few months to find out.
As for Powaqqatsi, MGM presents the film in an anamorphic transfer and 5.1 surround, as with its predecessor. The print looks even better that Koyaanisqatsi. Better planned, better budgeted, Powaqqatsi is absolutely stunning, with eye-popping colors. Oddly, this film was one of the last productions from Cannon, and I wonder if Golan and Globus had any clue what Reggio was doing traveling all over the world for years shooting a movie that not only did not feature Chuck Norris or Charles Bronson, but did not even have a plot or dialogue.
At least Reggio's regular collaborators knew what he was up to, especially composer Philip Glass. In keeping with the sense of ongoing struggle and resistance implied by the film, Glass' score this time around is more energetic and celebratory. His score for Koyaanisqatsi is indicative of his first major phase as an artist, when his style was more in line with what was dubbed by many music critics "minimalism." While Glass' music was always much more complex than many of his contemporaries, they still relied very heavily on what he describes in his book Music by Philip Glass as the "additive process and cyclic structure," working on a fairly small scale. By the time Glass began work on the score for Powaqqatsi, his interest in world music (going all the way back to his student days in the 1960s, where he trained in compositional techniques with Ravi Shankar) had exploded with the development of his third and most ambitious opera, Akhnaten. In this second major phase of his career, Glass incorporates percussion, indigenous instruments (African, Brazilian, Australian, and so on), to suits the environment or theme depicted. In any case, I have always preferred his work in Powaqqatsi to its predecessor in its sophistication and harmonic texture. Godfrey Reggio's work has clearly developed as well. Their collaboration has deepened since their previous film. On Koyaanisqatsi, Glass provided temp tracks after principal photography and worked closely with Reggio on editing the film so that music and image fit comfortably. On Powaqqatsi, Glass receives credit as a "dramaturgical consultant," meaning that he prepared music for the film while it was being shot, often traveling on location with Reggio to contribute ideas.
In recent years, his work has become more traditionally symphonic, as he has shifted conspicuously from small ensemble work or collaborative projects to full-blown symphonies. From the small taste of his score for Naqoyqatsi in the trailer, it appears that his work for that film will likely follow along these lines. I cannot say to what degree he has contributed to the structure of the new film or how Reggio's visual style has evolved to encompass the themes he has chosen to tackle, but if he leaps forward even half as far in the finale of the "Qatsi" trilogy as he did when he made Powaqqatsi, it will be years before anyone catches up.
More inventive, more visually poetic, more intellectually challenging, Powaqqatsi takes Godfrey Reggio's cinematic language and Philip Glass' musical evolution to the next level. The film looks and sounds better than Koyaanisqatsi, a film that on its own redefined documentary filmmaking. What more do you need? And with Naqoyqatsi due in theaters in October, you would be a fool not to grab both these discs at the ridiculously low price MGM is selling them for.
The prosecution is admonished for bringing Reggio and Glass before this court twice when the evidence easily exonerates them on all counts. This court hopes that the prosecution is not foolish enough to try and press charges a third time when Naqoyqatsi makes its way to our docket. Case dismissed.
Review content copyright © 2002 Mike Pinsky; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 97 Minutes
Release Year: 1988
MPAA Rating: Rated G
* "Impact of Progress:" Interviews with Godfrey Reggio and Philip Glass