directed by Godfrey Reggio
(Miramax, 2002)

Naqoyqatsi, the long-awaited third movie in the non-narrative "qatsi" trilogy, is mystifying, inspiring and overwhelming in turns. The trilogy was directed by former monk Godfrey Reggio and featured music by minimalist composer Philip Glass. "Qatsi" means "way of life" in the American Hopi Indian language.

The first movie in the trilogy was the critically acclaimed 1983 release Koyaanisqatsi, subtitled "Life Out of Balance." Like the entire trilogy, Koyaanisqatsi had no dialogue or plot, just sequences of images accompanied by a compelling soundtrack that illustrated the beauty of our world and showed how mankind has disrupted the natural balance. Reggio collaborated with Glass and spawned a new film genre in the process.

Although Koyaanisqatsi earned Francis Ford Coppola Presents status and was popular on the college and art film circuit, it was not an outstanding commercial success. Cinematographer Ron Fricke used innovative slow-motion and time-lapse photography techniques that are now frequently used in movies and ads. Although Fricke did not work on the other qatsi films, he later directed the successful non-narrative movie Baraka.

The second movie in the qatsi trilogy, Powaqqatsi, followed in 1988. Subtitled "Life in Transformation," it focused on the conditions in third-world countries and used similar filming techniques as those of Koyaanisqatsi.

Naqoyqatsi opens with a black-and-white animated version of Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel's 16th-century painting "The Tower of Babel." The movie presents several animated streams of letters, numbers and symbols, and more than a thousand individual live-action/animated images including soldiers, protesters, athletes, celebrities, stock traders and astronauts, as well as a variety of landscapes, cityscapes and technological advances. The visuals are accompanied by the moving Glass soundtrack featuring cello solos by Canadian Yo-Yo Ma.

In contrast to the first two movies, Naqoyqatsi uses a high percentage of stock footage, although some original film was shot in Detroit and New York. Another difference is that many of the images in Naqoyqatsi are digitally manipulated and purposely obscured. Some sequences use black-and-white film that has been recolored, negative images (black is white and vice versa) and rotoscoping (animation layered over live action shots). The animated sequences of numbers, letters, fractals (computer-generated images) and religious, political and corporate symbols were visually powerful. But where live-action shots of people were modified and colorized, it was sometimes difficult to figure out what was being presented -- literally or figuratively.

Human conflict is represented in this movie and an antiwar message is effectively yet subtly presented. However, I felt much less compassion for the heavily manipulated images of people shown in Naqoyqatsi compared to the clear and evocative people scenes in its predecessors. The numerous scenes of marching soldiers and street protesters (nearly exclusively male) seemed purposely anonymous. By making some of the images less specific, they lost some of their punch, despite the spectacular special effects. There are also many visual references to technology, such as computer components and Dolly, the first cloned sheep. Perhaps the message is that we are at war with technology as much as we are with each other. The most puzzling element was the inclusion of numerous American track-and-field events, although they may have represented competitive forces.

I found it impossible to process the nonstop barrage of information presented in Naqoyqatsi in one viewing. It is the most intellectual and technically sophisticated installment in the qatsi trilogy. It is an excellent movie for stimulating debate and discussion about contemporary life and, like Koyaanisqatsi and Powaqqatsi, invites multiple viewings.

- Rambles
written by Joyce MacPhee
published 25 January 2003

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