Breaking the Mold of Traditional Storytelling
By Mark Ezra Stokes
Director Steven Soderbergh (Ocean’s 12) may have marked a milestone on January 27, when his latest film, Bubble, was simultaneously released in theaters, on high-definition cable and on DVD. Though this may seem like an economic blunder, Soderbergh feels that, through the magic of digital distribution and the availability of films through multiple mediums, theaters could easily download the latest blockbuster, or a forgotten classic, or even a rock concert onto their screens. As a result, filmmakers could do business with theaters directly (avoiding money-hungry studios), and viewers could enjoy their favorite visual entertainment in whatever format they choose.
As I sit in my germ-infested apartment with a stuffy head, a shredded throat and a cup of spicy Ramen noodles, I wish Mr. Soderbergh’s idea had caught on sooner. Luckily for those of us too contagious to sit in a theater, the Internet has caught on, and it has given me access to films that would never surface in the home-video market of Mt. Vernon, GA. Three of these films continue to haunt me like those peculiar images in waking dreams. The films—Koyaanisqatsi, Powaqqatsi and Naqoyqatsi—make up the Qatsi trilogy, a collection of plotless, characterless and dialogue-less journeys.
Intrigued? If you’re like me when hearing the description, you’re probably not. But don’t let the deviation from the norm fool you. Unlike many avant-garde films, the Qatsi pictures maintain a level of understanding through breathtaking cinematography that dazzles the eye, married perfectly with a musical score that carries the ears through appropriate emotional highs and lows. Essentially, we’re exposed to a collection of documentary images edited together in a way that compares or contrasts certain activities. Instead of using traditional montage, which juxtaposes two disparate images to lead the audience to a particular conclusion, this filmmaker keeps the conclusions somewhat nebulous. As a result, we experience something akin to a Rorschach ink-blot test rather than another collection of pretty pictures. Instead of learning the message of the film, we learn about ourselves and how we perceive the world around us.
So, who is this pot-smoking hippie of a filmmaker, you may ask? The name Godfrey Reggio is not a household name, and that’s just how he likes it. Reggio, the trilogy’s director, learned the importance of humility at an early age—a direct result of entering the Christian Brothers, a Roman Catholic pontifical order, at the age of 14. When he emerged at age 28, he had a decidedly different perspective than those around him. Soon after leaving the monastery, Reggio watched Los Olvidados by Luis Bunuel. This experience left him dumfounded at the potential for spirituality in the medium. In his films, Reggio attempts to inject that same level of spiritual truth that goes beyond his own comprehension as a mere human.
Koyaanisqatsi (1983), the first of the trilogy, seems to most adequately showcase Reggio’s Christian tutelage. If the first few minutes of the film seem familiar, that’s because the order of the powerful images follow Genesis 1:1-13 to the letter. Whether this is intentional, one can’t be certain, but it seems to be the perfect place to start: in the beginning. From this beautiful beginning of unspoiled nature, Reggio brings in humanity, and with humanity comes technology. For the remainder of the film, Reggio juxtaposes humanity and nature, showing the power of our technology—power with potential for both good and bad. The word “Koyaanisqatsi” is Hopi for “life out of balance.” Reggio seems to present the ideal balance somewhere in the middle of the film, when both humanity and nature coexist. In the beginning, it’s no fun because we don’t exist. In the end, our technology shows the potential for destroying us, and that’s no fun, either. Thus, the need for balance.
Powaqqatsi (1988), which means “life in transition,” comes next. While Koyaanisqatsi deals primarily with all things Americana (including hot dogs, Twinkies and baseball), Powaqqatsi focuses on the Southern Hemisphere—the Third World countries of South America, Asia and Africa—and how technology affects their ecospheres. While Koyaanisqatsi presents nature and humanity as two distinctly different worlds, Powaqqatsi blurs the lines, showing impoverished people using nature for shelter and being literally burdened by nature (through the loads of dirt, sticks and water they carry on their shoulders). Though technology is an obvious part of their lives (through the tools they use and the gadgets acquired from the Northern Hemisphere), these people still rely on nature for physical sustenance, and at the end of the day, they rely on a higher power for spiritual sustenance.
Naqoyqatsi (2002) (produced by our progressive friend, Mr. Soderbergh) is both the shortest and the most exhausting of the three to watch. Meaning “life as war,” Naqoyqatsi presents a world connected through technology. As a result of such globalization, we fight over our differences. Because this film deals the most with technology, all of its images are either computer-generated or have been somehow altered with a computer. The film has the quickest montages of the three, the most intense images and the most driving music. It intentionally overloads the viewer’s senses at certain points to elicit certain moods. Of course, those moods are determined by the viewer’s particular worldview, but it's the changes in mood that keeps the viewer connected with the progression of the film.
Reggio’s collaboration with Philip Glass, an accomplished composer and Tibetan Buddhist, allows the Qatsi trilogy to further explore the relationship between creativity and spirituality through music as well as through images. The soundtrack and the images are so interrelated, subtracting one from the other would rob the films of any connectivity. But the connectivity is definitely there. For some, the trilogy may represent humanity’s Past, Present and Potential Future. Others may see the films as visualizing Life, Purgatory and Hell. Still others may see the trilogy as an economic equation of the Wealthy Class + the Working Class = Upheaval.
The way one discerns meaning from the films doesn’t really matter. As a representation of life, the Qatsi trilogy reminds us that life is not about determining the answers to every little question. Instead, life is about being aware of the questions being asked, fearlessly asking questions ourselves and taking a journey with the perspective we’ve developed as our only guide. For Christians, a relationship with God is the essential foundation of that perspective—providing an answer to the Ultimate Question so that we may have guidance in determining the other answers as we continue on the journey God has set out before us. The Qatsi films may seem too “artsy” for some viewers, but their celebration of God’s creation and what man has done with that creation can be both refreshing and eye opening at the same time.