Powaqqatsi a visual and musical wonder

Bridewater, NJ, May 19, 1988
By Jack Garner

If you're a daring filmgoer who searches out artists who push the boundaries of the form, you'll be excited by Powaqqatsi, the latest non-narrative film from eccentric, artful film-maker Godfrey Reggio.

The feature-length vision with music is the second collaboration for Reggio with composer Philip Glass and carries forth much of the style and humanity of their first film, Koyaanisqatsi. If you've seen that film, you'll know whether you'll be interested in Powaqqatsi. They are like each other — and like no other films ever made.

The second film is the latest part of a proposed "Qatsi" trilogy by the New Mexican film-maker — a series of films that use unique visual images and hypnotic, evocative music to convey feelings and humanist philosophy about our place on Earth, the encroachment of technology and the disappearing splendor of nature and ancient cultures.

Both films take their titles from the Hopi Indian language — Koyaanisqatsi means "life out of balance," and focused primarily on the destructive nature of urban life and technology on the environment.

Powaqqatsi turns the spotlight to the way modern urban life, and the concept of the Global Village, are absorbing the distinctive textures of ancient and Third World cultures.

Thus, we're treated to stunning visions of seldom-seen corners of the world — from India to Brazil to Kenya to Israel to Egypt to Hong Kong — and glimpses of colorful, multi-varied rituals, living conditions, crafts, and art. Looming over those cultures, though, is the ominous presence of urban housing, industry that rides roughshod over its Third World employees, crowded city landscapes and trite electronic images from TV commercials.

The best example of the conflict is shown when a native youth is walking along a dusty Third World road, and is passed by a giant, rumbling truck. The boy literally disappears in the dust of the truck.

Lest you are confused, Reggio's films are not National Geographic documentaries — they are visual works of art without an obvious narrative drive, and the director frequently plays with time and space in intriguing ways. In K for example, much of the footage is shown at a speeded-up tempo. In Powaqqatsi just the opposite is true — several sequences are shown at slightly slow speeds.

More than a gimmick, the tempo changes allow the viewer to see the Earth and its people in unique ways, creating a clarity and an emotional impact that is hard to achieve in this image-cluttered world.

The importance of Glass's music to the Reggio films cannot be overestimated. The thoughtful, evocative scores are not just music sound tracks — they're an integral part of the artistic process. They also create a hypnotic rhythm that draws in the viewer, and hangs on until the subtle message of the visuals get a grip.

In Powaqqatsi, Glass offers one of his most appealing and accessible scores. The minimalist melodies and repetitious patterns of the music are augmented with rich Third World rhythms, and indigenous acoustic instruments and voices.

Powaqqatsi is magnificent movie-making that emphasizes the power and beauty of the visual image in ways that haven't been achieved since the glory days of the silent cinema. Reggio is a visionary artist and Powaqqatsi is must viewing for any serious lover of the visual image.

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