Beauty of the Beast — Powaqqatsi

Premiere Magazine
June 1988
By Ron Yerxa

When Godfrey Reggio's film Koyaanisqatsi first appeared on film festival programs in 1982, it seemed destined for obscurity. Seven years in the making, the nonnarrative 87-minute documentary contrasted dreamlike images of the natural world with a nightmarish vision of technology run amok. Even the title — a Hopi term for "crazy life" — was esoteric and unpronounceable. What distinguished Koyaanisqatsi from conventional documentaries was Reggio's bold use of avant-garde film techniques, featuring the haunting images of cinematographer Ron Fricke and a mystical score by minimalist composer Philip Glass.

But for many in those early audiences, the film was a revelation of what we have done to the planet and ourselves. Since then, Koyaanisqatsi has become not only a succes d'estime, but also a modest commercial hit. The film, which cost $2.5 million, has grossed more than $5 million, and videocassettes sales keep growing. And now, after five years of work, Reggio has finished post-production on Powaqqatsi ("life in transformation"), the second film in his proposed trilogy on "our failed way of life."

Last winter in San Francisco, as Reggio took a lunch break from checking the mix on Glass' score for his new film, he explained why the images of the alienating technological world in Koyaanisqatsi — 747s shimmering in the heat, skyscrapers silhouetted against a full moon — seem so beautiful. "I wanted to take not the obvious signs of degradation but the very things we're most proud of and show those are the real monsters. It's the beauty of the beast."

What about the irony of Reggio's using sophisticated film technology to portray the destructive role of technology in our advanced society? "Well, modern life has become a spectacle, and I wanted to make a film that was spectacular enough to alchemize itself from an instrument of entertainment into a medium to raise consciousness."

At age 48, Reggio exudes both humility and confidence in his new role as filmmaker. A monk for fourteen years before becoming a political activist in New Mexico, he had seen very few films and knew nothing about filmmaking when he started work on Koyaanisqatsi in 1975. Although he freely acknowledges a debt to the techniques of experimental filmmakers, Reggio considers Luis Buñuel the main influence on his work. "I used to work with streetgangs in Santa Fe and bought a 16mm copy of Buñuel's Los Olvidados to show them. I must have seen that film 200 times."

Powaqqatsi has attracted a high-powered group of strange bedfellows as producers. Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus are the executive producers, while Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas are the presenters. Budgeted at $4.2 million and released this spring, Powaqqatsi explores the impact of the Northern industrial world on the indigenous peoples of the Southern Hemisphere, who in the process of urbanization are losing not only their land but their souls.

Although Reggio has been offered other projects, from music videos to concert films, he's eager to start work on Naqoyqatsi ("war life"), the final film of the trilogy, which will explore the concept of life itself as a process of war. Reggio's films seem to suggest a coming apocalypse, but the filmmaker himself sees "a beautiful opportunity for another way of being at the end of the madness."

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