Horizon, June 1988
By Marcia J. Wade
"Sorry, I don't do movies," composer Philip Glass told an unknown, first-time filmmaker named Godfrey Reggio in 1978. Reggio, however, convinced that Glass' visionary music (A fusion of the sounds of Africa and India with rock and classical Western music) would be the perfect accompaniment to his visuals, put together a demonstration reel of his film-in-progress for the composer to see. The beauty of the images and the imaginativeness of their juxtaposition, without dialogue or narration, persuaded Glass to change his mind. "I saw right away that Godfrey's idea of filmmaking was very different from most filmmakers'," says Glass. What he found irresistible in Reggio's work was the possibility "for music and image to form a real symbiosis. The music wasn't going to be relegated to some kind of background position."
The two commenced upon a collaboration that yielded one of the most powerful and elegant films in decades. A plotless montage of hypnotic visuals and a riveting score, without a single word other than musical intonations of the Hopi Indian title (which translates as "life out of balance"), Koyaanisqatsi was a conceptual breakthrough.
Now Reggio and Glass have done it again. Like its predecessor, Powaqqatsi is an evocative, wordless weaving of sight and sound. The second in what will be eventually a Qatsi trilogy, Powaqqatsi's title couples the Hopi word for life (qatsi) with one meaning "negative sorcerer." Filmed in 12 countries on five continents, it is a stirring paean to the land-based cultures of the developing world, celebrating the timeless, interdependent rhythms of work, art, and worship. And it casts a sorrowful eye on their rapid consumption by industrial culture and its technological lifestyle the negative sorcerer of the title.
The man who conceived, wrote, directed, and produced this cinematic masterpiece came to art through the back door. A former priest turned social worker, Reggio has a message, one about which he was passionate. The frank, idealistic presentation of social and ecological concerns also has strong appeal for Glass the composer who has teamed up with everyone from choreographer Twyla Tharp to novelist Doris Lesling on innovative dance, theater, and operatic works.
The near-perfect fusing of music and image upon which this second film's power rests is, says Glass, "no accident, I'll tell you! It's not simply a questions of being inspired by the film and then writing the music." Instead, the two mediums were "married in the very method of our working."
Glass traveled with the crew throughout the Southern Hemisphere, in some cases bringing work tapes for the camera crew to hear before shooting. "That totally reverses the accepted order in industry films," the composer notes.
Back in New York, Glass' sound studio was only minutes from Reggio's production studio, and the two worked together daily for eight months in a manner Glass calls intensely collaborative. "As film was being cut, music was being edited, and they were put together and tried and reshaped and refitted." The result is an interdependence of music, visuals, and concept that is breathtaking.
"The idea of a negative sorcerer is a complex one," says Reggio of the film's title. "We're talking about negativity as it exists collectively, as a way of life. What I'm trying to do is use the metaphor of the negative sorcerer as a shaman would hold up a mirror, in order to give you another point of view. The camera lens and the motor speeds are my mirrors."
Images captured with long lenses from Cuzco, Peru, to Kathmundu, Nepal, unfold at a slow speed that reverberates with the pace of a life tied t the Earth's cycles. An African woman walks a dusty red-dirt road, a child on her back, a bundle on her head; junks bob on an ancient, shimmering sea; meditative worshippers sit lotus-style in front of an Asian temple. Images of vibrant tribal and village life are juxtaposed with lethargic visages of city dwellers, while native, classical, and electronic instruments sound the tribal rhythms of Glass' score. Echoing the pervasive presence of children in the film is a Hispanic children's chorus incorporate into the music.
"Powaqqatsi brings the opportunity to inspire which is inspiritus, to bring spirit to a person," Reggio says of the film's intention to altogether subvert ordinary consciousness. "In a culture that gives credence to notions of progress and development, one could have the equivalent of a spiritual experience."
Without the cinematic conventions of plot and dialogue, Powaqqatsi relies for its dramatic structure upon a triad whose elements are the powerful languages of the images, the composition of visuals and the music into a seamless whole, and the consciousness of the viewer. The third component is a critical and pioneering one, breaking a one-point perspective wide open, so that "if there are a hundred people who see the film, the possibility for a hundred different responses should be present." This is a radical departure from the traditional experience of an art form, which Reggio views as "packaged, programmed."
Reggio's journey to the esthetic avant-garde was through ideas. While his vision is at its heart a profoundly simple one, the concepts, behind it are complex and heady stuff. He names among his influences the late Roman Catholic pontiff Pope John XXIII, American educator Ivan Illich, and French sociologist Jacques Ellul men whose questions have been about the nature of freedom and the ways in which we become enslaved to tyrannical structures. Primary among those for Reggio is a culture based not on the rhythms of human life, but on those of clocks, machines, and the intricate technology that pervades every aspect of modern life. Like Koyaanisqatsi before it, Powaqqatsi depicts a relentless progression into increasing alienation as human societies move to paces that become faster and more frantic.
"The late American designer Buckminster Fuller told his disciples that technology is neutral; it's the use or misuse you make of something that matters. I don't agree," says Reggio. "My position is closer to the one that American philosopher Lewis Mumford takes, which Ellul takes that technology or tools have directions innately designed in them. The tools we use come from the indulgence of a mass society. In religious terms they have heavy juju, or magic, on them.
Not simply a dirge for a threatened way of life in the Southern Hemisphere, Powaqqatsi is also a celebration and a beckoning. Wake up and look, it seems to say, at what we are losing, at what may be lost to us altogether. "In my opinion, we have infinitely more to learn from the almost 3,000 million people who live this tenacious traditional life than they have to learn from us," says Reggio. "What they have to learn from us is that they can give up their whole way of living if they want to come into our way. What we have to learn from them is the genius of decentralization, how to live in economies of self-reliance and self-sufficience how to live with a sense of joy, how to work with the rhythms of the Sun rather than the tick of a clock."
In many ways the vision articulated in these films fuses strains of 1960s activism into sophisticated works of art. Here is the rejection of the status quo, the embrace of more harmonious ways of living and the hope for a different future. "We are living in the time of something dying," says Reggio. "Rather than bemoan that, why not embrace that. If one realizes that the energy of life is to learn about death, that to live one's life is to live death, to embrace it for the mystery and the joy it can hold, then one can understand that our of death, life is born."
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