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DVD Review: The Qatsi Trilogy – The Criterion Collection

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Since the demise of the Silent Film in the final year of the 1920s, few filmmakers have dared to make a feature-length movie sans the element of sound. Sure, there have been numerable short subjects manufactured by up-and-coming students and/or individuals experimenting with the whole $film as art” process. There have even been homages to the Silent Era in both dramatic (such as Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist) and comical aspects (Mel Brooks’ Silent Movie comes instantly to mind), but most of those entries into the annals of cinema rarely remove themselves from doing little more than showing their respect for the long-gone era prior to those darned “talkies.”

And then there’s experimental filmmaker Godfrey Reggio’s Qatsi Trilogy. Deciding that it was, in fact, possible to make a movie without dialogue or narration — and that one could rely on sights and sounds (à la a silent movie, which would usually play onscreen with live organ or piano accompaniment) to convey a message, Reggio created his masterpiece, Koyaanisqatsi in 1982. Not only did he confuse millions of already-befuddled Americans who were thoroughly convinced it was just another damn foreign film, but he also managed to give us a thought-provoking look at the landscapes of the United States, with a powerful (and memorable) score accompanying the work by none other than Philip Glass.

Seeing the state of the nation (nay, the world) in the early ’80s as something that was thoroughly lopsided either way you looked at it, Reggio dubbed his work from a Hopi expression meaning “Life Out of Balance” — a subtitle that often complements the film’s unfamiliar looking/sounding name. The cast-less documentary feature jots from one portion of the US to another, with very little common connection other than to convey Reggio’s implication that our living in such as a technologically-advanced world is not as highly developed as we might think it to be. Needless to say, Koyaanisqatsi managed to become a cult film, and Reggio followed it up with a second film, Powaqqatsi in 1988.

This time bearing the subtitle “Life in Transformation” (a translation of the film’s title), Powaqqatsi takes us out of the technologically-dependent United States of America and into the far-reaches of those third world countries Sally Struthers always tried to get us to support on television. The conflict here is the awkward transition that the inhabitants of these significantly-poorer nations encounter as they struggle to become accustomed to modern industry. Philip Glass once again contributed a new score to go along with the dialogue-devoid feature, and the filmic impact the movie possesses is just as powerful, but Powaqqatsi apparently failed to generate the same kind of impact its predecessor did — something that one might jokingly (or perhaps, not-so-lightheartedly) ascribe to the fact the second film was backed and distributed by The Cannon Group.

It took fourteen years and the devastating events of 9/11 in order for Reggio — who appeared to abandon his interest in continuing the special interest franchise he beget — to create the third (and so far, final) entry in his trilogy. Released in 2002, Naqoyqatsi — or “Life as War,” if you will — shows our world as a technological powder keg. The gadgets that made were supposed to make our lives more enjoyable twenty years before have become the very weapons of destruction in a four-and-a-half-billion-year-old sphere that has become obsessed with winning and warring. This time, in addition to stock footage as well as his own recordings of the world around us, Reggio interjects computer-generated imagery into the same.

Reggio called it “virtual cinema.” I thought of it as “nowhere near as good as Koyaaniqatsi and a fair bit below Powaqqatsi,” but, of course, that’s just my own, personal, less-than-professional opinion — something our filmmaker in question tends to rely on his audience to do: think for themselves. Once more, Philip Glass composed the movie’s soundtrack, enlisting the assistance of Yo-Yo Ma to add to the musical beauty the score possesses.

Though each film has been released on DVD before, The Criterion Collection have eagerly added this cult series of experimental documentaries to their library — releasing The Qatsi Trilogy to both Blu-ray and Standard-Definition DVD alike. But the difference is like night and day between the older, non-Criterion releases and these new digital transfers. For starters, the earlier films — and the grainy, shaky stock footage they possessed — have been cleaned up and stabilized in order to present them to their fullest. Colors are brought out to their fullest, and dirt and debris have been painstakingly removed from the equation. Huge improvements all-around here, folks — and the newly-mixed 5.1 soundtracks really do a fine job of making the Glass shine [ta-dum].

Naturally, the folks at Criterion wouldn’t let something like The Qatsi Trilogy go with just a revamp of the movies’ audio and video aspects. And so, each movie has a host of goodies attached — most of which are featurettes and interviews with Godfrey Reggio and Philip Glass, and which were filmed specifically for this box set release. Additional extras include a demo version of the original film from 1977, trailers for each film from their respective distributor, a Q&A for the final flick as recorded in 2003, and a 36-page booklet with essays as written by scholarly gentlemen Scott Macdonald, John Rockwell, and Bill McKibben.

Though the latter two entries in The Qatsi Trilogy will never have the same profound impact on me that the original Koyaanisqatsi had on me when I first saw in a while back, all three films deliver the ability for even your average preoccupied-with-Reality-TV viewer might be able to ponder upon. Sure, it’s amusing that these movies about our dependency on technology are now being presented in technologically-superior incarnations as opposed to their digital precursors, but the underlying message is still there for you to think about — should you be able to connect with that part of your brain after all these years of tabloid magazine headlines in the supermarket and smart phone apps for things like animal flatulence sounds and virtual staplers, that is.

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About Luigi Bastardo

Luigi Bastardo is the disgruntled alter-ego of a thirtysomething lad from Northern California who has watched so many weird movies since the tender age of 3 that a conventional life is out of the question. He currently lives in Chico, CA with four cats named Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Margaret. Seriously.