Home / The Message is the Medium: Koyaanisqatsi and Powaqqatsi come to DVD

The Message is the Medium: Koyaanisqatsi and Powaqqatsi come to DVD

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The fall release of Koyaanisqatsi and its first sequel, Powaqqatsi, is a wonderful boost to the medium of DVD (and timed to help promote the third film in the trilogy, Naqoyqatsi, coming to theaters later this month). For years, videotapes of both films were out of print, available only via auction on Ebay, or through the sheer blind luck of seeing a used rental version on a shelf somewhere. And only Koyaanisqatsi was released on laser disc, DVD’s predecessor format.

The Message is the Medium–And the Medium Dazzles.

Running 87 minutes without a stitch of dialogue, Koyaanisqatsi nonetheless carries a powerful emotional message. Of course, what that message is depends on what the viewer wants to take away from the film. I think it’s a safe bet that Godfrey Reggio, the director of Koyaanisqatsi and Powaqqatsi believes, more or less, in most of the standard shibboleths of the environmental left: man is bad, technology is bad, nature is best left pristine, etc. Kill ’em all: let Gaia sort it out.

But as Roger Ebert once noted, it’s possible to come out of Koyaanisqatsi with an entirely different message, one much more positive and uplifting:

“The first shots of smokestacks are no doubt supposed to make us recoil in horror, but actually I thought they looked rather noble. The shots of the expressways are also two-edged. Given the clue in the title, we can consider them as an example of life out of control. OR –and here’s the catch — we can marvel at the fast-action photography and reflect about all those people moving so quickly to their thousands of individual destinations. What a piece of work is a man! And what expressways he builds!”

And what movies and music he makes as well. The “Qatsi” films turn Marshall McLuhan’s old aphorism on its head–The Message is the Medium–and the medium dazzles.

Protesting Too Much

The Koyaanisqatsi DVD comes with a fairly comprehensive video interview of Reggio and his soundtrack composer, Philip Glass. At one point, Reggio refers to technology as “the beast”, and an oppressive one at that. And yet, Reggio, his cinematographer, the brilliant Ron Fricke, and Glass each push technology to the limit while simultaneously attacking it. At one point in Koyaanisqatsi, during a rapidly speeded-up night cityscape, the camera pans, in a perfectly fluid motion past a huge Miesian office building and thousands of cars whirring past underneath. Think of the technology involved in that camera movement: Selecting a camera designed to shoot a frame or two a second to get that speeded-up look. And loading it with the right film stock to shoot at night, the right filter on the lens to shoot in nothing but city lights, the right motorized head to allow the camera to pan at an ultra-low speed, etc. And then have the lab properly develop the film and time the prints, etc. And then add Glass’s music, largely performed on synthesizers in a recording studio.

Reggio and his crew assembled multiple layers of technology for their own ends–why do they fault other men for doing the exact same thing? Why is their use of it good, but others’ use of it bad? Aren’t Reggio, Fricke and Glass wallowing in technology as much–if not more so–than their audience, who are leading exactly the kind of lifestyle attacked in Koyaanisqatsi.

The Ambiguity of Images

Fortunately, as Ebert noted, the very ambiguity of the “Qatsi” films allows for the viewer to take away a very different message than the director intended, very much like 2001: A Space Oddysey, which been paired with Koyaanisqatsi as a double feature at least once–and Koyaanisqatsi is inconceivable without Kubrick’s pioneering efforts mating stunning photography with classical music. As Kubrick noted shortly after 2001 was released:

No, I didn’t have to try for ambiguity; it was inevitable. And I think in a film like 2001, where each viewer brings his own emotions and perceptions to bear on the subject matter, a certain degree of ambiguity is valuable, because it allows the audience to “fill in” the visual experience themselves. In any case, once you’re dealing on a nonverbal level, ambiguity is unavoidable. But it’s the ambiguity of all art, of a fine piece of music or a painting — you don’t need written instructions by the composer or painter accompanying such works to “explain” them. “Explaining” them contributes nothing but a superficial “cultural” value which has no value except for critics and teachers who have to earn a living. Reactions to art are always different because they are always deeply personal.

Which is why, even though I disagree with most, if not all of Koyaanisqatsi’s conclusions, I can still be dazzled by the film. Like 2001, its images and music are stunning. It’s use of a non-linear plot radical. If more movies used this approach, rather than the hidebound three-act structure that dates back to the dawn of talkies, I’d be one happy camper.

Kubrick would probably agree:

Here again, you’ve got the resemblance to music; an Alabama truck driver, whose views in every other respect would be extremely narrow, is able to listen to a Beatles record on the same level of appreciation and perception as a young Cambridge intellectual, because their emotions and subconscious are far more similar than their intellects. The common bond is their subconscious emotional reaction; and I think that a film which can communicate on this level can have a more profound spectrum of impact than any form of traditional verbal communication.

The problem with movies is that since the talkies the film industry has historically been conservative and word-oriented. The three-act play has been the model. It’s time to abandon the conventional view of the movie as an extension of the three-act play. Too many people over thirty are still word-oriented rather than picture-oriented.

Speaking of pictures, MGM certainly did a nice job transferring these two films to DVD. The images on Koyanasqatsi are starting to show their age a bit: this is after all, a twenty year old film, which uses a fair amount of stock footage in its arsenal of cinemagraphic techniques. In contrast, the colors of 1988’s Powaqqatsi literally pop off the screen, such as the South American woman near the beginning of the film in the most brilliant blood red dress imaginable.

The Music Makes The Images Dance

Arguably even more stunning than the transfer of Koyaanisqatsi’s images is the remix of Philip Glass’s score into 5.1 sound. Koyaanisqatsi would be an entirely different film, and quite probably a far worse one, without Glass’s music. It makes those images come alive and dance: what Fred Astaire did for dancing bodies on film, Reggio and his editors do for the images themselves–they pulsate and whirl like Sufi dervishes to Glass’s music. And the Latin percussion on Glass’s score for Powaqqatsi is, if anything, more spectacular, with a huge spread across all the speakers of the 5.1 system–and powerful, thumping bass. Be careful–under the opening titles, there’s a low frequency note that can shake your home theater apart!

While it’s easy for me to find fault with Koyaanisqatsi’s message, it’s least it has one. Powaaqtsi seems much more like a hip update of the sorts of travelogues that studios used to put out in the 1930s and 40s: see the atmospheric scenery and indigenous peoples of far-off cultures! Note the happy primitives going about their lives in harmony with nature! (If the UN needed a music video for their recent, disastrous “Sustainability Conference” in Johannesburg, Powaqqatsi would have been perfect. Who knows–it may have even inspired it on some level.) If there’s a plot to Powaqqatsi (beyond its obvious and shopworn theme of the corrupting pervasiveness of the US), it’s much, much more diffuse than Koyaanisqatsi. Although it’s telling how much happier many of noble savages and primitives shown in Powaqqatsi are to the bourgeois Americans in Koyaanisqatsi–but it may not be the message that Reggio intends. Film–especially for the propagandist–is all about editing and selection. And it’s a mirror of its creator.

But that’s OK. You can always crank up Glass’s music, and space out. Both films are magnificent high-tech wallpaper that allow your personal home theater technology–which didn’t even exist when Koyaanisqatsi was released–to shine.

How guilty that makes you feel for wallowing in the beast is entirely up to you.

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About Ed Driscoll

  • Eric Olsen

    Almost as beautiful as the movies Ed, Thanks!

  • Years later I happen upon your post and find it particularly inspiring and comforting. Know that I share your optimistic view of humanity and our wonderful technology. It’s reassuring in today’s world where it seems that everything that we have worked hard 2000 years for has come under fire.

    What beautiful crystal cities and pulsing life.

    Maybe our optimism is an american thing…

  • Mike O

    Years later, Beau Tardy, I happen upon your comment.

  • Mike Oh

    How many more years?