Koyaanisqatsi and Powaqqatsi On DVD
Powaqqatsi: Directed by Godfrey Reggio. Aspect ratio: 1.33:1 (full-screen). Dolby Digital 5.1. 1986. MGM 1003767. NR. 97 minutes. $19.99.
It's not Charlie Chaplin's fault that he sometimes appears to be a clichӑ today. Nor is Sergei Eisenstein to blame because The Battleship Potemkin looks like a student film to some folks. Success and time sometimes conspire to undermine even the highest artistic achievements. Because Chaplin and Eisenstein were both brilliant innovators, their artistry and production techniques have been endlessly copied, and ultimately diminished by their many imitators. It can seem as if the originators are derivative; that they're the borrowers and not the lenders of genius.
While no one claims that Godfrey Reggio, director of the somber and beautiful Koyaanisqatsi and Powaqqatsi, has scaled the heights of Chaplin and Eisenstein, you might well experience déjà vu when viewing these two films, even if you've never seen either. (The titles of the two movies are Hopi words which translate as "life out of balance" for the former and "life in transformation" for the latter.) As beautiful as they are, and as powerful as their messages once were, Koyaanisqatsi and Powaqqatsi roll by now like a pair of protracted New Age music videos composed of clips from National Geographic specials. Reggio's methods and images—especially his time-lapse cinematography of clouds crawling over mountains and cars streaming down light-streaked highways—have been heavily overused.
Back then, the film made a bold, even shocking statement about what sometimes thoughtless humans do to our planet. Without a word of dialogue, Reggio contrasts startlingly beautiful images of America's southwest with those of bleak cityscapes crowded with dull-eyed consumers bustling about like ants trapped between sheets of glass. These dramatic images, backed only by Phillip Glass's "celestial" score, compel us to contemplate our environmental legacy. In 1983, it seemed as if we had abandoned mother Earth in favor of our mechanical children, who chewed up the ground, turned the skies brown, and appeared theoretically capable of an apocalyptic, oedipal coup. Now that we all drive SUVs, chow down on genetically modified foods, and put eco-friendly websites on our "Favorites" lists, we know better. (Ahem.)
Even if we don't know better, we know more. We've seen the horror and wreckage we've caused. Today, it's not enough to show us the devastation and to compare and contrast nature and technology—we understand all of that. What we need now are the cognitive and practical skills, and the will, to resurrect what we've ruined.
But that isn't what these two films are about. They're visual essays on what has gone wrong with "progress," and as such, they have value, though it's been diminished by time and imitation.
For maximum impact, the vast vistas explored in Koyaanisqatsi and its sequel, Powaqqatsi, are best seen on big screens. Unfortunately, both films have a few scratches evident, but they're not distracting enough to ruin a viewing. Glass's New Age tinklings and faux ethnic expositions are heard all too clearly, as far as I'm concerned.
Both DVDs contain interviews with Glass and Reggio. The two prove, with momentary exceptions, that, as in Koyaanisqatsi and Powaqqatsi, thoughts are sometimes best left unspoken.
If you're in a reflective mood, either of these films might well serve as a visual and aural mantra with which to contemplate our world. Just hop into your Cadillac Escalade and zoom on over to the mall to pick one up.