naqoyqatsi (2002)


director: godfrey reggio

The modern world’s a dangerous mess, says Naqoyqatsi director Godfrey Reggio. But if that’s true, then how can Reggio find so much undeniably neat, awe-inspiring imagery with which to fill his films, almost all of it breathtakingly beautiful?

In 1982, Reggio established a cinematic genre with one film in it - his debut, the trippy, thrilling Koyaanisqatsi, which was followed five years later by Powaqqatsi. Naqoyqatsi fills out the trilogy, its title apparently a Hopi word meaning “war as a way of life”. The film -, poetic, wordless jeremiads against the dehumanizing pace and scale of technological civilization - are meant to overwhelm us by concentrating all of the speed and size and brutality of our world, to send us out of the theatre filled with forboding and purpose.

There’s a rich irony that Reggio, who’s at pains to articulate his distrust of technology, has relied more heavily on technology for both his film’s imagery and the digital tools with which to manipulate those images. Far more than in his earlier films, he solarizes, colours and re-draws most of his footage, and includes whole sequences that were rendered entirely by computers, like the avalanches of binary code that spill across the screen, and a montage of spinning corporate logos (including, amusingly, that of Enron) so slickly rendered that it could be the title sequence of a cable business program.

Shots of athletes and marching cadets are, I assume, meant to invoke brute human aggression, which seems both glib and unfair, and slow-motion night-vision footage from what looks like the Gulf War is cut in to emphasize the connection. The inference is far from profound - it’s the kind of put-upon whining you’d expect from some entirely unoriginal kind of high-school misfit - and it’s undercut by the lingering attention Reggio gives to the night-vision scenes, with their huge, specular grain and blue-green palate. Imagery that’s meant to invoke horror ends up playing as starkly beautiful, a gorgeous near-abstract.

Without words, Reggio is supposed to let his editing of his images speak for him, but it’s hard to deny that his aesthetic sense - an artist’s love of rhythm, proportion, colour and symmetry - rides roughshod over the less-than-profound political and social statement implied in his film’s title. Some people might leave the theatre buzzing from Reggio’s onslaught and composer Phillip Glass’ whirring soundtrack. Others will respond with an underwhelmed “so what?”, unable to divine precisely what Reggio is trying to warn them about, what it is, exactly, that he finds so appalling about the wild spectacle he’s just shown them