Na.qoy.qatsi (nah koy' kahtsee) From the Hopi language, n.
1. A life of killing each other. 2. War as a way of life. 3. (Interpreted) Civilised violence.
If Koyaanisqatsi (Crazy Life, Life out of Balance) called into question the Northern hemisphere’s relationship with technology and Powaqqatsi (An Entity that Consumes the Life Force of Another) focussed on the effects of technological expansion into the third world, Naqoyqatsi (Life at war) takes Godfrey Reggio's thematic Qatsi (Life) trilogy to its inevitable conclusion – technology as a global force, waging war with the world - everyday life as war.
It is hard to imagine now how influential and revolutionary the techniques used in Koyaanisqatsi (1983) and Powaqqatsi (1988) were, their style has since been so imitated and appropriated by advertising agencies and pop promos. Naqoyqatsi searches for a new way of putting its message across, using the very technology it is warning us about – there is no narration, no dialogue, no titles, just a series of rapid, bewildering images that seem to have no common theme or purpose. This is not the case of course. For the filmmakers, the subject is clear – in a modern day society, life is war. To put this message across however, the filmmakers have striven to look at the subject from a different, less obvious angle, trying to create a new language to lose the baggage of traditional, iconic images. All this places far too much on the viewer to make sense of, certainly too much for a single viewing.
The early part of the film seems to focus on the human body as a complex machine – thermal imaging, x-ray, computer scanning show the body from almost every conceivable angle except, perhaps tellingly, the surface way we normally view people. Every image of the human form is seen through some kind of technological device, via a television screen, treated in the computer or even shown as waxwork models or computer simulations. The latter part of the film is handled the same way, showing war scenarios or situations of conflict, all through stock TV and film footage, all manipulated, blended together and presented in a kaleidoscopic fury of transitions. The images of the use of technological weapons demonstrate most clearly the impersonal nature of technology to distance us from what is really happening. Unfortunately, as a film, Naqoyqatsi has the same effect – taking filmmaking to an experimental level where the message it is trying to put across uses the medium as the message has the inevitable effect of thereby distancing itself from the viewer.
With the images and the narrative of the film being much harder to connect with, Philip Glass’ music takes on ever greater prominence and it’s not really up to the task. As Glass says in the extra material, with the film being so abstract, he needed to find intermediary way for the viewer to relate to the film and similarly abstract music would not have helped. While the score does serve this purpose to some extent, it is a little bit unadventurous – which I think is more of a reflection of where Glass is musically nowadays. The score has the same impersonal, clinical drive of the film, but Glass has tried to give depth and character through some solo cello pieces featuring Yo-Yo Ma. Reggio describes this in his liner notes on the soundtrack CD as bringing a "human presence" to the film. I’m not sure this is entirely appropriate thematically for the film and I’m not sure it succeeds. I don’t think the Naqoyqatsi score has any of the power or conceptual strength of Philip Glass’ work for the previous two films.
The inability of the images to make a personal connection with the viewer in the manner of the first two films has two contradictory consequences - on the one hand, it makes viewing much more difficult - watching the abstract images over 89 minutes becomes wearying when you can’t find any narrative thread to grasp hold of - on the other hand, it possibly gives the film an even greater re-watch value, as you try to impose your own structure or narrative onto it all, finding different meanings depending on your frame of mind at that moment. Whether it eventually yields rewards however will depend on the individual viewer and the film’s ability to stand the test of time. I think the 'message' and the reliance on technology to put that across will date this film and its message much faster than the more universal humanistic themes of Koyaanisqatsi and Powaqqatsi.
The picture is stunning. It really is virtually flawless and don’t let anyone tell you any different. There are issues with the material used – because of the nature of the film, it is made up almost entirely of stock footage - so any problems are inherent in the original materials. However, the images have been so treated and manipulated that you are not going to notice what is a flaw and what is an intentional effect, and to be honest it’s not really a relevant consideration. Neither is colour fidelity as important an issue here as there is scarcely a natural, original colour among the images throughout the film. Everything has been coloured, filtered, polarised, stretched, manipulated through Photoshop in every possible way. However having said that, there clearly is a colour scheme to the different segments of the film and it looks spectacular here.
The principal issue with the picture quality is the stretching of the image. As can be seen from the image below, the image figures are flattened and circles become ellipses. The picture has clearly been stretched from a 4:3 format to anamorphic 1.78:1. If you force the image back from the anamorphic widescreen to 4:3, the image takes on its correct proportions and aspect. However, while we didn’t get an opportunity to see the film theatrically in the UK, it appears that the stretching of the image was the director’s intention, since most of the images used were stock 4:3 aspect ratio and they were manipulated on a computer display so it is no doubt a compromise that was forced upon the filmmakers when transferring this to film. It’s not ideal, but neither is it a fault of the DVD – this is how the film was meant to look. Personally, I find the effect a little annoying – close-ups of faces are particularly distorted – but in a film where nothing is natural, it doesn’t jar as much as it could.
To go along with a perfect picture, we have a perfect soundtrack. While I may have some reservations about Philip Glass’ musical contribution this time, there is no problem whatsoever with the presentation and performance of the score. Driving, pulsating rhythms and deep, searing cello solos make full use of the surrounds, perfectly pitched and separated across the 5.1 channels. Naqoyqatsi is much more reliant on its score than the other films in the trilogy that had a clear visual narrative force and the DVD’s Dolby Digital 5.1 audio presentation certainly does it justice.
Life Is War (1:33) is a short introduction to the film by executive producer Steven Soderbergh and director Godfrey Reggio, covering the film's themes and methods. This could certainly be watched before the film and might give some clues as to what it is all about. The Music of Naqoyqatsi: Conversation with Philip Glass and Yo-Yo Ma (7:03) feature is also worthwhile - Glass’ theories on music are always interesting and he sums up his intentions for Naqoyqatsi here very clearly in conversation with the celebrated cellist, Yo-Yo Ma. A lengthy NYU Panel Discussion (54:24) held before the film’s premiere is a substantial look at all aspects of Naqoyqatsi and the themes of the whole trilogy. All the principal parties are there – Godfrey Reggio, Philip Glass and Jon Kane. It is all very well moderated by John Rockwell, Arts Editor of the New York Times, who puts forward interesting and relevant questions. The DVD also includes Trailers for Koyaanisqatsi and Powaqqatsi as well as a trailer for the CD soundtrack.
The problem with reviewing a film like Naqoyqatsi now it that it may well take a number of viewings and a number of years before it’s prophetic message can be judged to have succeeded or failed. When the filmmakers could have easily relied on a remake in the style of the previous films, going the unconventional, experimental and uncommercial route for Naqoyqatsi is admirable. The film however lacks the human element of the other two films and its rapid-fire structure never gives the viewer enough time to dwell on the images long enough to form an impression. With 25 years since the conception of the trilogy and 14 years since Powaqqatsi, I think the filmmakers have had too long to dwell on the third part to the extent that that they have developed their own obscure shorthand for the images and messages. Divesting images of their traditional meaning and decontextualising iconography is all very well - whatever intentions the filmmakers had may be clear to them, but refined and abstracted over a number of years, they are baffling to anyone else. In terms of audio and visual quality however, this is one of the most spectacular DVDs I have ever seen.