Tuesday, April 3, 2012

MOVIE REVIEW: POWAQQATSI: LIFE IN TRANSFORMATION (1988)

Powaqqatsi: Life in Transformation


Directed by Godfrey Reggio
Cinematography by Graham Berry, Leonidas Zourdoumis
Music by Philip Glass
Written by Godfrey Reggio, Ken Richards
Film Editing by Iris Cahn, Miroslav Janek, Alton Walpole
Executive Producers Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Menahem Golan, Yoram Globus


Powaqqatsi is the thematic and stylistic sequel to Koyaanisqatsi. Both are documentaries without any sort of conventional narration, whether voice over or subtitles or inter-titles, dialogue, interviews, charts, graphs, quantitative statistical data, and both are bereft of any sort of obvious advocacy or messaging. Rather, there is Philip Glass's ominously sublime music which gives a kind of otherworldly voice to the imagery, combined with some sound effects, and the montage effect of joining footage shot in locations around the world. Glass's score is kind of like the script, and the overall montage effect of each movie is a kind of magic which unites humans all over the globe into a grand mythic narrative. Watching these movies is like watching an attempt to convey a global narrative of technology's impact on human civilizations and cultures from the point of view of a divine or semi-divine voyeuristic entity. Or maybe that point-of-view entity is some sort of nascent global consciousness struggling to be born from the sum total of human intelligence, memory, and fantasy, combined with and amplified by a burgeoning worldwide computer network that is, itself, evolving towards some kind of sentience. Koyaanisqatsi offered a strong thematic through-line of technology's displacement of nature, almost Luddite in its suspicion of the sinister grandeur of high-tech human societies. Powaqqatsi is more subtle. The suspicion and skepticism of technology's impact and hunger for resources is still present, but this time it is the human cost which is foregrounded. The shining skyscrapers, mass production factory lines, integrated circuit cities, and weapons of mass destruction which were foregrounded in Koyaanisqatsi are relegated to the background, glimpsed askance, known by their signs and sigils, and the human wreckage their existence necessitates. Powaqqatsi is not quite the headlong plunge of Koyaanisqatsi, but it does offer an unforgettable series of meditations on human beings in action, struggling to survive in a hostile world, with only their muscles, lungs, hands, feet, hearts, and minds to keep them alive against the automated giants stalking the planet.

It's difficult to really describe, objectively, what goes on in Powaqqatsi, since it is not an objective or linear narrative experience. The movie is constructed in a way that confounds the usual flow of time, and collapses spatial distances into simultaneous moments. Human beings from different hemispheres, time frames, cultures, and languages are united via the magic of montage and music. The technological deities, idols, and mausoleums of Koyaanisqatsi are here fractionally manifested as bursts of malevolent flame; dreamy neon lights; schizoid media collages merging Me Generation fantasies of beauty, armored militarism, and delusions of unlimited knowledge and power flowing from telescreens and computer monitors into fashionable new narratives; and the ruins of bombed-out apartment blocs where homeless children squat and starve.


Powaqqatsi focuses on human bodies in motion, struggling en masse to carry sacks full of mud out of some pit, or moving in vast crowds through city streets and open air marketplaces. Humans are shown using knives and other blades to cut fruit and harvest grain. Humans use their legs to walk, or to pedal bikes, or to operate the gas and brake pedals of automobiles. Humans are seen uniting to push a malfunctioning flatbed truck over muddy ground. Humans dance as part of ecstatic religious rituals, or as part of funereal rites, or just for fun. Humans ritually battle each other with sticks in stylized poses, and this is, I suppose, a relief from the mass destruction of missiles, bombs, and napalm from the previous film. Humans of various faiths, Hindu, Muslim, Jewish, and others are seen praying as individuals, and in communities. Human children stare into the camera as it pans across their faces, many of them hardly able to keep from smiling and laughing, while others look bone-tired, old before their time. And elderly humans also stare into the camera, some looking distraught, bearing the pain of a lifetime, while others seem out of their minds, distant, and still others look pleased as can be, no longer afraid, no longer full of any kind of desire or acquisitiveness.

There is one little boy who puts up his fists, though, and I can't say if he's just playing, or if he is instinctively sensing the presence of the Enemy: an exploitative, technocratic, corporate predator state looking to suck his village, his country, dry, and cast it aside. Stay tough, kid.

Human power to produce agriculture and low-tech and no-tech civilization and culture is gradually sapped by and superseded by super industrial technology. Human cultures without access to high technology become virtual slave labor for power interests from distant lands, or they are simply left in the dust. Many people are in no position to even fully comprehend the seismic changes that technology works upon humanity, although this is not always the case. Other cultures work hard to adapt, and there is the image of a young child enraptured by the neon lights of Hong Kong staring out the rear window of a moving car.

Some of the images which appear late in the movie involve collages of people moving en masse through electronically regulated crosswalks combined with poor mothers and children sitting with no possessions upon concrete. Visually, it comes across as a family abandoned by high-tech society, lost in a spectral sea of marching legs. Some families are left behind as the rest of the world marches on to an unknowable future. There is something mournful about all this, and it is hard not to sense some anger and frustration, as well. Many beautiful things are made possible with technology, including the Qatsi movies. And yet there is a momentum to high-tech change which is ruthless and must be examined, even if the damage has already been done. Powaqqatsi is, in some sense, a kind of memorial to lives lost in the process of transformation, as one kind of civilization supplants another, a new kind of Nature supplants the old one, and begins to take on a kind of life of its own.

Powaqqatsi trailer:

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