Saturday, September 8, 2012

MOVIE REVIEW: NAQOYQATSI: LIFE AS WAR (2002) Directed by Godfrey Reggio

Written and Directed by Godfrey Reggio

Music by Phillip Glass
Cello solos by Yo-Yo Ma
Conductor Michael Riesman
Music and Soundtrack Producer Kurt Munkacsi

Editor and Visual Designer Jon Kane

Director of Photography Russell Lee Fine

Producers Joe Beirne, Godfrey Reggio, Lawrence Taub
Co-Producer Mel Lawrence
Executive Producer Steven Soderbergh

The first thing we see is the mythic Tower of Babel. Perhaps we are meant to reflect on languages, communication, how human beings have been divided from one another by different ways of speaking, believing, living, dying, worshipping. We zoom into the Tower of Babel, and find ourselves floating through bombed out apartment blocs and office buildings, the mythic surface giving way to something all-too-real and contemporary. As the movie progresses we are subjected to imagery of computer models of life, humanity, chemistry, climate, weather, the quantification of every aspect of nature. Nature is brought under the control of ultra-technology. Life is designed and decanted according to precise specifications. War is the new engine of evolution, a Hobbesian combat of all-against-all. I think back to the Tower of Babel. It would seem, in retrospect, to presage the failure of humans not just to communicate, but also the failure to take control of our own destiny as one species sharing one planet. We've handed the command and control functions over to the Machine. It is our new God, Monarch, Executive, Supreme Being, whatever. But is this wrong? Is it right? Did we ever really have a choice? Are we guided by pure instinct, even when it comes to technology? Must we always do that which is possible, no matter the consequences? Only one thing is for sure: there are going to be a lot of dead bodies . . .

Godfrey Reggio brings his documentary/myth-cycle of human technological conquest of nature to a disquieting, perhaps transhumanist, conclusion in Naqoyqatsi: Life as War. In the first movie, Koyannisqatsi, the imagery and music depicted late twentieth century humanity's development of weapons of mass destruction, urban sprawl, and a nascent world-around computer network. Koyannisqatsi was mostly from the perspective of the conquerors: the USA, the Soviet Union, Madison Avenue, and sundry defense contractors and petroleum companies, with some sequences depicting the dehumanizing processes of mass entertainment, Las Vegas, and supermax prison-style housing projects. During one bravura, darkly comedic sequence various frenetic human activities--disco dancing, hot dog manufacturing, sped-up automobile traffic--are all integrated into a giant computer chip, suggesting the triumph of rationalized mass production techniques applied on a maximal scale to all aspects of human existence. The second movie was Powaqqatsi, which focused on the human wreckage of the processes set into motion in Koyannisqatsi. Powaqqatsi was not as direct as the first movie in how it chose to tell its tale, but rather took a roundabout approach, showing the march of techno-conquest from the perspective of the peoples and nations being trampled and exploited for slave labor to service the new globalized post-nature regime.

Naqoyqatsi, like the previous two movies in the trilogy, is, in form, a kind of experimental documentary consisting of provocative imagery cut together in an unconventional form, and set to Philip Glass's sublime and ominous original score. Yo-Yo Ma's solos add a mournful, elegiac quality to the soundscape. It is not an activist movie or a conventional political movie, although it is tempting to interpret it in such terms. It does not push any political platform or candidate, nor does it give any easy answers to the systems and dilemmas it illustrates. Rather, it offers an alternative paradigm to what we typically see in human political discourse, especially in the United States. It offers up no bogus messianic heroes or self-serving morality or unconvincing conservative/liberal outrage. What it does offer is a systemic portrait of human civilization being dominated and transformed into a civilization of cyborgs and replicants who are pitted against each other in merciless, factional combat. For those who do not cotton to gladiatorial exertions, there are also the consolations of consumerism and nostalgic, retro-pop fantasy delusions. It uses a mixture of original documentarian footage, computer graphics, and even footage from Koyannisqatsi and Powaqqatsi remixed and retinted for a new era. Like the previous two movies it does not have a conventional linear narrative, although this one is perhaps more linear than the other two. Its soundtrack and imagery invites the viewer to create their own narrative interpretations wthin certain parameters, and is not a movie meant to be taken passively. You must think through what you're watching, resist it even, and draw your own conlusions. This blog post constitutes my own personal ruminations about watching Naqoyqatsi. If you've never seen the movie I'm not sure it's possible to spoil it, but I would recommend you watch it. Reading a review of it is not the same as actually seeing it.

Naqoyqatsi zips into the depths of a twenty-first century where all human life and enterprise is directed towards the purpose of war eternal, a global village of Olympian warriors stripped of unnecessary emotions,  and ready to kill and die at a moment's notice for their corporate/governmental/ideological/religious masters. The world-girdling computer network of Koyannisqatsi has evolved into something like the hegemonic machine system of those Matrix movies: every human being is now plugged into his/her very own virtual identity/reality tunnel. Each warrior-citizen (think Roy Batty and Pris and the other replicants from Blade Runner) is locked into his own private trip of fantasy-empowerment. Each one man/woman army has been hypnotized into believing that they fight for whatever flag/nation/faith/professional sports team/pop cultural icon suits them, whatever keeps them marching, killing, consuming, the whole range of options has been determined and offered up in user-friendly, highly intuitive menus of easily understood icons and graphical interfaces by a system of perfect control. This system seems to be the final flowering of the march of technological conquest. All life is now pitted in a brutal competition to see who is fit to survive and be modified into a transcendent new species fit to conquer the universe.

How does the system determine how to select and modify appropriate life forms? Well, the genomic data of all life has now be rigorously quantified. Custom organisms can be decanted, tested, and, if necessary, put down, and tossed back into the manufacturing cycle. Weather and climate patterns can now be modeled with powerful computer systems. The movie seems obsessed with images of the quantification and regimentation of life and nature: soldiers marching in lockstep; full body scans feeding into precise computer models of life; computer models of hurricanes and waves breaking on shore; appetite, desire, lust, love, hate are all analyzed according to the infallible metrics of the global capitalist marketplace.

Belief has also been cracked. Nation states, ideology, and religion have been reduced to click-through icons on a screen. The great moral leaders, celebrities, heads of state, and thinkers have been transformed into clipjob TV retrospective hallucinations and, in one eerie, extended sequence, a procession of tragic wax figures. Yassir Arafat, Billy Graham, George W. Bush, Gandhi, Albert Einstein, Martin Luther King, Pope John Paul II, Princess Di, Sitting Bull, Donald Trump, Jackie O., Fidel Castro, Nelson Mandela, Ted Turner, and others are all depicted as a succession of wax statues. It's pretty damn creepy to watch. It is also weirdly reassuring: capitalists, crooks, geniuses, civil rights heroes, warmongers, communists, deciders, martyrs--we all end up in the same wax museum in the sky. So don't beat yourself up if your life isn't quite going the way you want it to, okay? You'll get your wax statue, too, in the end.

Hmm. Maybe that's not reassuring at all! Some of these people do not deserve to be in the same company as Martin Luther King or Gandhi or Einstein or Sitting Bull. Then again, that flattening out of the moral dimensions, the reduction of a wide range of people to a pantheon of sheer fame--maybe it's a new mutation of Warhol's pop-art transcendence, 15 minutes of fame, all that. Now, we all get a chance to choose a world famous avatar from times gone by, never mind our own individual dreams and schemes. Never mind what a given avatar might have fought for, stood for, believed in--they were famous! And now they've been stripped of all that pesky ambiguity, struggle, and morality for good or ill, destruction or creation! Now you can co-opt that fame with one click of an icon! In this process, we see a new scale of dehumanization: the true end of history, where all the beings that come along after a certain lock-down point are no longer active participants in their own lives, but are just  assets of the perfect system of control. Grim stuff.

Maybe a little paranoid, too. I can't help but feel there's something goofy about a movie,which is a high technological product, being used to offer up a strident critical view of a technological dystopia. Godfrey Reggio has said that he decided to use technological means to create the Qatsi movies because you have to play on the terms of the dominant techno-culture if you want your message to break through to people. Makes sense, but there is a weird tension, for me, when watching these Qatsi movies. I can't tell if they're mere paranoid, Luddite doomsday fantasies or if they're dead-on correct about the state of the world. After all, doomsday fantasies are a way of reassuring oneself: life sucks, everything is fucked, why worry? I know what's going on!

Sort of like conspiracy theories: connect enough dots, make enough accusations, no one can be trusted, but the truth is still out there, so I'll just share my grand insights with a select few people--for we are the chosen ones! Only we know the truth! And we're gonna publish our own books, and magazines, and hold conferences--and say fuck all to the mainsream media which is all under Illuminati/Bilderberger/Trilateral/John Birch Society/Cthulhuoid control!

Okay, okay, the Qatsi movies aren't really conspiracy flicks. But it seems to me that conspiracy nuts and doomsayers (full disclosure: I'm a bit of a doomsayer myself) have a few things in common. Also, watching the Qatsi movies feels, at times, like a secret, underground education. Like having your eyes opened by Morpheus in The Matrix. Or could it be that the Qatsi trilogy is a tool of the Illuminati?! (gasps)

But seriously: what gives Reggio's Qatsi trilogy its strength is its systemic long-view of human techno-conquest. These aren't conspiracy rants, but rather they constitute a free form analysis of what you might call the human technological instinct. Our seemingly innate drive to modify the environment and create tools and our capacity for pattern seeking, systemic methods of thought has led us to great scientific breakthroughs, grand works of art, engineering, and architecture, and advances in medicine which have improved the quality of our lives on this planet.

 But our capacity for systemic thought and quantitative scientific endeavor has also created the atom bomb, industrial pollution, vast inequalities of wealth and healthcare, mass slaughter via wars and genocides, and the potential for the creation of new super-viruses and bacteria via the uncontrolled use of antibiotics and designer pathogens. There's no way we can live without technology at this point, and yet it seems to be impossible to control. Reggio's Qatsi movies don't offer up any easy solutions or heroes. They are portraits of the world as it is in all its complexity. Naqoyqatsi seems to be a vision of the near future. So maybe Naqoyqatsi is a little bit more of a cautionary tale than the other two. With this third Qatsi movie, there's more of a sense that the future it depicts hasn't quite happened yet, that maybe we can take another path.

The closing images of Naqoyqatsi are redolent with a dark kind of hope: footage of human skydivers who seem to defy gravity, who seem to fly. Could these flying people be the fruit of some sort of transhumanist selective breeding program? Could all the conflict and strife and mass slaughter be bending towards the production of a new, superior form of humanity, suited to existing beyond the confines of the earth?

Or is it another fevered delusion born of human arrogance and cruelty? After all, skydivers only look like they're flying. They're actually plummeting at great speed towards the dirt.

Maybe these final images are meant to suggest our own towering delusions as a species, our collective fantasies of conquest, empowerment, of techno-immortality . . . These final images also seem to echo the falling rocket debris from the end of Koyannisqatsi.

Maybe, with this third and final Qatsi movie, we are at the end of the human dream of absolute power over nature. For that matter, maybe we have also reached the end of our collective fantasy that technology serves us as a tool, and we must now wake up to the fact that we are carried along by the techno-instinct as much as or even more than we have any control over it. Maybe we can't change our fate as a species, but at least we have some idea of what's coming. The first two Qatsi movies were trailers for the world as it once was in the time that those movies were made, preparing their audiences for contact with stark reality. Naqoyqatsi is a trailer for a merciless future that we cannot resist or change. Here's hoping Godfrey Reggio didn't get it all right . . .

Naqoyqatsi trailer:

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