by Jürgen Fauth
"Naqoyqatsi," the third in Godfrey Reggio's trilogy of non-narrative films, is an impressive piece of eye candy with gorgeous music by Philip Glass and Yo-Yo Ma. Like the 1983 classic "Koyaanisqatsi" and "Powaqqatsi" (1988), it features series of images set to warbling music, movies that aspire to the state of art installation. Unlike its predecessors, though, "Naqoyqatsi" was made without the talents of cinematographer Ron Fricke, and the result is ultimately disappointing.
The music, supple and muscular, might be the best of the three Glass scores, by turns grandiose, gushing, and fragile. Yo-Yo Ma's cello solos add authority and grace: a bath in honey. If only Reggio had found adequate images to go along with it.
While the first two films featured the outstanding wide screen photography of Ron Fricke (who also directed "Baraka"), the new film is assembled from digitally altered stock photography and entirely computer-generated images. The dazzling, trippy visuals are certainly compelling: zooming fractals, ancient cities, Leni Riefenstahl-inspired athletics, faces, soldiers, cannons, animals in the wild, flags, a stock exchange trading floor, human strife, and so on, all digitally altered and tweaked, a never-ending rush of imagery that washes over the viewer without ever letting up. For maximum impact, I recommend sitting very close to the screen.
Like its predecessors, it seems as if "Naqoyqatsi" has something profound to say about the state of the world--but we're never sure exactly what that is. The title, once again taken from the Hopi language, translates as "Life As War." Clearly, the images attempt to communicate. "Naqoyqatsi" wants to be brain fodder, aimed at an audience open and willing to play with the images and decode them in their relation to the music.
At their best, the "qatsi" films can make us see the world again for the first time. They promise to change our perspective to the long view and allow us to see the absurdity and wonder of our present moment fresh. I consider "Koyaanisqatsi" a powerful and inspiring milestone: by stretching the limits of filmmaking, it let us examine the world without the blinders of culture and see the changes wrought onto our planet by civilization with alien eyes.
"Naqoyqatsi" is still constructed to inspire awe, but with one essential difference: now we are inside the belly of the beast. The film's first shot takes us inside a 3-D model of the tower of Babel, never to reemerge, and all we see are metaphors. In "Koyaanisqatsi" and "Powaqqatsi," the images were themselves, they invite being looked at as peculiar instances. In "Naqoyqatsi," everything represents something else, every image standing in for an abstract idea. What we see aren't cities and rivers and people; we see abstract nouns. There is a deadness to "Naqoyqatsi," and much it feels crushingly obvious and familiar.
At its worst, the film resorts to visual clichés. The KKK equals racism, dollar signs equal money, Madonna equals fame, and so forth. In the age of zapping, what is the point of showing us random TV pictures and computer icons, the digital imagery that we are lost in anyway? Bin Laden, MLK, Clinton, and Arafat, Colin Powell, Kofi Annan, and a series of brand names and logos flash by: we're looking at the same old stuff with different digital effects -- which will, no doubt, look dated by the time the film is released on DVD. Besides, nobody should have to pay good money to see larger-than-life images of President Bush or clips from TV commercials.
Instead of helping us step out of our world, which has become inundated with imagery, "Naqoyqatsi" gives us more of the same, and our eyes glaze over.
For more gratifying eye candy, along with an actual story, I recommend Hayao Miyazaki's "Spirited Away," currently playing in theaters, and for a sharper analysis of what "life as war" means in 2002, Michael Moore's "Bowling for Columbine" has much more to say than "Naqoyqatsi." Unless you're a Philip Glass addict or live for digital imagery, your money is better spent on the just-released DVDs of "Koyaanisqatsi" and "Powaqqatsi."
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