"I take orders from the Octoboss."


tn_powaqqatsilucasminusstarwarsGeorge Lucas and his big homey Francis Ford Coppola (CAPTAIN EO) are executive producers of Godfrey Reggio’s POWAQQATSI (Life in transformation), the EMPIRE STRIKES BACK of the Qatsi trilogy that began with KOYAANISQATSI (Life out of balance) in 1982 and ended with NAQOYQATSI (Life as war) in 2002. If you’ve seen either of those, or the ones by Reggio’s cinematographer Ron Fricke (I reviewed his SAMSARA in 2011) then you got a pretty good idea what this is like. Which is good, because my words might not cut it.

We could classify these as “experimental documentaries,” but they don’t have much of what anybody thinks of when they think of documentaries. No interviews, no narration, no onscreen text, no people talking at all. No storyline or argument made. No easily encapsulated subject or premise. Just themes.

They’re like cinematic paintings, or photo essays, or poems. They rhyme by having similar shots and images over and over again, all set to very repetitive (in a good way) scores by Philip Glass.

KOYAANISQATSI focused on industrialization, lots of time lapse shots of factories, highway systems, foot traffic in crowded cities, humanity and machinery mimicking each other, bleeding into each other. POWAQQATSI is kind of the opposite. It starts in muddy valleys, dirt roads, puebloes, and it’s almost entirely in slow motion. For a while I wondered if the many pans across landscapes and buildings were slo-mo, because if so it might be 100% slowed down. But toward the end the spell is broken when there are some hectic, sped-up shots – a train P.O.V. for example – as technology intrudes on their lives.

The long opening scene is just about a bunch of people carrying bags of what I thought was maybe grain or something up a steep, muddy wall. Looks like a pain in the ass. The imagery documents hardship and celebrates culture in various parts of South America and Asia. Reggio likes to do portraits of regular people. Extreme closeups or slow pans across serious, hardened faces, weathered elders, kids with their ribs showing. In slow motion, with that music, people just walking becomes epic. There is labor and squalor, but also dancing, parades, colorful costumes.

Since there are no explanations, and sudden changes of location, the cultures sort of blend together. They become an otherworldly every-people, a reminder of how much of the world I have no conception of, but also a unifying force, a vision of how much people have in common throughout the world.

mp_powaqqatsiAlmost halfway through there’s a jarring montage of TV imagery, phony whitebread advertisements evolving into similar commercial propaganda for Asia, South America, even Russia I believe as the world becomes increasingly westernized and colonized by mass produced and marketed consumer products. And for the rest of the movie the imagery will be more and more invaded by airplanes, trucks, billboards, monolithic buildings and growing population.

“Powaqqatsi” is a Hopi compound word, and I’m not even gonna tell you what it means, because it’s almost a spoiler. At the end, when it’s defined on screen, it’s such a poetic way of describing what Reggio is getting at that it makes a perfect exclamation point of an ending.

I’ve always let these movies speak for themselves, but for this one I watched some of the interviews on the Criterion blu-ray to find out what Reggio thinks it’s all about. He says KOYAANISQATSI is about our industrialized lives in the northern hemisphere, and POWAQQATSI is about the simpler “hand-made” lifestyles of the south being intruded upon by our cyborg ways. He denies accusations of romanticizing poverty, but does worry about what technology is doing to these cultures, and questions whether “progress” and technological advancement are the same thing. That’s why one of the iconic images of the movie is a little boy walking along the side of a road as a giant truck drives by, inches away from him, enveloping him with exhaust.

I didn’t entirely pick up on all that. The opening scene doesn’t exactly make you want to drop all your machines off at the Goodwill, especially after the interview explains what’s going on: 1,500 miners are digging a pit and carrying bags of dirt out by hand. They edge their way up paths carved into a towering slope and climb wooden ladders with the things slung over their shoulders. The unconscious looking guy being carried got hit on the head by a falling rock. They could at the very least use the technology of helmets.

Reggio has some fiery, kill-your-television type sentiments, but he’s so thoughtful and demonstrably worldly that to me it doesn’t come across as some hippie bullshit. Also it’s interesting to know that he used to be a Catholic brother. He comes from a background of seeking peace and fighting poverty. Now he does it with movies instead of brewing Chartreuse or whatever Catholic brothers do.

This is not a Lucasfilm. In fact, it’s a god damn Cannon Film. Golan and Globus have their names on it right there with Lucas and Coppola. This was the same year they put out BLOODSPORT and BRADDOCK: MISSING IN ACTION III. I don’t know what the deal is with them, but for Lucas I believe this another case of being a powerful film lover using his clout to help an artist he admires succeed in his struggle against the Empire of the bottom line. I doubt Lucas had any creative impact on the film, but I still think it should be required viewing for all future Star Warsers. Some of the cultures seen here may already be reflected a little in Lucas’s planets, particularly the architecture of Tatooine. Lucas also brushed up against the POWAQQATSI theme in the static between the (presumably) aboriginal Gungans and the (I’m-reasonably-sure) colonialist Naboo. Of course it’s heresy to request more Gungans in THE PHANTOM MENACE, but it would be cool if that conflict was explored instead of just hinted at.

Okay, I’m stretching here to find a connection between POWAQQATSI and STAR WARS, but to my surprise there’s a pretty huge hard-to-deny one right up front. In the parlance of clickbait, this one WILL BLOW YOUR MIND.

Okay, listen to Glass’s music for this opening POWAQQATSI scene. Pay special attention to the vocals starting 43 seconds in:

And now listen to John Williams’ celebration music for the end of PHANTOM MENACE. For this one the relevant vocals start at about 31 seconds in:


CAN YOU FUCKING BELIEVE IT? I’m not saying there is a rough cut of THE PHANTOM MENACE entirely set to Philip Glass temp music. Actually I am saying that. That is what I’m saying. Or at least maybe they were both influenced by music from the same culture.

Lucas has recently mentioned POWAQQATSI when talking about the two experimental films he plans to make but not release. So it’s something he remembers and is proud of, whether or not it was a conscious influence on his followup directorial work.

Anyway, good trilogy. Looking forward to the prequels.

This entry was posted on Thursday, January 14th, 2016 at 11:28 am and is filed under Documentary, I don't know, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

22 Responses to “Powaqqatsi”

  1. I’m probably gonna sound like a dumb fuck trying to say that it’s boring because it’s not lowbrow enough for his ape-man tastes, but I’ll admit I fell asleep like 3/4 in, and that was with an actual orchestra conducted by Philip Glass playing in the theater. So it’s not necessary a movie for any Star Wars/Cannon fan in my opinion. The lightsaber fights, millenium falcon stunts and Jean-Claude Van Damme splits are kept to a minimum.

  2. I almost pity Vern that he’ll have to review RADIOLAND MURDERS.

    Anyway I saw KOYAANISQATSI a long time ago, but never this sequel/reboot. Someday I hope to rectify that.

  3. Over on the DIE HARD thread, Cowboy. Watch the broken glass.

  4. Nice take Vern. I was looking forward to this one. Love your take on putting into words something so unique and visual. And yes, a big round of applause for Golan-Globus! Seeing the logo at the opening always puts a smile on my face. I was a big fan of this series and got to see all three on the big screen up release. POWAQQATSI played at the (at the time) new Cineplex Odeon THX Theater in Houston on their biggest screen. Not for all tastes, but some astonishing and patient work behind the camera by Reggio and his team. The kind of filmmaking that pushes the boundaries of cinematic storytelling a bit further than the comfort zone of the last hundred (or more) movies you’ve seen. Easy to understand why both Coppola and Lucas were so impressed.

    One of my favorite Kubrick quotes:

    “A film is — or should be — more like music than like fiction. It should be a progression of moods and feelings. The theme, what’s behind the emotion — the meaning — all that comes later. The essence of dramatic form is to let an idea come over people without it being plainly stated. When you say something directly, it is simply not as potent as it is when you allow people to discover it for themselves.”

  5. I haven’t seen POWAQQATSI, but KOYAANISQATSI left me underwhelmed. The editing’s incredibly heavy-handed β€” by the time we get to the cross-cuts between commuters on escalators and weiners in a meat-processing plant, I’d given up on it. Love the score, though. And the film did inspire one of my favourite reviews, from Kevin Jackson in Time Out:

    “A wildly charitable viewer might describe this as an ecological documentary. Less than 90 minutes transport us from the primordial cuteness of the American South-West (a Good Thing) to the squalor of a Manhattan rush hour (a Bad Thing); and in case you still don’t get the message, there’s plenty of time-lapse photography to make people look like machines, and an apocalyptic score by Philip Glass to tell you off for daring to find visual pleasure in New York’s skyline. At once maudlin and doggedly sarcastic, the film gives you the uncomfortable sensation of being condescended to by an idiot; it is, transparently, a product of the advanced technology it purports to despise. The title, by the way, is pilfered from the Hopi tongue and means ‘vacuous hippy’.”

    There’s also the pseudo-sequel BARAKA from KOYAANISQATSI’s cinematographer Ron Fricke (I don’t think he worked on POWAQQATSI or NAQOYQATSI). It’s less successful in its message β€” even when Fricke wants something to be ugly, he can’t help prettifying it β€” which actually makes me enjoy it more. The old Alpha Centauri strategy video game borrows some of the footage, so I’ve seen a few scenes dozens of times over the years.

  6. I mentioned this in the forums, but KOYAANISQATSI and POWAQQATSI (and BARAKA and SAMSARA) are easily the best movies ever to watch while you’re super-high. I don’t want to belittle them, but I honestly don’t think I could make it through either one sober without fast-forwarding every few minutes. High, however, they are absolute masterpieces – it really feels like walking through a museum where the paintings and sculptures are alive and moving, and your mind is completely blown and full of thoughts and reflection for 30 seconds or so, and then it’s on to the next piece. Sometimes the thing you’re looking at wasn’t as cool as the thing from 5 minutes ago, sometimes you just don’t click with a piece and you can’t wait to get to the next one. But it’s an incredible experience that I think everyone should try at least once. POWAQQATSI, in particular, is a movie one should put on whenever they feel overloaded with “first world problems”. I don’t know if that was their intention, but watching it certainly makes me feel grateful to be born here and guilty about whining when the wi-fi goes down or my DVR ran out of space like it’s the end of the world.

    I should point out that the Blu-Rays are absolutely eye-popping. I don’t know what kind of super-film they shot these movies on, but these are some of the most incredible images I’ve seen, with no assistance from computers or special effects. (The youtube clip Vern posted above really doesn’t do these images justice). I still haven’t finished NAQOYQATSI though – it seemed to be mostly 4×3 stock footage, and it’s pretty unwatchable (you can change the aspect ratio of your TV so the 4×3 scenes aren’t stretched out, but then every once in a while a 16×9 scene shows up and throws it all out of wack; it’s a bad idea and doesn’t have anything in common with the first two except another amazing Phillip Glass score)

  7. Oh yeah, speaking of the Philip Glass score, “Anthem” from this movie is amazing. It sounds nothing like his other work (that I know of) and mixes an inspirational sports-movie sound with some 80s synth-cheesiness. It literally sounds like Philip Glass scoring a Golan/Globus Cannon movie, which it is.

    Apparently it was re-used pretty prominently in The Truman Show (along with some of his score for Mishima). I may have to watch that one again.

  8. For the longest time, I thought these movies were just compilations of random footage that got projected onto bare brick walls at trendy Manhattan nightclubs. They definitely gave me something to look at while sipping my $11 vodka soda and pretending I had any reason to be there. So they performed a valuable service as far as I’m concerned.

    I do, however, understand the appeal of this kind of cinema, which I like to call “lava lamp movies.” You pretty much just zone out and listen to the music and let your mind wander wherever it wants to go. My favorite in this vein might be the granddaddy of the genre: Werner Herzog’s FATA MORGANA. Shot in the Sahara, it’s your basic tone poem that features slow, repetitive, lugubrious footage of various kinds of mirages (distortion from jet exhaust, phantoms appearing in the haze of desert heat, etc.) intercut with Herzog’s typical long, awkward medium shots of guileless locals and German narration concerning the Mayan creation myth. (If that’s not weird enough for you, Crispin Glover is on the commentary track for pretty much no reason at all except of course Werner Herzog and Crispin Glover hang out.) It seems less message-oriented than this series, though. Herzog would never stoop so low as to make something so bourgeois as a “point.”

    Of course, being a Herzog film, it has a backstory that’s more fascinating than the movie itself, considering he and his crew were arrested as insurrectionists and held in an African jail for weeks–and then finished filming. That’s a lot to go through for a movie that’s not all that indistinguishable from a montage of vacation footage.

  9. Hell, I think this is a masterpiece and there’s no problem in discerning the narrative message Reggio is making through some fantastic imagery. It’s just a shame about NAQOYQATSI being such a disappointment, where Reggio himself exploited technology in a bad way by using the inverse color / negative image function on Adobe Premiere. VISITORS is more of a return to form….

  10. I think criticism about “Reggio seems to think technology is awful but he uses it, what a hypocrite” is a bit unfair. Pretty much every sci fi movie ever is about “science and technology will kill us all” and still relies heavily on technology to exist.

  11. Mr M.,

    I’ve heard you use the term “lava lamp movies” before, and I love it. It’s entered my lexicon. I’m trying to make it a thing. I don’t know if I fully agree with you on what I get out of these kind of movies, but the analogy is brilliant either way.

    really, everyone needs to get on board with making “lava lamp movies” a recognized genre.

  12. Thanks for the review Vern, & comments commenters. This movie came to me at just the right time in my life I guess. One of my favourite movies & scores ever. I had already seen Koyaanisqatsi, and subsequently rented a couple of Philip Glass albums from the library, but both the movie & the score left me a little cold (the movie for the same reasons as Matthew B., the score because I felt it was very repetitive [in a bad way]).

    Then a few years later I saw Powaqaatsi, and everything just clicked. It just seemed like all the ideas about the style of the first one, improved and almost perfected. The change of subject and locations really opened my eyes to parts of the world and cultures I had never seen before. In many ways it inspired my love for travel, and the destinations I would eventually seek out. The score incorporated lots of elements of world music (which I was just getting into) and performed by an actual orchestra, instead of droning synethizers! And it was complex too, I listened to it over and over again, and noticed something new about it each time.

    For instance, “Anthem” as mentioned by neal2zod, has about 4 reprises throughout the soundtrack, and is eventually incorporated into the theme song “Powaqqqaatsi” played over the end credits. Well, each reprisal has a slightly different time signature that subtly alters the feel of the music & scene, while still having the same basic motif. Part 1’s in 10/8, part 2’s roughly in 12/8 but has really weird syncopation, part 3’s in 13/8, and title theme “Powaqqatsi” is back in 10/8 (or maybe 5/4).

    Naqqoyqqaatsi didn’t do a thing for me. Felt like an afterthought or obligation to finish “the trilogy” but felt like a bunch of stock footage blended together. Don’t even remember any of the Philip Glass soundtrack.

  13. That argument by Kevin Jackson is a good example of a strategy I call The Impossible Dilemma. Particularly beloved by reactionaries, the dilemma goes like this.

    Suppose you care a lot about the environment, and you are arguing with a reactionary about some feature of that cause. The reactionary is going to try and probe your life looking for any detail, no matter how small, he can use to show some sort of inconsistency between your professed environmentalism and your lifestyle. If he finds something, anything, then his job is done and he feels justified in dismissing anything you say.

    The key here is, if you imagine what your life would have to be like for you to be completely and utterly consistent in every detail, it is easy to see that if you actually managed to pull this off, you would be immediately written off as a total lunatic. So you lose no matter what.

    The purpose if this dilemma is clear. It is an irrational thinking tool that tries to masquerade as a rational one, so that its user can irrationally dismiss an argument he dislikes while superficially maintaining his conscience and self-image as a rational person.

  14. Well, Kevin Jackson is best known as an expert on Humphrey Jennings, so it’s not like he has any allergy to experimental left-wing documentaries. The hypocrisy dig might be a bit of a cheap shot, but KOYAANISQATSI is so horrified by any hint of high technology that I think it’s worth making. In any case, that’s not his (or my) main objection to the film.

    It’s unfair to judge a guy by a single movie, though, and Vern and thatguydave have convinced me I ought to give POWAQQATSI a shot.

  15. I can now independently confirm neal2zod’s thesis about viewing this (these) movies.

  16. I saw POWAQQATSI when it was first making the arthouse circuit in the late 80s. Haven’t seen it since. But there are still images from the film that are vividly stuck in my head, and this is without the benefit of having a copy of the soundtrack to boost my memory over the years (I like Glass but think this particular work is a bit heavy handed).. There are only a handful of films that have that power.

    If fans of these films haven’t seen it, I recommend MANUFACTURED LANDSCAPES as well. And of course I’ll always go to bat for Herzog’s LESSONS OF DARKNESS, which is closer to a conventional documentary and yet somehow also much farther away.

  17. Vern, did you skip RETURN TO OZ? I believe that’s another film where Lucas stepped in to help out a colleague – in this case his THX 1138 collaborator Walter Murch, directing his first and only feature film.

  18. Good catch, Curt. I forgot to include it on my list, since it didn’t come up on Lucas’s IMDb filmography. But I’ve heard that story about how Lucas, Coppola and Spielberg flew in to get their friend’s back when he was having a nervous breakdown and almost fired (or something like that).

  19. I watched KOYAANISQATSI a few times a little over a decade ago and it blew me away, the footage coupled with the fantastic soundtrack creates a real dreamlike mood.

    Then in 2006 I looked up the film on imdb and learned there were sequels, unfortunately almost ten years later I still have yet to see them, but this review motivates me to get on that before too much longer.

    I think the thing that bothered me though was my personal interpretation of the film was that it has an obvious environmental message, but was not necessarily completely anti-technology, all the images of human civilization seemed to take on a strange natural feel to me after a while.

    But then reading more I found out Reggio is more of an obvious “back to nature” hippy guy, I think environmental issues are very important, but I’m not one of those people that thinks human technology is inherently counter to nature, building stuff is just what human beings evolved to do same as ants evolved to build their ant hills and that’s what civilization seemed to be like to be in this film, some strange ant hill like thing, not as unnatural as it may seem at first glance.

    But despite the exact message of KOYAANISQATSI I still respect as an impressive achievement and man, that Phillip Glass score is rockin’.

  20. Griff, you should check out Roger Ebert’s review of KOYAANISQATSI. His response was actually pretty similar to yours:

    Koyaanisqatsi Movie Review & Film Summary (1983) | Roger Ebert

    I give the definition because it is the key to the movie. Without it, you could make a sincere mistake. "Koyaanisqatsi" opens with magnificent images out of nature: great canyons and limitless deserts and a world without man. Through the use of speeded-up images, clouds climb the sides of mountains and speed across the sky, their shadows painting the landscape. Then the movie turns to images of smokestacks, factories and expressways.

  21. Vern, here’s a bit of trivia about that celebration music at the end of PHANTOM MENACE – it’s a faster, upbeat version of Emperor Palpatine’s theme from RETURN OF THE JEDI. A clever in-joke since the characters don’t realize that they’re celebrating an event that will put the future Emperor in power. Have a listen:

    The Emperor's Theme Compilation

    A compilation of almost every track that has the Emperor's Theme in it.

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