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NAQOYQATSI

The Big Picture

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When a movie introduces its grand themes as unabashedly as does Naqoyqatsi, prepare to settle in for an old-fashioned audiovisual lecture. Indeed, when that movie's first frames depict Peter Bruegel the Elder's forbidding Tower of Babel, you don't even need to know ahead of time (for the film doesn't tell you until afterward) that its title is Hopi for something like "war as a way of life" or maybe just "civilized violence."

Completing the trilogy he began in 1983 with Koyaanisquatsi ("life out of balance"), director Godfrey Reggio has another 80 wordless minutes of images to show us. And while many of them are beautiful -- and set to a luminous score by Philip Glass -- he's not out to paint a pretty picture.

Babel cross-fades into its modern equivalents, the trashed shells of grand old buildings, then into a stormy ocean and a time-lapse meteor shower (Reggio often looks to outer space, for solace or maybe perspective). There's an animated montage of ones and zeros, a sidewalk parade of people in negative image; scenes of military training and combat segue into high-tech medical imagery, then to athletes competing, mostly in lush slow motion. Then comes an adrenalized collage of national flags and world leaders, images of currency, and scenes from the stock market, with casinos and horse tracks and pills cut in; a sudden succession of celebrities, real and computer-animated, wave to cameras and adoring fans.

In a mournful, regretful sort of way, Reggio (a social activist and former Catholic monk) is generally displeased with all this; perhaps he wishes he didn't have to show us the kind of life we're busy living, with its information overload, gunshots and dehumanized megacities (it looks pretty bad, you have to admit). We're a culture addicted to crap, gorged on advertising, and just kinda waiting for the next thing to blow up.

Reggio is hardly the first to note such problems, though his means are novel and often striking. At one point he punctuates a scrolled procession of ad images with creepy static shots of wax figures of world leaders (why he follows with reversed-color, thermovideographic footage of African plains animals, I'm unsure). Some wonderful footage of airplane crash-test dummies, captured performing a synchronized slow-motion ballet of helplessness at the moment of impact, memorably suggests our role as passengers of planet Earth. A series of famous paintings (Van Goghs and Goyas and classical works) are made to succeed each other in a digitized morphing glop -- a succinct summary of mass attention deficit, or perhaps the devaluation of genuine art.

Pictures and music are better for depicting problems than for suggesting solutions, and Reggio doesn't offer much of the latter. But if you want to get your Qatsi on, this is probably your last chance to do it. (The 7:30 p.m. screening on Mon., Feb. 10, will be preceded by a free half-hour performance by the local music ensemble Life in Balance, and followed by a free audience discussion of the film.) * * 1/2

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