Philosophies of Life: Reggio, Palmer, and Irwin
In his classic pedagogical text To Know as We are Known, Parker Palmer recalls the story of Abba Felix, a Christian hermetic monk well known for his reticence. One day, when a group of monks approached him to ask for advice, he responded briefly: “There are no more words nowadays.”
For Palmer, this deterioration of language was as alive at the time of the publication of his book (1983) as it was for Abba Felix in the years of the early Christian church. In Palmer’s words, “[the monks] wanted words instead of life, reports instead of reality, words that would create the illusion of life while relieving them of the responsibility for living it, words of authority on which they could rely and retire” (42).
To Know as We are Known’s 1983 publication date places it a year after the release of one of cinema’s greatest acts of wordlessness, Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi. Though there are a great many words in Palmer’s book, the section on Abba Felix is a direct corollary to Reggio’s career as a director. Koyaanisqatsi, along with the two other films that comprise The Qatsi Trilogy (1988’s Powaqqatsi and 2002’s Naqoyqatsi), signal modern society’s abandonment of past ways. The act of doing this with no dialogue or narration is crucial: much like Abba Felix’s six-word ode to the oversaturation of language, silence has a power that a million words could never achieve.
If the ratio of images to words is truly 1:1000, then the scripts to the Qatsi Trilogy are more verbose than if Aaron Sorkin turned in a screenplay after firing his editor. Koyaanisqatsi was a minor phenomenon upon its release, and clearly its power has yet to diminish. Reggio’s much-lauded arthouse trilogy, which has now received the long-overdue Criterion deluxe treatment, is still frequently shown with live musical accompaniment by the trilogy’s composer, Philip Glass, a testament to the resounding truth to swarm of images it presents. People are still gladly willing to sit through an hour and a half of film accompanied only by music, with no character, plot, or narration whatsoever—a surprising feat even in a day and age what art house cinema has surged.
To place this trilogy in a slightly more modern context, it might be said that had Terrence Malick let the creation sequence in his 2011 masterpiece The Tree of Life follow its natural course to the 20th and 21st centuries, the result probably would have been remarkably similar to Reggio’s trilogy. Despite the inherent spiritual component to the work of both directors, their wordlessness of their examinations of creation and evolution express a near fatalism to the machinations of existence. Nature has its own rhythms—sometimes fast (Koyaanisqatsi), sometimes slow (Powaqqatsi), sometimes rapid (Naqoyqatsi)—but etchings of the human will into the landscape of the earth change those rhythms. In the mushroom-cloud shot of a bomb testing in Koyaanisqatsi, it’s remarkable how it forms an almost perfect tree shape: a destruction of nature that spawns new creation, with the imprint of the former framed in the latter.
In addition to Palmer, another philosopher the Qatsi Trilogy finds ideological brethren in is the installation artist Robert Irwin. Irwin once wrote that the purpose of art is not to lower art to the level of the natural environment, as some art seems to do (for example, Irwin has a piece where he strung a wire across two trees in a thickly wooded area—a thing passersby might find to be meaningless). Instead, the purpose of art is to elevate the natural environment to the level of art. Irwin and Reggio appear to agree on this point; many of these scenes and images are everyday things, like shopping at the supermarket or walking through a mall. Ordinarily, we just do these things, rarely if ever taking a moment’s pause to examine why it is we are so driven to these activities. The artistic power of The Qatsi Trilogy lies in its ability to make the mundane deeply profound, in so doing reminding us what it is exactly we as humans have come to do. In Reggio’s words, the background becomes the foreground, a very Irwinian idea. Banal as “going to the mall” may sound, for Reggio it is symptomatic of the exponentially rapid social progression that is modern society.
Yet despite these resounding philosophical parallels, Reggio insists the film is not about ideas, critiques, or even the creation of a world. For him, Koyaanisqatsi is fundamentally an experience above all else, and as cliché that expression may be, it is absolutely true. This isn’t to say that it isn’t a political film; all art springs from a political context, however volatile or peaceful it may be. Reggio himself recognizes this in the interview feature “Essence of Life” when he traces the lineage of the Qatsi films to the Institute for Regional Education (IRE), an organization that put out PSAs and mini-films about the growing fear of technology and its expanding reach, namely in the field of electronic surveillance. It’s ironic; legitimate though the fear of panopticon may be, Koyaanisqatsi itself offers a sort of surveillance into civilization, one that few would have access to were it not for Reggio’s camera.
And what examinations these are. Relatively short (the longest, Powaqqatsi, runs at one hour and 40 minutes) though these movies may be, the aspects of life and the ways of life we’ve all come to live are as meaningful as any book written on these topics. As a united trilogy, these three works confront modernity and postmodernity in ways that still ring true today. As individual pieces of a trilogy, however, they make important unique claims that are essential to take in their own respect.
Qatsi, the suffix present in each work in the trilogy, is the Hopi word for “life” or “way of life”. Koyaanisqatsi begins the trilogy with an examination of unbalanced life or, as the film’s subtitle puts it, “life out of balance”. This is the first sign that the movie, while not an incendiary polemic—something Reggio is wise to steer from—is undeniably confrontational art. Unlike the two films that follow it, Koyaanisqatsi emphasizes the (un)balance of the modern world and the world that preceded it. Depictions of the landscape being ravaged by machines and the metropolises that are the result of that destruction are the key images here; these are the ones that go on to frame the wordless discussions in Powaqqatsi and Naqoyqatsi.
Where Reggio’s initial and core success in Koyaanisqatsi lies is avoiding a reductive, banal juxtaposition of “cold” technology and the “warmth” of the natural world. The nuanced skill of Reggio in this matter is manifest in how he demonstrates how humankind has conflated the two. The nighttime shots of cars driving through the freeways of a metropolis bears an interesting similarity to something many likely forget after their high school science class. A common experiment in low-level biology involves taking substances that are harmless to humans—caffeine, for instance—and placing several droplets on a small fish. Then, once the drug has been ingested, the fish is placed under a microscope so as to view the speed of its blood vessels; under a microscope, they look like little red and blue roads. The supposedly “dehumanizing” technology of the postmodern era—highway infrastructure, television, advanced weapons of warfare—are in reality just an aggrandized version of biology itself, forged by human hands.
Reggio is the force behind Koyaanisqatsi; however, the factor that has preserved this film’s legacy better than anything else is the music contributed by Philip Glass. Glass, at that time still an up-and-coming composer, contributed what is still considered to be his best work (not unjustly so) to Koyaanisqatsi, and years later the many things that make a piece instantly recognizable as Glass are here: echoey horn tracks (“Clouds”), liberal use of electric organ (“Resource”), and, of course, an almost unhealthy amount of arpeggios. It’s hard to describe why it is that Glass’ music is such a perfect fit; it is best said that the score rests on the viewer’s experience with the movie. Like many, I imagine, my first encounter with Koyaanisqatsi came in the form of Glass’ score. Upon immediately liking it, I already had my own conceptions of why the music was excellent; upon seeing the actual film, it was as if I was hearing it again for the first time. Still, however Glass’ music will effect the viewer depends entirely on his or her ability to share in Reggio’s worldview.
But among the varied emotional aspects of Glass’ score, the most thought-provoking aspects come when the music takes turns for the satirical. About 20 minutes into Koyaanisqatsi, right as the camera cuts to machines digging up the earth and building new, the organs kick quickly in, rapid arpeggios sounding almost like a circus. The timing here is perfect: the circus of the modern world, i.e., the leveling of the earth for new, shiny buildings and monuments, has become a spectacle, a thing people clamor for.
For all the great things about Koyaanisqatsi, what’s difficult with weighty social criticisms like the ones implicit in the movie is finding the alternative. To critique something as systemic as capitalism, industrialization, or outsourcing has become incredibly easy to do; what are really in high demand now are the solutions to those problems. The movie opens and closes with a shot of cave drawings, a thing which some might interpret as a sort of primitivist view of humanity that’s entirely anti-technology. Of course, not only is that reading too simplistic, it’s also contradictory: the Qatsi Trilogy themselves are a product of technology, and in the quality of their production they express some of the beautiful things technological proliferation has provided to humankind. While apolitical this film isn’t, it seems that Reggio’s point in trying to distance his work from “ideas” or “critiques” is to avoid reading too much into his work, in so doing forcing it to agree with some substantive policy or another that will likely only re-entrench the very things Koyaanisqatsi is pointing out as problematic.
Here we must return to the words of Abba Felix, the words that sum up Koyaanisqatsi and its companion pieces well: “There are no more words nowadays.” The point of this movie is not to impart some wisdom necessary to cure all ills; it is, to put in Irwin’s terms, to allow us “to perceive our own perceptions.” Before suggesting the steps by which we might recant industrialization’s damages, we first must see what is actually happening. It’s hard to fix what’s invisible to us.
Powaqqatsi is a shift from one world to another: from the developed world to the developing world. The skyline shots of Koyaanisqatsi, where cities are illuminated by lights on every block, are now replaced by aerial views of the segmented fields and farms of the developing nations that are forced and coerced into bearing the brunt of the labor necessary to sustain the middle-class life of countries like America and Europe.
For this reason, Powaqqatsi is the most difficult of the three in terms of content. When a privileged white male filmmaker goes to an impoverished country to examine their culture, there’s always a risk of cultural tourism, i.e., images that feed directly into stereotypes about these countries. An example of this would be if a Western director went to a majority Muslim country and only showed shots of angry-looking men with guns. Those people do exist within those countries, perhaps, but by narrowing the field of images to that specific sub-set, the West can continue on its pre-conceptions about that culture. Arguably, this sort of cultural tourism can be read into Kathryn Bigelow’s post-9/11 war films, in particular Zero Dark Thirty, which focuses on a very narrow group of people within Middle Eastern countries.
Or, given the interest of the Qatsi Trilogy in examining the effects of industrialization, there’s also a risk of being patronizing. It’s easy to critique how mean and nasty the global political order is when afforded a privileged position in society, and there’s a chance that depicting the sufferings of these workers will come across as nothing more than an attempt to superficially assuage the white guilt of its filmmakers.
Fortunately, Reggio avoids both of these traps. In fact, he even lets the reality of cultural tourism seep into Powaqqatsi; the reactions to the camera by the people of these countries ranges from indifference to ire. Reggio doesn’t hold back in showing the negative reactions of developing world citizens to the leering eyes of the most fortunate. This continues in the line of Irwinian thought that began in Koyaanisqatsi. The point is not to provoke a reaction from citizens of developing nations in order to spur a reaction from developed nations—Reggio is probably aware how the bursts of activism following social message-based films (An Inconvenient Truth, anyone?) lead to little but brief impacts. Rather, all that is necessary is to merely show the extent of developed world exploitation of the developing world: no politics, no hand-wringing. Because of that decision, the faces of the men and women oppressed by globalized capitalism ring all the more harrowing 25 years later.
Glass’ score to Powaqqatsi runs the same risks that Reggio did initially. Since he decided to write a strong Eastern melodicism into the score, there was a decent chance the masterful style of Koyaanisqatsi would have devolved into pastiche and trope, with heavy emphasis on the black keys of the organ instead of sophisticated synthesis of Glass’ training in Western counterpoint with the modal scales of Eastern music. But like Reggio, he rises to the difficult challenge posed by the East-West divide by enhancing the elements of Eastern music already present in his style, rather than doing a sort of “Phillip Glass goes to India” type soundtrack. This is in reality not all that difficult for Glass; Powaqqatsi’s 1988 release places it five years after the debut of his opera Akhnaten, which had to deal with similar hurdles compositionally.
This second entry of the Qatsi films features a scene that is the ideal representation of the collaboration between Reggio and Glass. About 45 minutes into the movie, the camera stays still on a moving cargo train while Glass’ music beats in propulsive rhythm to the sound of the wheels clicking against the rails. The rhythm of industrialization—of transportation and import/export—has intruded upon the quiet life of these people. The view of the train isn’t a close-up, but the train feels nonetheless huge, completely obscuring the tall tree it is careening past. The foreground of the west has overtaken the background of the East.
Whereas Koyaanisqatsi’s title bore some political inclination, the title Powaqqatsi—“Life in Transformation”—is much less loaded. Ostensibly, transformation can be a good thing; after all, as capitalism’s defenders have staunchly argued, is it not capitalism itself that is bringing these developing nations out from poverty and servitude in the first place? That line of thought is readily dismissed within the first ten minutes of Powaqqatsi, and in this way the suggestion is clear: “transformation” is not something to take as inherently good (nor, of course, inherently bad). This is where another Irwinian act of perception-raising takes place: while modern society has come to take transformation as a good force—to the point of being inevitable, even—it shouldn’t have to be that way. To transform can be an act of violence, something hauntingly demonstrated by Powaqqatsi.
The opening scene of Naqoyqatsi is a zooming in on a representation of the Tower of Babel, the Biblical story wherein God divided a once united humankind through language after they attempted to build a tower so high as to reach him. The implication of this allusion, following from the overarching themes of the trilogy, is simple: humanity has made a God in its own image, and its name is technology.
The tonal and visual similarities—the locales notwithstanding—of the first two pieces of the Qatsi puzzle are entirely abandoned in its last installment. The bleakness of Naqoyqatsi’s worldview can be seen early on, in a scene much like many in the two films preceding it: a camera tracks crowds of people as they hustle and bustle through a city. Only this time, the camera light setting is on negative, revealing a ghastly, zombie-like group of people marauding down an unknown avenue. From these gloomy images Reggio shifts to digitally rendered imaginations of the internet, as well as scenes that could have well been ripped from a college biology instructional video. Even when humans are involved—such as in a section where athletes are depicted in various acts of athleticism, there’s an undeniably chilling feeling present, which brings to view the many theories of post-humanism.
The scenes early on in the film that are heavy on medical scanning images—x-rays, three-dimensional body models, CT scans—all make a resounding point: technology does not merely provide a way for humans to observe their own physical bodies; rather, humans have adopted technology to their bodies. Suddenly, a piece of data is hard to tell apart from a piece of flesh. Queer theorist Jasbir K. Puar calls this an “assemblage”, wherein the spatiotemporal borders between body and technology become so infused as to be indistinguishable. From this it follows that the act of filming is one way the process of assemblage is instigated. Here is another area where Reggio’s trilogy is very much in line with Irwin’s aesthetic theory: for both men, the crucial aspect of art is perception. For Irwin, art’s purpose is to get humans to perceive their perceptions; for Reggio, the Qatsi Trilogy stands to show the methods in which nature and technology have been conflated together, a point made already about the natural landscape in Koyaanisqatsi.
Reggio joked that with Naqoyqatsi he finally allowed himself “the courage to be hopeless.” The digital futurism of Naqoyqatsi does seem to suggest an abandonment of hope; the title of the movie itself—meaning “Life as War” or “a life of violence”—provides a pretty obvious way of reading the movie. Not only has humankind made a 21st-century Tower of Babel, they also have ended up killing themselves in the act of building it. Such a reading would posit a cruel irony to the end of the Qatsi Trilogy: the long-standing Biblical narrative of Babel, while a commonly known narrative, has done little to teach humanity. We are killed by an act we already knew would kill us. God remains unchanging throughout the ages, whether he be a bearded man in the sky or a technological leviathan wrought of human hands.
This cynical reading is not implausible, but I would suggest that it is erroneous. This reading would necessarily mean that Reggio reneged on the strands of optimism present in Koyaanisqatsi and Powaqqatsi. In those films, there never was any evidence to imply that Reggio has lost faith in humankind. Nor do the images in Naqoyqatsi indicate any point of no return. What Naqoyqatsi is signaling is the logical extension of the “transformation” that Powaqqatsi hinted at 13 years prior. In this way, Naqoyqatsi is not only the perfect closer to this essential trilogy, it’s also the necessary finale. The life in transformation examined in the first two parts of the trilogy would not be complete without the digital kingdom imagined by Reggio in the final installment.
But, some might point out, even if this is “the logical extension” of the trilogy’s first two parts, the title of the final part nonetheless implies a destructive existence, a “life as war”. This is a debate that has blossomed in circles outside of cinema. MIT professor Steven Pinker, in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, argues that world has seen a surprising decrease in violence, despite the rash of war images seen on news broadcasts today. Others disagree with Pinker. But one thing I would say unites those who see peace and those who see warfare is a common recognition: there is a world still worth fighting for.
Reggio’s trilogy falls in line with that recognition. Lives go out of balance, lives transform, lives change—sometimes into war, sometimes into peace. Yet in these moments of tumult, there still exists a life underneath it all, one with a heart that beats independently of whatever changes it has undergone by the forces greater than itself. Like Robert Irwin before him, Godfrey Reggio stands to give rise to perceptions of these imbalances, these transformations—who is to say life can’t be imbalanced back another direction, or that a life can’t transform all over again?
There may be no more words nowadays. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t any images, and the Qatsi Trilogy is as pure a distillation of a meaningful social examination as we could expect in the modern world. These are our words now.