`Qatsi' (life) goes on, without plots or characters. Films celebrate human diversity, warn of dangers
New York — ABOUT five years ago, director Godfrey Reggio and composer Philip Glass made a film unlike any other. Even its title seemed calculated to amaze and mystify: ``Koyaanisqatsi,'' from an American Indian word meaning ``life out of balance.'' The movie had no plot, no characters, no actors. What it did have were motion pictures - breathtaking shots of American landscapes and urban scenes.
Photographed in a wide variety of locations, from the wilderness to the inner city, they were arranged and edited to bring out a serious theme: that human beings are losing touch with the natural world around them, in potentially dangerous ways.
The movie's other key ingredient was its Glass score, which introduced countless moviegoers to the pulsing, repetitive style known as minimalism - a style that has become synonymous with Mr. Glass's name in classical-music circles.
There had never been a movie like ``Koyaanisqatsi'' before, but director Reggio and composer Glass were certain they were onto something important. They set about planning a whole ``qatsi'' trilogy, each with its own message about human beings and their environments.
The second part of this series has now arrived. Its title is ``Powaqqatsi,'' from a combination of two American Indian words: qatsi, which means life, and powaqa, which refers to a kind of bad magician or sorcerer who lives at the expense of other people.
The movie's subtitle is ``life in transformation,'' and it has two messages. First, it says our world is full of unique cultures, each having a specialness and a value all its own.
It also suggests that some features of modern life - including industry, technology, and booming populations - threaten to homogenize the world, wiping out the uniqueness of many cultures that can never be re-created or replaced.
``Powaqqatsi'' is a celebration of diversity, and to make it, the filmmakers traveled far and wide. Just to find the sites where photography would take place, the producers made a five-month journey to five continents, visiting such countries as Kenya, Egypt, and Peru - finally settling on places in Africa, India, Asia, South America, and the Middle East as their chief locations.
Equal care went into the movie's music. Glass spent a year on research, traveling to Peru, Brazil, and several West African countries. As in the first ``qatsi'' film, the music is the only sound track - a driving, energetic pulse that's as unpredictable as the images that go along with it. Unlike much of Glass's earlier work, though, this score reflects the many cultures that the movie visits. Instruments from many lands are heard, playing rhythms from African, Indian, Latin, and Middle Eastern sources. Listeners with sharp ears may even spot a Hispanic children's choir in the mix.
``Powaqqatsi'' is a sumptuous film to look at as well as listen to. But its message isn't on the surface, and moviegoers have to dig a little to figure out what the filmmakers are saying. As in the earlier ``Koyaanisqatsi,'' there's nothing in the way of storytelling or character-building. But this time there are many people on the screen, engaged in the work, and sometimes the play, of their daily lives. By showing problems as well as pleasures, the filmmakers suggest that life is always in flux, and can't always be bent to human needs. The film also stresses the differences between cities and simpler, more natural environments - hinting that people may be better off away from crowded urban places.
I want to support ``Powaqqatsi'' because, like ``Koyaanisqatsi,'' it represents a daring break with the normal (and stale) patterns that dominate commercial filmmaking today. But it must be stated that ``Powaqqatsi'' is not very original in intellectual terms, and that its images are more beautiful than deep. The same was true of ``Koyaanisqatsi.'' It employed a long list of strategies (from nonnarrative structure to pixillated motion) that looked new to mainstream moviegoers but actually have long pedigrees - in the work of experimental filmmakers as diverse as Bruce Baillie and Hilary Harris, many of whom have used them more powerfully and inventively.
Ironically, the enterprising Film Forum in New York recently showed a similar but far more resonant and poetic movie that also made biting comments on the troubled relationship between humanity and its global environment: ``From the Pole to the Equator,'' fashioned by Italian filmmakers Yervant Gianikian and Angela Ricci Lucchi from footage shot early in this century by Luca Comerio, a documentary pioneer. That film's only weak point is its sound track, a music score by American composers Keith Ullrich and Charles Anderson which smacks more of ``new age'' prettiness than minimalist majesty.
By contrast, the ``Powaqqatsi'' score is Philip Glass's most imaginative new piece (aside from his violin concerto and a couple of minor works) in years, marking a much-needed turn in new directions after a long period of self-imitation.
Glass enjoys collaborative work, as he indicates many times in ``Music by Philip Glass,'' his recently published Harper & Row book; and here he carries collaboration to new heights, working not only with filmmaker Reggio but with other musicians who have strong compositional powers.
The result is always surprising and often exhilarating, although - like the ``Koyaanisqatsi'' score - it's most effective in its shorter record-album version. Both discs are available from Nonesuch Records.