Seer of a 
troubled future


I came to Godfrey Reggio’s films late. I only saw his career-making masterpiece, Koyaanisqatsi, last year, by chance, at the Barbican Arts Centre in London. I had just arrived in London when my cine-wise neighbour telephoned to ask if I wanted his ticket to see Philip Glass perform to the famous film that same evening. Although jet-lagged, I accepted his offer. It was Glass after all (the man, not the magazine) and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to see the American composer perform his music at one of my favourite venues in the city. At that point, I was only vaguely aware of Reggio’s transformative work.

Before leaving my flat, like a halfway decent culture vulture, I googled Koyaanisqatsi: (the word means ‘life out of balance’ in the native American Hopi language); it was released in 1983; was produced and directed by Reggio and was an instant art-house hit and the first of his “nonverbal” Qatsi trilogy (Koyaanisqatsi, Powaqqatsi in 1988, Naqoyqatsi in 2002). With an original score by Glass, presented by Francis Ford Coppola to mainstream audiences.
Then, naturally, I wikipediaed Reggio: American director; born 1940 in New Orleans, Louisiana; lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico; famous for his Qatsi trilogy; community organiser and champion of progressive political causes; spent fourteen years training to be a Congregation of Christian Brothers monk (a Roman Catholic order); left the brotherhood to make films.

How is it possible that I haven’t seen this iconic film? I berated myself as I sat down in the Barbican’s cavernous hall, next to a sniffling teenager. But what better way to belatedly discover Reggio’s masterpiece, I thought, than to see the film accompanied by Glass and his ensemble playing the soundtrack live?

There was certainly a palpable feeling of anticipation and solemnity as lights dimmed and the Barbican’s ridiculously fancy hydraulic curtain rose to reveal musicians arranged on the stage, consisting of the Philip Glass Ensemble, the Britten Sinfonia and the Trinity Laban Chamber Choir – with Michael Riesman conducting and Glass playing the keyboard.

The film moved the audience through sequences depicting natural landscapes (deserts, oceans or sky) and man-made environments (buildings, construction machines, cars). The opening scene immediately set the environmental agenda, shifting from figures on prehistoric rock art to the fiery eruption of a rocket launch to a majestic desert landscape, with the voice actor, Jeremy Birchall, all the time chanting ‘koyaanisqatsi.’ It was transfixing – and I was transfixed.

Later, back in New York, I caught up with the rest of the trilogy, albeit on my computer screen and not in the sublime setting where I saw Koyaanisqatsi. Fast forward two months later, in Red Hook, Brooklyn, a neighbourhood still reeling from Hurricane Sandy: I found myself waiting to interview Reggio for Glass (the magazine, not the man) at the post-production studio of his new film, Visitors.

The studio, opticnerve, a collaborator on Naqoyqatsi and now Visitors, bustled with employees preparing to shoot film director Steven Soderbergh for the DVD edition of Visitors – Soderbergh was lending his name; he also put the weight of his name to Naqoyqatsi – and Glass (the man) had just left the building.

Soderbergh sat stoically at a round table in the glare of cameras and spotlights as an unusually casual interviewer threw questions at him. I watched from behind the kitchen, amid a jumble of kitchenware, and heard Soderbergh say: “I saw Koyaanisqatsi in 1983 when it came out – I was 20 – and it was pretty significant to be that age and as an aspiring filmmaker to see that film, because it was a new thing. When I watched the film again recently, having not seen it for a while, it was really stunning to realise that … there just wasn’t anything in it that hasn’t been ripped off, repeatedly and continually, in the intervening three decades. So it was great to watch it again and experience it in a way that was still really impactful.”

Then I heard him say:
‘I have a very complicated relationship with the [Qatsi] films because there are so many amazing things in them and I don’t want to just recreate them [in my own films] and it’s hard to top them. Often I have the experience of going ‘Wow!’ and then ‘Oh shit! I can’t do them because he has done it!’ So I’m always very nervous when I’m about to see his film for the first time because I felt like he was going to open up the door and close it at the same time.’

After Soderbergh left, Reggio and I sat down in his office to start my interview with him. Tall and genial, he begins to speak mellifluously about Visitors, which premiered at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival recently with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra performing Glass’s score live.

You’ve greatly slowed down movement in Visitors.
My own point of view is that stillness heightens one’s sense of self and I wanted to make a film that was implicated in the enormous way with stillness. My intention is to make something that’s counter-intuitive to the way we make images today. We make images today on speed, in rush hour, which is kind of who we are as a culture, as a global culture and as individuals. I wanted to do something that would question that, and that was kind of the beginning of the idea.

What’s the idea behind Visitors?
The point of view of the film is that we have not seen ourselves until we have been seen through the eyes of another animal. What does it mean? It’s up to the viewer. John Cage says, “the audience completes the subject”. Most films have an unmistakable clarity through the contour of the dramatic structure of the film, and you either get it or not, and you either like it or not. In the case of Visitors, we give up the specificity of meaning in order to create the experience of a meaningful event. You wouldn’t ask your girlfriend what’s the meaning of the sunset – it’s whether it is meaningful or not.

So it’s all about meaningfulness. That doesn’t mean Visitors doesn’t have meaning, but the meaning I put into it with my collaborators is very limited because if a piece works, it should take on a life of its own. It should have a voice of its own. It’s like a work of art. If you have it in a gallery and fifty people see it, then there should be fifty different impressions, and that’s what art is all about. It’s to imprint, it’s to tattoo, it’s to watermark the audience rather than to give them an explanation of something.

Does this stillness come from your experience at the Congregation of Christian Brothers?
Everything influences everything so of course that has been influential on me, but as to that creating the form, I couldn’t say. I don’t know.

In the new film you seem to be mourning a ruined future and not warning us about a possible ruined future.
Unless one has the courage to be hopeless about something then one can’t begin to recreate something else. We live in a routed future – that’s very depressing to me. It’s a point of view. Personally I’m not a depressed person. As a point of view it’s not very optimistic. Now let’s get to this film in particular. If you notice, there’s no atmosphere in the environment. The moon is the metaphor, or the megaphone I should say, in the void of space. It’s like a boneyard, or sepulchre, and there’s no organic life there that we know of. When we see the real world in the film, there’s no sky – it’s all a background. What I am saying is that if we’re looking for some climactic event to take place that’s going to end it all, or begin it all, I think we’re fools. The event has already occurred. We’re walking around in the shock of ordinary daily living, not realising that that’s an extraordinary situation that we’re in. We’re literally eating the planet alive. This film doesn’t tell you that, but it does suggest that we live in a world that is without atmosphere.

Do you believe technology threatens the planet?
Technology is the most misunderstood subject on the planet. We keep thinking that we’re in the driver’s seat: that technology is a usable thing and we can use it for medicine, for education, and to help the environment. But that’s not the point. It’s not the effect of technology on the way we live, on the economy, on war, on the environment, but rather it’s that now everything is situated in technology. It’s way out of the machine; it’s beyond the machine; it’s the ghost that we all live in; and it’s the new environment of life. We don’t use technology; we breathe it. It’s as ubiquitous as the air that surrounds us.

It is the new terra firma. You and I come from different parts of the world, with different languages, different eyes, ears, bodies, mouths, and it’s not by accident that the world that is our mother as it was, is no longer our mother. It’s resource material to consume, to keep our inflated world of technology. Technology has an infinite appetite but it operates on a finite system. So of course it’s going to eat up the planet, and to think that we’re in charge is to me the height of madness. We’re in for the ride; it’s like getting on a plane.

Why do you make films without words?
If our language doesn’t describe the world we live in any longer, we’re in a real conundrum. That to me is the tragedy: how the image is replacing our language as a medium of communication. So I make films without words. They’re non-spoken narratives and the image becomes the medium. Our modality is that we approach the truth through the metaphor of the word. We live in a world where Caesar’s language is now the image. If you want to speak to people you must speak to them in terms of what they already know. And so I felt speaking to them in an image even though I feel it’s a tragedy to have our language taken away from us – that it no longer describes our world – would be the way to go.

Can we survive a ruined future?
We don’t know. We have no idea. There are too many vectors in motion, and we live in a gigantic universe that is beyond our ability to describe. We don’t know what’s going on and we have no idea. I think one has to go to his or her imagination, which is lodged right in their soul, and to feel what’s going on and to make a difference, and not trying to save the world.

Do you think you’re a seer?
Artists talk about the muse and I don’t understand it, but it’s like hearing voices. I have a voice inside me that I try to give very special attention to, and it never leads me wrong. It’s like this little voice that speaks to me – it’s called sensibility. It’s something that’s a gift, and a gift you can’t take credit for. You just should be thankful. So I am thankful for that. If the films look weird, it’s because the world is weird. The world is a very, very weird place at the end of the day.

Can you elaborate further on the Qatsi trilogy?
The first film [Koyaanisqatsi] is about the northern hemisphere’s hyper-concentric industrial grids, and about life out of balance, life disintegrating, and a way of life that calls for another way of living. The second film [Powaqqatsi] is about the southern hemisphere’s culture of orality and simplicity, handmade cultures that possess the genetic heritage of the plain. It’s about predation because we’ve eaten up most of the northern world. The word “powaqa” means black magician who eats the life of another person to support her or his own life, and it operates through seduction, not as a mean person, but through allurement. The northern hemisphere predicates on the southern hemisphere to support their way of life at the expense of all those in the south. The third film [Naqoyqatsi] is all at once the global world in which we live, which has gone out of the real world right into the digital domain.

Koyaanisqatsi – the northern hemisphere; Powaqqatsi – southern hemisphere; Naqoyqatsi – the global moment in which we are. The word “qatsi” in the Hopi language means “life”. The films are non-spoken narrative forms. I get peeved when the films are called experimental, which they’re not. I’m not a scientist putting things in a test tube to see what works. The amount of energy that goes into them is enormous. I didn’t want to have it with no sound; I wanted music. The reason is that music pertains a direct transmission to the soul of the listener – it doesn’t depend on metaphor. And because of my distrust for language, which I love, but distrust it for not describing our world any longer, I thought music would be the most appropriate.

Why were you drawn to the Hopi language?
I don’t want to romanticise anybody, especially the Hopi Indians. They’re like you and me, they shit, they argue, they’re fucked up like the rest of us, and a lot of white people put them on this huge pedestal and that’s ridiculous. No culture, nobody, no group, no organisation is perfect, and certainly, nobody in the southern hemisphere is perfect, but their way of life has been a quid pro quo, an engagement with the environment they lived in on a human scale. That’s all changing now because of industrialisation of the south. Now for the first time there are more people living in cities than in the countryside. When I was growing up, many more people lived in the countryside than in the cities. And it’s not just about coming to the city. They don’t have a choice. Everything has being taken away from them – from agri-business to education to medicine – it’s all being ripped apart.

Do you believe nature will correct itself?
Nature does push back. The law of evolution is that if you violate the limits, you pay the price. We’re not only in the process of violating them, we have gone over the limit, and so we’re paying the price everywhere. We’re in a very fragile moment – please, I’m not without hope, but to be hopeless is only to be hopeful. Our eyes are open but we’re not seeing what’s here. It’s too close to us to have any distance at all, and when a child is born it’s not like the child is born into this world, the world is born into this child’s cultural cerebellum. If we forget it, it remembers us

by Peter Yeoh

From the Glass Archive – Issue 16 – Desire

About The Author

Glass Magazine New York and Tokyo editor

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