DVD & Blu-ray Reviews

The Quatsi Trilogy, Blu-ray, 3 discs (1983/1988/2002/2012)

A mind-blowing visual and musical experience achieved with no narration, actors or plot whatever.

Published on January 12, 2013

The Quatsi Trilogy, Blu-ray, 3 discs (1983/1988/2002/2012)

Koyaanisquatsi 185:1 86 Min.
Powaqqatsi 1.85:1 99 min.
Naqoyqatsi 1.78:1 89 min.
Director: Godfrey Reggio
Music: Philip Glass
Cinematographer: Ron Fricke
Studio: Miramar/Fox/Lionsgate/The Criterion Collection 639 [12/11/12]
Audio: DTS-HD MA 5.1, DD 5.1
Extras: “Essence of Life” – interviews with Reggio and Glass on Koyaanisqatsi, New interview with Ron Fricke on Koyaanisqatsi, 16mm 40 min. demo of Koyaanisqatsi with scratch soundtrack by Allen Ginsberg, New Reggio interview about original visual concept of Koyaanisqatsi, “Impact of Progress” – interview with Reggio and Glass on their collaboration, “Inspiration and Ideas” talk by Reggio on his influences and teachers, “Anima Mundi” – 1992 28 min. montage of animal images in their original environments with music by Glass, “Video Afterword” by Reggio on the Trilogy, “The Making of Naqoyqatsi” – documentary with interviews with the production crew, Panl discussion on Naqoyqatsi from 2003, “Music of Naqoyqatsi” – interview with Glass and Yo-Yo Ma, TV spots and interview with Reggio on his 1970s multimedia privacy campaign in New Mexico, Trailers of all three films, Illustrated printed booklet with essays by film scholar Scott MacDonald, music critic John Rockwell, and author and environmentalist Bill McKibben
Length: 274 min. total (without extras)
Rating: ***** (except Naqoyqatsi: ****) 

Reggio is certainly not your usual sort of film director. He spent from age 14 to 28 as a monk in a strict monastery. His interviews and statements in the extras are head-spinning, as he expounds on the general philosophy governing his Trilogy. It is that the many problems facing the world today are overshadowed by what he calls The Death of Nature. He says technology has taken over life on earth and created an artificial system—an artifice of nature. He says man is not necessarily the center of existence—that man, animals, nature and the environment—must all be in balance, and they are not. We no longer live with nature, we live above nature. Progress and development has become our religion. He feels the Native Americans have a much more sophisticated wisdom and metaphysics much wiser than ours: they see the Earth as a living entity. Therefore he uses three words in the Hopi language for this trilogy of films.

Koyaanisqatsi, the first, from 1983, means “life out of balance,” and is the first and best-known of the trilogy of amazingly-photographed images which meditate on the calamity man’s fascination with technology has wreaked upon our world. The visual journey goes from nature to industry and back, with interesting use of time-lapse cinematography. In one of the extras Reggio talks about working with his talented collaborationists, cinematographer Ron Fricke and composer Philip Glass. The images are often startling and jaw-dropping. Glass—who at the time had not done any film scores—immediately felt in sync with the astonishing images Reggio originally had shot silently in 16mm and the complete lack of plot or narration, and sometimes composed the music before the images were shot. Fricke at times had on headphones, listening to Glass’ music while shooting the scenes. (The clouds sequence is my favorite mix of Fricke’s images and Glass’ music.) There is one extended zoom into a fractal image that is min-blowing. Altogether an amazing sensory experience—especially with Blu-ray on a large screen! Francis Ford Coppola was so impressed with the film that he lent his name and support to its distribution.

Powaqqatsi, of 1988, translates to “life in transformation,” and concentrates on scenes filmed in the Southern hemisphere of the world, showing how the northern industrialized countries have eroded the ways of life of the third-world countries with technology and industry. While the first film used many speeded-up shots, this one relies on slow motion to show things such as the mud-covered miners climbing up the hills of the gold mine with huge sacks of dirt. The increasing reliance on technology and how it is ruining their lives is clear in this most spiritual of Reggio’s Trilogy.

The third of the Trilogy, Naqoyqatsi, moves away from the impressive nature views to show the digital revolution, and how much of the world has moved away from nature to a totally man-made environment in which all images are manipulated. It translates as “Life as War.” He shows technology as war, a sort of civilized violence. Most of the images in this film are manipulated with computer-generated imagery, time-lapse, dissolves and other cinematic techniques to show that everything is becoming a frenetic virtual reality world around us. Glass’ music is quite different for this one, there are some ethnic instruments, and towards the end it uses cellist Yo-Yo Ma in a solo role. I didn’t find this one nearly as fascinating a viewing experience as the other two films in the series. Much of the footage is stock footage manipulated with various video and computer tricks, rather than startling original 35mm nature footage. There almost a feeling of doom about the whole thing.

Ron Fricke went on to make similar narration-less filmic experiences:  Baraka, Chronos and the recent Samsara, often shooting them in 70mm to gain even better resolution than Reggio was able to do in his 35mm series. However, with the gorgeous restorations done by Criterion, these films look terrific with their 2K transfers to Blu-ray on a big screen. And Glass’ musical scores work perfectly to support and comment on the images.

As usual with Criterion, the bonus features are fascinating. One gets the background of filmmaker Reggio in these. He co-founded the Santa Fe non-profit Institute for Regional Education, and in a series of 16mm spots they made for the ACLU, started on his route to illustrating his philosophies with wordless symbolic filmic images. Their message was to make the public aware of New Mexico’s privacy invasions and use of technology in controlling behavior. Some of their film spots are shown, and Reggio discusses his philosophical and spiritual influences. The statements from Philip Glass and cinematographer Ron Fricke are also most interesting. A superb extra short to the Trilogy is the 1992 half-hour Anima Mundi, which also combines narrative-free images with the music of Glass. It uses footage of over 70 different animal and insect species. The lossless 5.1 surround reproduction of Glass’ superbly supporting music makes all of these films as much an audio experience as a visual one.

—John Sunier




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