Tag Archives: Philip Glass

CAPSULE: KOYAANISQATSI (1982)

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“These films have never been about the effect of technology, of industry on people. It’s been that everyone: politics, education, things of the financial structure, the nation-state structure, language, the culture, religion, all of that exists within the host of technology. So it’s not the effect of, it’s that everything exists within [technology]. It’s not that we use technology, we live technology. Technology has become as ubiquitous as the air we breathe…”–director Godfrey Reggio

“I just shot anything that I thought would look good on film. Shooting bums, as well as buildings, didn’t matter. It was all the same from my standpoint. I just shot the form of things.”–director of photography Ron Fricke

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: the music of Philip Glass

PLOT: The film explores the fragile balance of humanity’s use of and interaction with the natural world and the inexorable advance of time through montage, juxtaposing time-lapse and slow-motion photography.

Still from Koyaanisqatsi (1982)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Koyaanisqatsi is a landmark motion picture, creating a memorable visual language and utilizing time-honored cinematic techniques in wholly new ways. But it’s a strange sort of success: a wordless visual essay which points the finger firmly at its audience to the beat of a musical minimalist icon. An experimental film that becomes a movie lingua franca would normally be an easy call for this list. But, you see, we’re kind of running out of room…

COMMENTS: My son was an unexpectedly gracious and patient viewer of Koyaanisqatsi. Surely it would be too much to expect a pre-adolescent boy to be enthused about a movie that opens with ten minutes of canyons and clouds. But he was a game spectator, settling for his own running commentary to keep himself amused. So it was a particular thrill when we arrived at the legendary implosion of the Pruitt-Igoe housing project, leading him to blurt out a shocked “What?” followed by silence throughout the ensuing montage of destruction, and concluding with a pained, “Why would they do that?”

Director Reggio, a veteran of media campaigns to warn of the dangers of technology, couldn’t have asked for a better reaction. Given the most common translation of the film’s Hopi-language title–“life out of balance”–it’s clear that we’re supposed to be horrified by mankind’s wanton destruction of both the natural world and its own psyche. In fact, it’s a little shocking to see how angry contemporary critics were at the film’s stance: Roger Ebert called it “an invitation to knee-jerk environmentalism of the most sentimental kind” while Variety described it as “a cynical display of decadence intending to edify and anger to action, but instead alienating with its one-sidedness.” More than three decades later, continued environmental peril has placed the judgment of history strongly on the side of the movie. But Koyaanisqatsi remains an effective advocate on its own, Continue reading CAPSULE: KOYAANISQATSI (1982)

CAPSULE: VISITORS (2013)

DIRECTED BY: Godfrey Reggio

FEATURING: None

PLOT: A series of black and white shots, mostly of human faces but also of abandoned buildings, hands, and landscapes, set to a new composition by Philip Glass. Still from Visitors (2013)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Though a curious experiment for sure,Visitors is too dry, slow and minimal to make the list of the best weird movies of all time. It’s got the “weird” part down; I’m less sure about the “movie” part.

COMMENTS: Visitors is composed of about 75% shots of human faces, captured by a slow motion camera, staring into a monitor with hard-to-gauge expressions for about a minute at a time. To break up the monotony there are also shots of abandoned buildings, disembodied hands, a gorilla, a lunar surface, and so on—all beautifully photographed, but seemingly inserted at random. Now, the human face is fascinating in its infinite variety and its singular expressiveness, but I confess that, like a normal person, I found this exploration boring. Five minutes of this parade of faces would have been enough, fifteen minutes would be pushing it, but ninety minutes sets the movie up as a challenge. It’s not that there isn’t a great deal for the eye to appreciate, or that there are no surprises to be found, especially in the film’s final moments; it’s just that a little bit of this goes a long way. You might compare Visitors to looking at an exhibition at an art gallery, except that at the gallery the observer decides whether he wants to invest his attention in the portrait of the young Asian girl or the gorilla or the cypresses in the swamp, going at his own pace; here, director Godfrey “Koyaanisqatsi” Reggio selects the image and dictates in what order and for how long we gaze at each installation. If there is sense to the progression of images, it’s lost on us. The idea of a film where we simply peer at people’s faces while they stare back at us has a certain experimental purity; but why break it up with the shots of the abandoned amusement park? The flock of seagulls? The piles of garbage? (The Louisiana swamp that figures heavily in the film’s last third is a spot Reggio loved from his childhood, which subverts the notion that there is some sort of objective, non-personal meaning to the flow of images). There is a disconnect between the shots of isolated faces followed by abandoned buildings that might suggest some sort of looming post-apocalyptic future, but basically the audience is left on its own to find any thematic relevance in the imagery. Unlike Reggio’s previous films, such as Koyaanisqatsi (where the imagery consistently critiques the hectic pace of modern life), the material of Visitors seems like a bunch of pretty pictures inserted because each of them looked cool in isolation, not because they resonate with each other. In this way Visitors is a legitimately Surrealist documentary. It is also much, much slower in its progression than Reggio’s already stately previous work. Overall, Visitors is a noble experiment, but it would be hard to call it a successful one, except on a shot-by-shot basis.

Philip Glass’ slow, deep, moody score adds additional artistic heft to the project, and serious orchestral music fans may consider Visitors as nothing more than the music video for Glass’ latest composition. It’s also worth nothing, although I doubt Reggio would agree, that Visitors may actually play better on home video than in theaters. At home, you can walk away into the next room to read your email or unload the dishwasher, let Visitors play in the background, and check back every now and then just to assure yourself that nothing about the movie has actually changed.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… weirdly beautiful film, eerie in its complicated simplicity.”–Maryann Johanson, Flick Filospher (contemporaneous)