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Panel Discussion on the Release of the Film Naqoyqatsi
John Rockwell – Arts and Entertainment Editor, New York Times
Jon Kane – Editor/Visual Designer
Godfrey Reggio – Director
Phillip Glass – Composer


JR: What’s qatsi all about?

GR: Qatsi comes from the Hopi language, the word itself means life. In each of these three films the word is a compound—Koyaanisqatsi, Powaqqatsi, Noqoyqatsi. When in a compound it means a way of life. It goes beyond the word itself. In the case of Koyannisqatsi the word means a crazy life, a life in turmoil, a life in conflict, a life out of balance. These are heavily laden words that are for me extraordinarily descriptive of an event and it’s the reason I went to their language. The second film Powaqqatsi—a Powaqa is a black magician—a person who eats the life of another person in order to advance his or her life. The modus operandi as it were of a Powaqa is allurement and seduction. I felt that when you put those words together they mean a way of life that consumes another way of life. The root of the word Noqoy is each other kill many—it’s out of our syntax—but for me has a very profound meaning. The additional meanings are a way of life of killing and war as a way of life. Those of us that made the film chose to use the words civilized violence as a contemporary understanding of that term. These are intense terms I realize. When the first film was thought about, it was my intention not to have a title, that a title would become redundant. It’s not for lack of love for the language; it’s because I felt that I wanted these films somehow to be in the lingua franca of the global moment that we’re in. I wanted an image to stand as a title for this film. That was unacceptable for the crew and certainly for the distributor. So I decided that the best thing would be to choose a title that had an inscrutable word, a word that has no cultural baggage, a word that came as it were from another metaphysical place. And what better place to go was there than to the Native American people. I say that because I’m not a Hopi, these films have nothing to do with Hopi’s in that they’re not about the Hopi culture. It’s taking the perspicacity, insight and the clarity of their language to describe our world. A picture’s worth a thousand words, we tried to take a thousand pictures and give them the power of these words. These words in some way would rename the subject matter of the film. It is my belief that the language, which we have no longer, describes the world in which we live. It describes a world that’s not here anymore.

JR: Can you describe the project? You almost thought of it as a trilogy?

GR: No. It’s actually Philip that came up with the
idea of the trilogy. When Philip came on the project in 77’ and we were both excited and enjoying the work he says “Godfrey things go better in three’s.” That made a lot of sense to me because three is the way I work out a scenario or project, I use that as an emblematic frame of reference.

PG: When you do things in three’s it gives you enough time for an idea to develop and in fact for you as an artist it gives you time to evolve in the process of the project itself. I have to say it never occurred to us that it would take 25 years to complete the trilogy, which is a whole other story.

JR: I assume that most of the people here know the basic drill of the films, and know that they are images with musical accompaniment, but have no story and no dialogue. We should talk about the basic way you two work together. It’s more organic than Godfrey making the movie and Philip Glass scoring it. Can you talk about that?

PG: We began very early on looking at assemblages of images that I would write music to. Godfrey would then edit the film and I would rewrite the music. We had no schedule, so we had enough time to experiment. When I was living in NY and Godfrey had a studio in California I would visit every six weeks and we would look at the work. There was really no rush, because we didn’t have the money to finish the film anyway. I was very interested in the process. Coming out of the world of dance, theatre and opera, I was very well versed in the strategies of collaboration, which is not something that is common in the film business. Godfrey was a beginning filmmaker at that time and he didn’t bring any baggage about the way it should be done. So we had the time to experiment not only in the film but also in the way of working. In the most recent film Naqoyqatsi we had John Kane creating and editing the images and this way of working became even more pronounced. I actually spent a lot of time in the editing room looking at images and they spent a lot of time listening to music. It was a very playful way of working. We were really learning how to make the movies. As far as we knew no one had made any movies like this before and there were no models to go by. So we put ourselves in the position of learning from each other. By the time we’d gotten to the last one, we felt we knew how to do it, but it actually changed again because the technology had changed so radically over the years. We found ourselves in quite a different place.

JR: There’s a difference between the first two films and the third film. Essentially the first two films contained extraordinarily beautiful pictures juxtaposed in interesting ways. The first one as you now see it is about contrast between the natural world and the civilized world. The second one is more about the Southern Hemisphere, third world people and some of their interaction with the modern world. When you were first thinking of this in the mid-seventies—before the idea of the trilogy came up—was what is now called qatsi what you planned to make or once you thought of the trilogy did you then make these separations?

GR: As Philip said, without any real influences that worked on Koyaanisqatsi, we didn’t have to unlearn anything. We had an original opportunity. To be able to make that film alone was a lifetimes work as far as I was concerned at that moment. When Philip talked about this idea of the trilogy it was very exciting. We both felt we had to get this film under our belt because it would teach us what to do for the next films. Our best features would be the mistakes that we were making in this first film. Upon the exhibition of Koyaanisqatsi at the Berlin film festival in 1983 everybody was screaming “East-West.” The wall was very much in place at that time. I was there with Lawrence, one of the producers and eureka—North-South came into my mind. I said “Well we’ve just finished a film on the north, this second film must be the south.” The first film was about hyper-kinetic technological grids that would approximate the cultures of America, Western Europe at that time and Japan. The second film, Powaqqatsi was about cultures of simplicity, handmade cultures, people that brought tradition to their way of living that is itself now endangered. The third film, which became obvious in concept during the making of Powaqqatsi was the globalization of the world. So we have north, south and then this globalized moment which became the basis for Naqoyqatsi.
There is a radical difference between Naqoyqatsi and the other two films. I think for the first two part of their early interests were the beauty of the photography. So we went to real locations and shot everything on film. We did everything within the camera to create a language of the visual medium. But in the case of Naqoyqatsi the locations themselves were images, we relocated onto the virtual. We chose images that deliberately were the equivalent of our venerated familiar. Images that all of us come in contact with but in some way don’t give attention to because they’re ubiquitous. That’s what set up the real variant. That also made this film much more abstract. Less apparent in its surface, requiring more work on the part of the viewer.

JR: 80% of the footage was stock footage. What did you use for the other 20%, and why did you feel the need to shoot fresh footage?

GR: Because of the need for a particular scenario we felt the need to shoot outside in the real world. The beginning sequence is about seeing the present from the point of view of the past. The producer found us this great building in Detroit, the Michigan Central train station. Also in the scene was the Bruegel painting. The studies for both of those subject matters, was the coliseum in Rome. Bruegel went to Rome in the beginning of the 1600’s to study it and make sketches. The architecture is based on neo-classical architecture. Those images however, were themselves re-animated.

JK: All the footage that we shot was otherwise treated like the stock footage. In some cases we got in stock footage of a subject, say, thermal photography that we liked, but the shots weren’t that good. When we knew we wanted that and thought we could do better we shot it ourselves. The Brooklyn Bridge and the people at the beginning of the film are shot in thermal photography. Even those images were manipulated in the edit room.

JR: I’m interested in what you say in the notes about doing what you say is counter-intuitive scoring for Noqoyqatsi. Godfrey had followed the same pattern for the first two films with extremely abstract and sometimes demanding visual imagery. Philip could’ve gone very sharply into a kind of abstract highly electronic score, but instead did the exact opposite. Could you describe your thinking about that?

PG: There are two levels of answer for that. The first is that with each film Godfrey had created a different visual language. He expected and insisted that there should be a different musical language for each one. It happened that the three films came up in times of my life when I was working on certain ideas. They became a model of the musical sound. I went to the places Koyaanisqatsi was shot—I wanted to hear the music that was there. I did some very interesting experiments about how I translated what I heard, but it became basically a world music score. That had to do with the fact that I was in Africa, India and South America. I would also look at what John and Godfrey were doing. I had a very good idea of where the picture was going. My concern was that I sensed that the film would be so abstract that it might alienate the spectator. I began to think that the music should function in a different way. I thought of the music as a bridge from the viewer to the image. It would be a sense that the music took you by the hand and walked you through the picture. The images that John was building-the more I saw the more abstract it looked and I became convinced that the music, rather than support the image of the film, should work to balance it in a different way.

JR: I think that we should get into how these images worked. To what extent did John execute your ideas, and to what extent did he do his own thing?

GR: John is much more than an editor and it’s much more than visual design. The locations for this film were themselves images. You could call him also a cinematographer in a digital domain. What you find as you transit from the analog to the digital plane of filmmaking is that the words that describe the realities no longer fit. In terms of our relationship, it’s the same with Philip that I’ll describe with John; this is a collaborative process. Collaboration works if at the end of the day the crew is, as Tchaikovsky said, breathing with one breath, having one heartbeat.

JK: At the beginning of the project I was handed Godfrey’s scenario for the film which would otherwise be known as a script. Although there’s no real script here, it’s an outline. It’s divided into sections and each movement has sections. And those sections represent certain ideas. At first it was a process of gathering imagery to fill in this outline. In the computer we organized the project just like our outline. We would plug raw images in to their appropriate place. We ended up with an organized computer database or avid project. Then it was a matter of doing what Godfrey called re-animating; he wanted the film to be about what he called perfected degradation. Either by combining images with other images in a collage way or changing color or cropping or whatever it was going to be. I wanted to create something new without deviating too far from the familiar. I was thinking a lot about what it meant to an image to change it. That whole process was where the visual design came in. I started to find a color balance and ways of collaging that seemed appropriate for certain sections of the film. We had a wide range of footage. It was a matter of deciding how you can make all of these things breathe together as one film.

JR: You had an idea for what Noqoyqatsi might be presumably when you finished up with Powaqqatsi. To what extent in the late eighties did it involve this kind of digital manipulation and to what extent did the advance of technology over this time frame alter your views of what the movie might be?

PG: The actual length of time became impacted on the process. But it was long enough time for the whole technology of filmmaking to change. We were in a very different place. The odd thing is when I look at the storyboard; it’s not that different from what we started with when we began.

GR: Again I would have to say that being naïve helped the process. The film was first conceived at the end of Powaqqatsi, which was in 1988. And I had thought naively that it could be made in an analog way. Fortunately for the project it wouldn’t have been possible to make this film with analog tools. For one it would’ve taken too much time. We would have lost momentum, enthusiasm for the project. It would also have been expensive. I remember trying convince George Lucas to come up with the money for this, and it almost happened. But that’s another story. He told me that I was completely insane, that this film could not be made in an analog way. I said, “Oh, no, you don’t know what you’re talking about, really. I really know that I can make this, and he says OK, go do it.” And unfortunately it didn’t happen, and let me tell you why. It’s my feeling of a flat surface of digital or broadcast—it has another surface and it keeps you out. It’s great for spectacular imaging but there’s a certain depth that’s missing. And I felt that the whole idea was to bring this digital exercise into a chemical host—film.

JR: The first two films set up an alternative between a primitive, natural open space in Koyaanisqatsi and people living their lives in a third world fashion in Powaqqatsi. Juxtaposing that with the idea that modern civilization the modern was frenetic, that it was a succubus—like attack on the Southern part of the world. There’s a lot of implored criticism of the way the world works; yet these films are so beautiful. The third film is calling to question the nature of a global, network universe using the most advanced technology. How do you respond to the disjunct of criticizing the world through natural beauty and criticizing the world through technology?

GR: If I didn’t have to go through this process then I would be an Immaculate Conception. I entered film not because I wished to career in film, but because I had a passion to manifest something. Not self-expression, but to seek a truth about something. Not the truth, but something that was very passionate. If we wanted this to be available to people it would have to be, as it were, in the language or vernacular of the moment we’re living in. There’s a very high-tech base used to make these films. To make a film and not use technology is to try and have an Immaculate Conception. We had to embrace the very thing that we were criticizing. We had to be willing to embrace a contradiction. In the case of Naqoyqatsi, there’s a completeness that wasn’t present in the others. The very subject matter of the film is the manufactured image. That’s a very contradictory thing. My own feeling is that beauty somehow can offer us an insight into truth. In all of these films, we’re looking at the beauty of the beast. To see it in a totally deprivated or humiliated state would not be to do it justice. All of us are in some way worshipping at the trough of these beasts that the films try to betray.

JR: To what extent is there a religious basis to these movies? Philip has been a Tibetan Buddhist for years; Godfrey was in a catholic order for many years. One senses in these films a kind of moral and ethical criticism. Is a profitable line of questioning to wonder about the kind of spiritual underpinnings of these movies?

PG: What’s interesting about the question is that it goes well beyond film, and this particular activity of making film. It goes into how we value our lives and how we value the time on this earth. I think these works definitely address that. They are critical on that level in a much deeper way than they are of the mere question of tools and procedures. What’s been very dramatic for Godfrey and myself is the profound transformation of the world. This is a film that does address social change and the way we live our lives. It has become an urgent question and is no longer just theoretical. It’s not to say that these films are meant to provide an answer. Recently I looked at Naqoyqatsi in a different way than I ever had before. I kind of leaned back and had my eyes half closed. I looked at the images and disconnected my brain entirely. I just let the images flow into me. I was able to apprehend the state of the world, our social world, in a way that I hadn’t before. Usually, I looked at the film in terms of it being cohesive; did the movements follow each other and make sense? When I dropped that entirely I began to look at it in terms of it being a mirror of the world we lived in. Then the question is what did I think of that world?


© 2003 21C Magazine