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DVD Review: THE QATSI TRILOGY (BLU-RAY)



Studio: The Criterion Collection
Year: 1983-2002
Cast: Various
Director: Godfrey Reggio
Release Date: December 11, 2012
Rating: G for (nothing objectionable)
Run Time: 04h:36m:05s
Genre(s): documentary

THE QATSI TRILOGY (BLU-RAY)

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I've never experienced director Godfrey Reggio's game-changing, unique trilogy, but there's no better excuse to finally see them than this great new Blu-ray box set from The Criterion Collection.

Movie Grade: A-

DVD Grade: A

If you think that the idea of a film trilogy based on nothing but moving images and the atmospheric, instrumental-only music of Philip Glass, without a scripted story, is a bad, boring one, then you wouldn’t be alone. One would imagine that, at best, there would be limited interest in such a series of movies. Filmmaker Godfrey Reggio was more than willing to take such risks for his art, as he is the man primarily responsible for The Qatsi Trilogy, which consists of 1983’s Koyaanisqatsi, 1988’s Powaqqatsi, and 2002’s Naqoyqatsi. Five minutes into Reggio’s first film, and we realize that the aforementioned boredom assumptions for such fare was a huge misconception, as each of these three films is a glorious mind trip, taking our eyes and ears on an unforgettable journey filled with astonishingly-photographed images and Glass’ breathtaking score. After making the rounds on various home video formats through the years, Reggio’s movies finally find a proper home, thanks to The Criterion Collection, who adds The Qatsi Trilogy to their ever-growing collection of reference-quality Blu-ray releases.

The first film in the trilogy, Koyaanisqatsi, gets the sensory overloading started by focusing on images that invoke “life out of balance.” Reggio’s first go at this unique style of documentary is full of long, sweeping landscapes covering many of the Earth’s processes, with an overriding theme of how things are constantly changing. While some of what we see might seem a bit redundant, especially if you’ve never, truly seen a film like this before, but even if things get boring for you, rest assured that sticking around until the end is well worth it. Reggio makes a bold choice in the last 10 minutes of this first film to show footage of a rocket lifting off (the same one from the film’s opening?) and eventually exploding. His camera lingers on one piece of wreckage, tracking its movement downward, and slowly zooming in on this metallic object before we fade out to once again see the first image we saw following the main titles, a definition of “koyaanisqatsi,” and a translation of the Hopi Prophecies that were repeatedly sung throughout the film. This powerful conclusion pays off on both a thematic and emotional level as it not only brings things full circle, but it also foreshadows a harrowing disaster in U.S. history, the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion.

Five years later saw Reggio direct Powaqqatsi, which, in Hopi, refers to “life in transformation.” Therefore, in this installment of the trilogy, we see many images shot in third-world countries, showcasing the multitudes of anonymous laborers that, in their own way, keep the world, as a whole, rotating along its axis. The extended opening sequence, involving throngs of strong men virtually killing themselves working at the Serra Palada gold mine in Brazil, presents these strong creatures in an almost religious fashion, with Reggio framing them like Gods likely working for very little to complete an extremely important task. We see many children in this middle installment, and one particular sequence where a beautiful tracking shot captures a collection of smiling little faces, operates as a statement against the unwarranted stereotypes that these third-world youngsters are saddled with, especially here in the United States. Sure, there’s likely numerous other, albeit at least slightly subtle, political statements sprinkled throughout these three films, but the more glaring, effective of these, tend to come to the surface most often in Powaqqatsi.

It took a whopping 14 years, but when news got out that The Qatsi Trilogy would finally be complete, fans of the previous films couldn’t wait until Naqoyqatsi, or “life at war,” made it to a theater near them. This is easily the darkest, at times even depressing of the films, with an overriding theme of modern digital technology and its contribution to the world’s social and political troubles. It often seems as if Reggio is blaming technology for many of the world’s wars, both those of the recent past, and the ongoing conflicts we’re still struggling to deal with. Naqoyqatsi is the least critically adored of the three films, as it actually nearly split critics down the middle, with many complaining about the strange choice to present many of these images with odd color alterations, and an odd, old-school 8-bit, video game-like presentation that, at times, made me think I was somehow watching outtakes from the TV show, Max Headroom. Plus, things are often so dreary and fatalistic, that any of the joy experienced during the viewings of the first two films is forgotten and nearly impossible to approach again. Still, there’s plenty to like as we finish up the trilogy, and in the end, Naqoyqatsi should be viewed as, at worst, a necessary evil.

The Criterion Collection’s stellar box set grants each film its own Blu-ray disc, each of which features fantastic audio and video presentations, despite the relative old age of at least one of the films. Both Koyaanisqatsi and Powaqqatsi are presented in their original 1.85:1 aspect ratios, with these new, 1080p transfers allowing their respective films to look better than they ever have before. While sharpness and detail waver a few times during both films, the overall result is always pleasing, thanks to wonderful color rendering, solid contrast and shadow levels, and a lack of any print issues. The much-newer Naqoyqatsi looks even better, despite the far-less-beautiful images (thanks to Reggio’s visual style choices in this film) that often dominate things. Color rendering is, again, excellent, but sharper, more detailed images are at play here, absolutely no flaws or print defects.

The massive extras collection is spread out amongst the three discs, beginning with Koyaanisqatsi’s, where we find Essence of Life, a 25-minute piece shot in 2002, and featuring Reggio and Glass discussing the making of this first film in The Qatsi Trilogy. They talk in great detail about the intentions of these films, how they came about, and the numerous concepts involved with Koyannisqatsi’s images and music. Next, is a 16-minute, 2012 interview with director of photography Ron Fricke (the man who would go on to direct the similarly-structured films Baraka and Samsara), who talks about the part he played in making this film and some difficulties that were involved in the process. There is a pair of supplements dealing with a “Privacy Campaign” that was organized by Reggio and the Institute for Regional Education in 1974 to inform New Mexicans about the invasion of privacy and how technology can control behavior. These supplements are a nearly-five-minute, 2012 interview with Reggio about this campaign, and eight television spots (five and a half minutes, total) that aired on local channels in New Mexico in 1974.

This first disc also houses another 2012 interview (five minutes) with Reggio, during which he talks about the beginnings of his relationship with Fricke, the initial, albeit, abandoned visual concept for Koyaanisqatsi, and early shoots for this first concept, parts of which are shown in this piece. There’s also a “1977 Demo Version” submenu that deals with the time that Reggio took a 40-minute, silent demo version of his film to the Naropa Institute, where he screened it for poets Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky. Using their talents, they recorded a scratch music track for certain parts of the film. In this submenu we get a four-minute introduction from Reggio, the original, silent demo version, and two sound clips running a total of 47 minutes that contain parts of the aforementioned scratch music track. Finishing up the supplements on this disc is the trailer for Koyaanisqatsi.

The Powaqqatsi disc is also full of extras, starting with Impact of Progress, a nearly-20-minute discussion with Reggio and Glass that took place in 2002 and covers their thoughts on the evolution and way forward for The Qatsi Trilogy when Powaqqatsi was made. Another 2012 interview with Reggio is next, and this 18-minute selection finds him talking, in great detail, about those who have taught and influenced him through the years, including the likes of legendary filmmaker Luis Buñuel and economist Leopold Kohr. This disc also contains an 18- minute episode of a 1989 New Mexico public TV show, during which journalist V.B. Price sits down to discuss Reggio’s vision for The Qatsi Trilogy 14 years before he’s completed it. Anima Mundi is a 28-minute, 1992 film directed by Reggio and scored by Philip Glass that is, essentially, a collection of footage of numerous animals in their natural habitats. We also get the trailer for Powaqqatsi.

The final disc is also chock full of supplements, kicking off with an afterword by director Godfrey Reggio, which lasts for 16 minutes, was filmed in 2012, and focuses on his reflections on The Qatsi Trilogy as a whole. The Making of “Naqoyqatsi” is a four-minute piece that features interviews with important members of the crew that were filmed during postproduction, back in 2002. There’s also a panel discussion that runs for 54 minutes, took place after a screening of Naqoyqatsi at New York University in 2003, and features Reggio, Glass, and Editor Jon Kane, and was moderated by music critic John Rockwell. Finishing up the extras is a seven-minute, 2003 sit-down with Glass and cellist Yo-Yo Ma, where they discuss this, their first collaboration, and the trailer for Naqoyqatsi.

Posted by: Chuck Aliaga - March 17, 2013, 6:53 pm - DVD Review
Keywords: sensory, wonder, galvanizing




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