Monday, November 09, 2009

[Retroview] The Qatsi Trilogy (1982-2002)

The Qatsi trilogy is a collection of cinematic tone poems containing no words, no narrative, only music and a variety of photographed images. Landscapes, cityscapes, etc. filmed with time-lapse photography among other techniques.

These films were:
Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out Of Balance (1982)
Powaqqatsi: Life In Transformation(1988)
Naqoyqatsi: Life As War

Koyaanisqatsi was the most well known of the films, which all featured scores by composer Phillip Glass, and for most people it was the make or break film. You either responded to it or you didn't. A trailer can be found at

As an artist, I think it's a brave approach to strip out the narrative and word and let readers judge and ask for themselves, forming their own connections to what they would see on the page, the canvas, the screen. There are many questions with all of these.

In 1982 it was hailed as a very visionary concept, when many films of the early 1980s were still suffering from excess of narration and explanation, and MTV videos were just starting to emerge with their vacuous, overproduced commercial imagery.

To me, I continue to wonder, where is the fine line between 'meaningful' juxtapositions, the presentation of an artistic object free of narrative and imposed judgement, and when is it a cop out? And worst of all, when does it become merely boring?

To put images next to one another and add music risks being no more meaningful than seeking the art in random arrangement of books on a shelf. Randomness is simply randomness, sometimes. Creating prompts like this but 'excusing yourself' from the dialog with the audience seems bold, but a cinematic way of saying: 'Here, sit in the room and watch some stuff I found lying around. Do, you know, whatever,' which becomes funny because it seems the films wanted to discuss our 'humanity' or our increasing distance from it and the world.

Powaqqatsi has several meanings including "parasitic way of life" or "life in transition". Powaqqatsi has more familiar human figures and imagery, but the result is often a feeling of watching culture-vulture tourism and an artwork assembled from a dangerous zone of privilege, one that exoticizes and romanticizes the struggles of third world development between traditional live and industrial modernization. I find myself asking many more questions here at an aesthetic and social level. An excerpt for Powaqqatsi can be seen here:

Naqoyqatsi was deeply experimental to create what the director considered "virtual cinema." The key change is archive footage and stock photography is edited then digitally manipulated and employs CGI. This differs from the other films that shot workin the real world. The trailer can be found here:

Overall, I credit the Qatsi Trilogy for raising some classic questions for cinema and art, opening the way for many others to attempt cinematic tone poems.

This is a set of films that long after their first release continue to provoke a wide variety of responses from me. There are moments where I find it deeply compelling and others deeply troubling, and sometimes, simply boring. But it is in provoking that wide range of responses that I find myself returning to it, and the final verdict is: Fish.

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