Monday, July 28, 2008

Movies/Music: Powaqqatsi

For three dollars, a person really oughtn't complain (this screening and live performance by the Philip Glass Orchestra was part of a series of practically-free evens offered in Brooklyn's Prospect Park), but I don't have much good to say about Powaqqatsi, the second in a trilogy of "Qatsi" films collaborated upon by director Godfrey Reggio and composer Philip Glass. I had seen the first, Koyaanisqatsi, in San Francisco, also screened along with a live performance of the score. While that film hadn't done much to augment the beautiful score with which I was already familiar, it was neutral enough not to spoil the music. The footage of Powaqqatsi, though, is different. (N.B. I have yet to see or hear the final film/score of the trilogy, Naqoyqatsi.)

None of the three films have dialogue, characters, or plots per se; instead, they are comprised of a barrage of images, some stock footage, and, in the case of Powaqqatsi, much original footage filmed in Brazil, India, Kenya, China, and Peru, amongst a variety of other third world countries. Whereas the images in Koyaanisqatsi consist mostly of inanimate movement—cars, buildings, factories, bridges, etc.—and the people, when they are included, act only as ciphers for cogs themselves, pushing through crowded streets in the thousands, or working along manufacturing conveyor belts—Powaqqatsi's footage focuses on the person as an aesthetic individual. Though people are photographed in groups, the camera reads them as humans rather than cogs, as individual souls, and in the light of a beautiful tragedy.

And there is the rub. Powaqqatsi, a kind of two hour long commercial against humanity, engages in a fetishization of the Third World typical* of the Western First World. The film is, in fact, a kind of pornography of poverty for the liberal upper-middle class, in which we can gaze, with real desire, at the regal sashay of an African woman, her starved hips swinging under layers of colorful fabric, or the elegant tilt of an Indian woman's neck, as she balances a basket on her head, or the innocent eyes of a group of children with dirt-crusted faces. Here, we can lament, as we watch the bare feet of a boy running in the dirt that seem to re-evolve into animal feet, sturdy and natural, our own pinched toes, pale and sweating in designer shoes, made, most likely by a boy like this, in a factory, which we have built. For that is, essentially, the meaning of the Hopi word "powaqqatsi," that we, human beings, are devouring ourselves and our earth, destroying it, and the beauty of humanity in the process. And that is no lie; Reggio was rather prescient to speak this theme so strongly in 1988, before the contemporary ravings of An Inconvenient Truth and WALL-E. But must he fall so easily into the trap of the tourist visiting India for the first time? And what answer does he propose? For while the film might incite more avid members of the audience to join the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement, most will not find solace in mass, conscious suicide.

The film, I think, (the whole trilogy, in fact) is designed as a warning: change your ways, before it becomes too late. There is, toward the end, a "call to prayer," during which the echo of Arabic ululations rings against footage of people meditating, bowing, kissing a wall. Again, the director favors aesthetics over logic, failing to acknowledge that religion is rather deeply connected with the project of colonization, inter-tribal warfare, and all the other cultural boogie men that have put us into the mess in which we find ourselves. But Reggio is clearly not interested in problemetization. And Glass, too, fails us, incorporating "influences" from "world music" in a way that water down his bare-bones aesthetic. Koyaanisqatsi, with its bowel-rattling chanting, rips into our centers and grasps our souls; Powaqqatsi flits around our heads like a too-loud insect experimenting with the Doppler Effect. There is a distinct moment during which Powaqqatsi redeems itself, visually and aurally, past half-way through and beginning with the footage of a moving train, but that is only Koyaanisqatsi retread: we soar over a city's buildings and hear Glass' traditional, clean arpeggios. But then the picture shifts back to the brown bodies beautiful with starvation, the world music theme revives, and the film reverts to its emotionally exhausting incarnation. I can do without.

*You see, I cast the first stone at myself.

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