Friday, November 12, 2004

Powaqqatsi as part of Blog Meridian's meridian

A few days ago, when I should have been doing other things, I was randomly rereading earlier posts in this blog and was surprised, just as Emerson said in "Self-Reliance" that one would be as one looked back on one's intellectual course (well, okay--he didn't say it that way, but what I have in mind is his image of the sailing ship that must continually tack this way and that but, over time, assumes its general direction)--surprised, I say, to see how many of my earlier posts address the issue (and importance) of felt human connectedness to, if not Nature, then to a region and its history and culture. That theme is certainly not something I had consciously thought I'd be addressing in this blog, but there it is. To be sure, it won't become THE theme, either. But I certainly won't be surprised to see it pop up again as a concern. It so obviously is, after all.
I've decided to make it a concern for this blog because earlier this week I showed Powaqqatsi to my honors comp class (quick update: it continues to go well in its loosey-goosey way) as one of three very different films about representation (the others: Vertigo and Girl with a Pearl Earring). As I watched Reggio's film, it struck me that it too is about that same importance of connectedness: its two distinct halves show, in the first, the rural lives of humans throughout what Reggio calls the Southern Hemisphere as segmented by work, harvest, celebration, and religion, and, in the second, the urban lives of people from that same region--segmented as well, but into much blurrier divisions. The film's message seems to be that those lives detached from the land are much less clearly demarcated and thus less grounded, less rooted. Reggio, in the featurette that accompanies my DVD copy of Powaqqatsi, says he's not attempting to elevate the rural over the urban/technological, but he also says that those rural cultures are "more fragile because more human." This is a complicated issue--not at all a simple back-to-nature argument, with Reggio himself using technology to offer his critique of technology. Rather than smashing the Machine, we can use the Machine to get outside of it to see how it shapes us. But it goes deeper: Reggio makes the observation that, quite apart from TV's programming and its influence on our thought and culture, we don't know to what extent the cathode-ray tube, because it emits light, also shapes our very growth as physical beings: "We are cyborged," he announces.
Also as I watched, I thought back to this post and, in particular, Blex's comment which, for some reason, I never got a chance to respond to directly. I happen to share Blex's opinion of Wal-Mart's lack of regard for something I call "historical aestheticism," but--along with Reggio, if I'm understanding him correctly--I personally feel that to imply that Mexicans are powerless in the face of the juggernaut that is Wal-Mart is to grant too little credence to Mexicans and their power and right to make choices about how to live (see also my first visit to this topic). We may not agree with their choices to live either as rural-dwellers OR as urban-dwellers, to invite/not invite Wal-Mart to build where they are building; but unless someone is actively coerced into living contrary to his/her wishes, we have to grant him/her the sanctity of their choices. To presume otherwise is to commit another, albeit more benign, version of what we see as Wal-Mart's crime: a "knowing better."
Powaqqatsi presents us with images of people who, so far as we know, have decided for themselves how to live and accept the consequences of their decisions, no matter what WE might think of those decisions. Surely, many in the film would share our judgment that living in a drainpipe or having to compete with hogs in a landfill are deplorable. And so, we should trust that people in developing nations are as able as we are to change their conditions as soon as they are able . . . and, yes, come to see that excessive obeisance to urbanization and consumerism, like too much of most anything else, is not to their benefit.
This same argument is also relevant, it seems to me, in assessing the aftermath of last week's election. There's a good deal of mutual loathing between perceived winners and losers, most of that loathing of the sneering sort. As one of the perceived losers but also as a religious native of Texas, I find the kind of loathing emanating from "my" side to be especially distorted, disgraceful and condescending: circulating a map on the Internet denoting "red states" as "Jesusland" is not going to win the next election--but what might is a more articulate (AND honest) discussion of the intersections of religious values and public policies as Democrats understand them (see also, if you care to, this post of mine from a few days ago).
Powaqqatsi asks us to examine our assumptions about human culture(s) as manifested in rural and urban settings, about what "all" people want and preferred ways and places in which to live. It certainly stacks the deck, but sometimes that has to occur in order to shift a paradigm or two.


jennifer said...

It is a rather interesting film, particularly because it is only representation without context. I thought about how interesting it is to watch the flood of images coming at you without the words and the innundation of words so typical of most of what you see on television and in film. Because you can't read the words (or hear them) you must read the images and the images are just that. Anyhow, fascinating film.

John B. said...

I'm glad you liked it. In fact, I thought about your blogging interests as I watched it this time around: I thought, here are human issues stripped of (verbal) rhetoric; they simply ARE, a kind of foundation around which one could articulate principles of justice, of "how to live," of who gets to say how one lives.