Friday, July 27, 2012

Ghosts in Our Own Machines: A Review of Naqoyqatsi

It's been pretty quiet 'round these parts as the summer begins to wind down and August and the new semester approach. But I recently posted the following review on Amazon, and I thought I'd post it here (with some minor editing) as well.

Breughel's The Tower of Babel, which also serves as the opening image from Naqoyqatsi. Image found here.

This film, the third and last of the Qatsi trilogy, is every bit as visually and sonically spectacular as its predecessors. But, though it clearly belongs with them, it is finally a less hopeful film than the first two. I suspect, though, that that's part of director Godfrey Reggio's point. Any film that opens with an image of the Tower of Babel is probably not going to be very hope-filled.

In Koyaanisqatsi ("Life Out of Balance") and Powaqqatsi ("Life in Transformation"), the two realms being compared and contrasted (respectively, natural and urban spaces, and indigenous and Western ways of living) were given fairly equivalent amounts of screen time, suggesting (to me, at least) the possibility of an equilibrium being achieved between the two--if not within the space of the film, then among viewers as they ponder how best to live. Perhaps that is why I prefer the first two films. Naqoyqatsi, released 14 years after Powaqqatsi, seems to suggest that that possibility of equilibrium has been lost: Technology, as signified in the film by its recurring sequences of strings of binary numbers, not to mention the digital generation and/or alteration of the vast majority of what we see on the screen, has ceased being only a tool by and through which we interact with nature. It has become, in significant ways, our surrogate for nature, blurring our traditional notions of what is "natural" and what is "artificial." The short sequence in which we see the head of Dolly the sheep (image found here)
encapsulates this idea for me: as she moves her head from side to side, the image blurs, doubling and tripling, raising in a visual way the philosophical questions raised by our ability to clone animals.

Technology, this film seems to argue, is the worst sort of dystopia: one that we don't entirely realize we live in because we can no longer be entirely sure whether what we see is the world as it is, or whether it's been tweaked to our liking or convenience.

As if in counterpoint to all this, though, Philip Glass's score floats over all of what we see; it's scored for a small orchestra and isn't as heavy (or heavy-handed) as was his music for the first two films. Lovers of cello will want to hear in particular Yo-Yo Ma's elegant performances.

I will be showing this film to my students this fall. I am hoping one of them will note the film's outdated computer graphics; I'm hoping he'll say that we have better graphics now. "Better? In what way?" "Ours are more realistic." "Yes--and? Is a near-invisible line between the real and the computer-generated necessarily a good thing?"


Doc said...

in my bleeding-edge days that was the aim, to create computer gen'd sfx indistinguishable from the filmed 'reality'. and -strictly in the cases of and service to art - i still fel it's a worthwhile goal. more broadly, especially where where children are concerned say, i have my reservations...

John B. said...

Hey, Doc--thanks for stopping by.

The pursuit of the ever-more-realistic-in-appearance is something I'm having less trouble seeing the point of, beyond its goal of satisfying the perceived human desire for verisimilitude in its images. I had "need" there in place of "desire," but that's precisely the issue here, it seems to me: None of this stuff makes our lives better beyond pleasing us at a kind of superficial aesthetic level.

Walter Benjamin worried about our respect for "the original" in "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction." I wonder what he would say in this new age of ours, in which there's a move toward preferring the artificial over the real, where Technology is so intruding on the traditional space of Art that it's gone beyond positing an understanding of Nature to the point of re-making it.

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