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Godfrey Reggio: Altered images

Godfrey Reggio's reputation was made with Koyaanisqatsi, in which haunting images showed the world in decline. Now, in the long-awaited Naqoyqatsi, the director suggests that dysfunction could be a blessing in disguise. Andrew Gumbel meets him

Friday 13 December 2002 01:00 GMT
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The night before I met Godfrey Reggio for an interview, I dreamed that he had just agreed to direct Spider-Man 2 as his next project. The idea was so absurd that I almost burst out laughing in my sleep. Still, my dream had a point: in the diminished, cravenly commercial world of Hollywood film-making, it is almost impossible to find anyone who works so far outside the system as to be utterly immune to its lurid temptations. But Reggio is most certainly one of the happy few.

He works not in Hollywood but in his native New Mexico, in an unassuming converted warehouse just outside the centre of Santa Fe. This is the home of his production company, or collective as he prefers to call it, which goes by the unpromising name IRE, or Institute for Regional Education. It is a not-for-profit outfit (the name stemming from its origins in public-service documentary making), which again makes Reggio a glaring exception in the pantheon of today's film-makers. Granted, plenty of directors these days make films that accrue no profit for themselves beyond a bare-bones salary, but he is probably the only one who does so deliberately.

It was from this New Mexican cocoon – he calls it "the Siberia of America", a place where he can lose himself in the deep thought of his craft without distraction – that his groundbreaking film Koyaanisqatsi sprang forth 20 years ago. Starting with the title, a Hopi Indian word meaning, loosely, "life out of balance", it was clear that Reggio was a film-maker like no other, that his project was nothing less than to look at the world through new eyes and invent a fresh cinematic language with which to express what he saw.

Koyaanisqatsi was all image – without dialogue, plot, characters or traditional narrative – its internal logic driven purely by the startling sequences appearing on screen and the haunting music of Philip Glass that accompanied them like a great symphonic poem. It showed a world that had fallen from grace because of the insane speed and post-industrial mechanisation of the technological era. It moved from the primeval beauties of the western American wilderness to the aching sadness of derelict housing estates; thanks to some arresting time-lapse and slow-motion photography, it exulted in the movements of clouds and waves and then dwelled, in equally arresting fashion, on the perpetual stop-go motion of traffic among the skyscrapers of the big city. Koyaanisqatsi was a mind-blowing movie, expressing both despair and a residual hope, that deeply influenced subsequent film-makers; it's hard to imagine, for example, that Wim Wenders remained unaffected by its visual style, or its themes of pain and redemption, when making Wings of Desire in 1987. It also earned cult status in the drug subculture, even though the film delivers quite a high by itself.

Six years after Koyaanisqatsi came a sequel, Powaqqatsi, this time focusing on the Third World and the way in which life there has been cannibalised by the exigencies of western consumerism. Once again the imagery – particularly in the opening sequence of open-pit gold-mine workers in Brazil – and the Philip Glass score were startling in their ethereal beauty and in their mourning for a dehumanised world. If the film had less impact than its predecessor, it was perhaps because the visual style had become more familiar, and because the subject-matter exposed it to more explicitly political, and hence controversial, interpretations.

Now, after a long hiatus, Reggio and Glass have completed the third part of what they always intended to be a trilogy of Qatsi films, and it is far and away the most radical of the lot. Instead of observing the world and making it strange and new, Naqoyqatsi takes leave of the real world to exist within the realm of pure image itself. Roughly 80 per cent of the footage was taken from stock, rather than filmed from scratch, and just about all of it was manipulated, twisted, stretched, enhanced through computer technology or otherwise altered to serve up a withering critique of a world in which image is the new reality.

Naqoyqatsi is, therefore, about "life through mediation", as Reggio puts it, and the world that it describes is also the medium within which the film exists. "The film is embedded in its own subject-matter," he explains. "There is no separation, it is a complete hand-in-glove fit. The film had to have a location, and the location is the image. We tortured images with the very tool that creates images, that is, the computer. The very thing I'm critical of I use – that's the art of the piece."

Watching it is a disorienting experience. Instead of vast landscapes or bevies of human activity, we see computer chips, loops of digital code, altered news footage and distorted waxwork figures of global celebrities; we see slowed-down adverts where consumer desire is exposed as an absurdist lie, faces that have been blanched and cyborged, athletic events and military parades reinterpreted as propaganda for an essentially bellicose mode of living. Reggio translates the word Naqoyqatsi as "a life of killing each other; war as a way of life; civilised violence". It is a theme, in the wake of September 11 and George Bush's declaration of a war on terrorism without end, that has taken on an unexpected resonance and urgency.

Indeed, about halfway through Naqoyqatsi is an image of a fireball exploding right behind the twin towers of the World Trade Centre. Reggio says the image was already in the film before the attacks, making him downright prophetic. He was recently invited to show his film as part of the one-year commemoration of the fall of the towers, but he said no. His film, he said, was not about a single act of terrorism, but rather about the broader terror inherent in the globalised technological age, the "sanctioned terror of life".

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Central to Reggio's thinking is the notion that language has broken down, replaced by a system of communication – the image – that is inherently untrustworthy, inherently expressive of a propagandistic point of view and inherently open to manipulation. That, more than anything, explains why his films are wordless, and why the old conventions of both documentary and feature film seem inadequate for his purpose. "Language no longer describes the world in which we live," he said. "This is tragic. Words no longer carry the charge of the new terra firma we're in. We're in an altered state, one where old ideas and perspectives and paradigms no longer work."

To prove his point, he cites the loss of languages and dialects on the planet, from 30,000 counted at the turn of the 20th century to just 4,000 at the turn of the 21st. "We are moving from diversity to homogenisation, we are seeing a Los Angelisation of the planet," he said. "Language is premised on place, on location. As place evaporates, language evaporates." Reggio's work, one realises, is also a persuasive critique of globalisation – another reason, after Seattle and Genoa, to find it peculiarly topical.

Reggio, who is 62, is a tall, gaunt man of ascetic manner. He has clearly given over large chunks of his life to deep contemplation; he speaks in great paragraphs of perfectly formed thought, occasionally closing his eyes and stretching out his hands to guide his concentration. His disciplined mind is clearly the guiding principle behind the films, as witnessed by the interlocking diagram of concepts and ideas scrawled on the whiteboard in his office, or in the sequence-by-sequence notes (or "dramaturgical shapings", as he calls them) that act as the jumping-off point for himself and his collaborators – the closest thing his films have to a screenplay.

There is something inescapably monk-like about him, and that is no coincidence. He spent his formative years – from 14 to 28 – as a member of the Christian Brothers, the Catholic order devoted to contemplation and teaching the poor. As he puts it, he was effectively brought up in the Middle Ages, making him at once of this world but also crucially outside it. By the time he left the brotherhood, his concerns were in fact extremely worldly – he worked with street gangs in Santa Fe, got himself arrested a number of times and eventually left the priesthood because his political activities were becoming an embarrassment to his superiors. Still you can't help thinking, as you watch his films, that he came blinking into the modern world as a fully formed adult, and hasn't stopped blinking since.

His Catholic upbringing is also evident in the tone of his work, replete as it is with notions of sin and redemption. Naqoyqatsi opens with Brueghel the Elder's drawing of the Tower of Babel, and the inference could hardly be clearer: in our efforts to create a global language, we are sinfully attempting to compete with the Almighty, and we are surely destined to be punished for our pride – if we do not destroy ourselves first.

Reggio acknowledges the Catholic influence, but says it is merely one way of expressing something that runs throughout the history of western art: that to liberate the world something must first be destroyed. The Greeks saw in terms of tragedy and catharsis, Eisenstein and the Russian Formalists in terms of dialectical materialism. The Hopi Indians have the concept of a Day of Purification, a purgative for the ills of the world; it is an idea that Reggio clearly finds appealing. "To me," he said, "collapse, dysfunction and disintegration could be a blessing in disguise."

Watching Naqoyqatsi, I found myself arguing quite a bit with its premises. Isn't it a little dishonest, I thought, to distort human images, to suck the humanity out of them, and then use those same distorted images to assert that human beings have been alienated – "cyborged", in Reggio's phrase – by the technological age? Shouldn't he, as a film-maker critiquing the culture of images through images, have more faith in ordinary people's ability to interpret the digital world as he has and keep their own critical distance from it? Shouldn't he, as a film-maker, have more faith in images themselves to be something other than a demon force?

Such argumentative questions, though, were only one part of my viewing experience. There was also the visceral appreciation of the sheer power of what was on screen, and of Yo-Yo Ma's haunting cello solos on the Glass soundtrack. I felt my head and my senses were on a collision course. One might disagree with Reggio's view of the world – a response to the digital age not dissimilar, perhaps, to the Romantic poets' response to the industrial age – but his ability to engage both the senses and mind make him a singular, and singularly valuable, cinematic artist.

'Koyaanisqatsi' and 'Powaqqatsi' are being shown in January as part of 'Philip on Film Live: a Celebration of 25 Years of Film Music by Philip Glass' at the Barbican, London (020-7638 8891). DVDs of both films will be released by MGM next month. 'Naqoyqatsi' will be released next year

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