Godfrey Reggio’s Vision of ‘Life Out of Balance’

A day in February, 1983. Godfrey Reggio is standing in front of the old Reichstag in Berlin. A tall, gaunt man with pale blue eyes and a graying beard that looks like stubble, he has just presented Koyaanisqatsi at the Berlin Film Festival. The notices have been gratifying. One critic called it “a masterpiece . . .  the highlight of the festival.”

Koyaanisqatsi letters(225).pngTrained from adolescence in the ascetic self-effacement of the Christian Brothers, a rigorous order of Catholic teaching monks, Reggio nonetheless has a self-indulgent urge. He wants to bask in the pleasurable glow of the film’s reception. Koyaanisqatsi was, after all, a relentless obsession that claimed seven years of his life.

Yet, staring at the Reichstag, Reggio can’t help being assailed by gloomy feelings. Perhaps more than anyone except his chief collaborators — the composer Philip Glass and the cinematographer Ron Fricke — he knows what a desperate Valentine he has brought to Berlin.

The message of the film, as defined by its ancient Hopi Indian title, means “life out of balance,” “life in turmoil,” “life  disintegrating.” Indeed, the most tellingly accurate meaning of the word “koyaanisqatsi” is “life that calls for another way of living.”

Ruminating on this, Reggio realizes that he has been gazing at the ornate stone edifice for a very long time. Despite the bone-chilling cold, he is fixated. And then it dawns on him that he is looking not at a stone monument but at an hallucination of history, a grandiose embodiment of a vast, devoutly worshipped mystification. The Reichstag, in all its ghostly Nazi glory, shimmers with the mystos of the modern world. More than the Kremlin in Moscow or the Capitol in Washington, it is the supremely haunting symbol of faith in mass society.

He wonders, shivering, if anybody has calculated the radioactive half-life of state mysticism.

Four years later … a day in July, 1987. Reggio is recounting his Reichstag experience in a bright, brick-lined study tucked at the back of a dark, sprawling factory loft in lower Manhattan. His desk is piled with neatly stacked books, all in the process of being read simultaneously: The Art of Memory, The Age of Illusion, Art and Politics in France: 1918-1940, Black Mask Witness, The Cosmological Eye.

Reggio, who is 6-feet-7 and towers over his visitor, offers a blue velvet armchair by the window. He himself settles into a swivel seat with his back to the makeshift desk, a door laid flat on two small filing cabinets. The brick wall behind him, painted canary yellow, faces a white chalkboard filled with indecipherable diagrams written in green. An orange canopy hangs in a graceful arc from the ceiling.

“Historically, the Reichstag represented the new cathedral, if you will, the new mysticism,” Reggio said. “Bismarck created it as a symbol of unification of the nation-states of Germany. Every schoolboy knows that or should. So I was actually in the right place to be trembling.”
Sometimes, he says, the most staggering revelations are completely obvious. “It became crystal clear, as I stood there, that the whole East-West conflict is a self-serving fraud,” he continued. “It is an enormous diversion perpetrated by the nations of both blocs. The Berlin Wall” — still standing that summer day — “is a kind of analogy of this insanity.”

This profile was published for the first time in 1987 in German, translated from English by Carl Weissner, in the Munich-based magazine TransAtlantik. In 2000, when Koyaanisqatsi was screened at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, it was published online at MSNBC.com for the first time in English. On that occasion I re-interviewed Reggio for a Q & A, which is included at the end of the profile. The film is being screened this time with live music at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall on Nov. 2 and 3.

The filmmaker, [who was then] 47, paused and lit a cigarette, stretching his long legs on the glossy wood floor. A photo of one of his spiritual mentors — David Monougye, a Hopi Indian more than 100 years old — hangs over the doorway. Outside, the deserted streets of a warehouse district echoed with the occasional sounding of a foghorn from the harbor.

“The conflict has not been Capitalism vs. Communism,” Reggio said. “Both systems have had the same objective: an accelerated technological society that will create a geologic layer of synthetic commodities. Both have exploited the human need for mysticism by producing a mystical faith in the material world, an unquestioning belief in quantity and sheer size. This puts us in a deep spiritual and political social crisis. The real conflict is North-South, northern hemisphere thinking in Third World countries.”

Then he reeled off a fairly exhaustive sociopolitical litany of polar opposites: large-small; synthetic-organic; centralized-decentralized; technological-traditional; homogenous-indigenous; mass scale-human scale; bureaucratic-democratic. Finally, exhaling a long plume of smoke, he said reflectively, “At that moment, confronted by the Reichstag, I became involved with these ideas as the basic concept of my next film.”

That film — called Powaqqatsi, meaning “life in negative transformation” — was 60 days from completion. Strips of work prints culled from 500,000 feet of footage hung from ceiling to floor like a jungle of celluloid in the factory loft beyond the study. It had been shot in 13 countries in Asia, India, Africa, the Middle East and South America [and would cost $4.2 million, almost double what it cost to bring Koyaanisqatsi to the screen]. More visceral than Koyaanisqatsi, which was filmed in Europe and North America, it is the second part of a trilogy. The third part — titled Naquoyqatsi, meaning “civilized violence” — has yet to be made. [See below.]

Admittedly, Reggio’s themes have been heard before. Documentaries are proliferating — perhaps as fast as the overt travesties they report — on environmental destruction, the terrible effects of industrialization, the horror of war, the death of native cultures, the devastation of famine, the terror of The Bomb, and so on. But Reggio would like to spare his films from being lumped into that category.

Unlike those documentaries, Koyanaasqatsi and Powaqaatsi have no narrative, not even any dialogue. They are “unmediated visualizations,” he says, concert films with fully orchestrated musical scores. Intended as purely aesthetic experiences, and notwithstanding his deeply felt sociopolitical views, they leave out the slightest whisper of commentary or analysis.

SHAPED BY THE WORLD

Their meaning is, of course, implicit. In case it needs to be spelled out, however, Reggio is easily up to the task with opinions shaped by an unusual personal history and a wide array of intellectual influences ranging from the 15th-century Saint Theresa of Avila to Henry Miller, from the14th-century German monk Thomas à Kempis to the anarchist 19th-century philosopher Peter Kropotkin, from filmmakers Luis Bunuel and Fritz Lang to the writer E.F. Schumacher, from the renegade Catholic theologian Ivan Illich (a friend of Reggio’s), to Hopi legend to French sociologist Jacques Ellul to Viennese economist Leopold Kohr.

Reggio makes wordless films, but not so they may be more easily appreciated across different cultures — although that has been one of the results. He explained, “I simply believe words tend to confuse and separate rather than bring greater enlightenment. Curiously enough, when the Church became irrelevant and lost its own oppressive hegemony over Europe, the central authority of the newly emergent fatherlands took everyone’s local language away and developed the mother tongue. It was a power greater than any army ever unleashed. The homogenization of language was one of the first tools used to develop the homogenization of the mass society. And the first coherent technology, as far as I’m concerned, was the nation-state.”

This produces enormous mysticism, he added. “What is patriotism other than mysticism? The sadness and the danger, of course, is that we have become totally dependent on mass society for life itself. It’s not as if we have much choice. What can we do? These concepts are unutterable. They’re now beyond the pale of language. This is partly why I have used Hopi, a non-literate language, to name my films.

“I felt that an insight from another point of view would be useful to people whose own language has become a propaganda and thus not useful to convey the meaning of things. We must find new experiences to become aware of these concepts, not just through the horrification of war or the opposing of injustice. Those are written into the fabric of mass society, which cannot be anything but unjust or at war.”

Reggio maintains that, lacking sufficient distance, we fail to perceive just how autonomous and out of control the mass society truly has become. The distinguishing characteristics of individual cultures evaporate in the pressure cooker of accelerated industrialization. For example, technological societies seemingly as different as those of Japan and the United States and Western Europe are more alike than not, whatever their surface distinctions.

The natural world, moreover, becomes mere raw material to be consumed, digested, and reorganized by high technology. Instead of an “organized entity present among us,” Reggio notes, nature is dismantled and cannibalized like a dead carcass. It is manipulated strictly as a resource. Reprocessed in the laboratories of what he calls the “high priests of technology” — the engineers, the architects, the city planners, to say nothing of the scientists — nature loses what traditional societies have always conceived of as its “animate being.”

“What I’m saying,” Reggio maintained, “is that science, which is now a servant of technology, has produced a life that is basically unquestioned and thus has lodged itself in the realm of faith. Faith by its nature is not rational. Hence the paradox that science — the Skeptical Philosophy, you may recall — has produced enormous mystification in the populations of mass societies. And by taking up a life that is totally technological, we have produced a deafening silence of the spirit. We are surrounded by an authoritarian mystique. That to me is the essence of fascism. I am using the term broadly, no doubt. But the fascism of the Hitler or Stalinist eras, or Roosevelt’s for that matter, is small potatoes compared to the fascism we experience today.”

CONCLUSIONS OF A LIFETIME

Reggio draws his conclusions from a lifetime of intellectual and spiritual pursuits. Born [in 1940] and raised in New Orleans, he comes from a distinguished family that traces its Louisiana ancestry back more than two centuries. The patriarch of the family was Francois Marie De Reggio, an Italian who came to Louisiana in 1751 with a commission from the King of France to establish two forts: the Fort of Baton Rouge and the Fort of Arkansas. He then acted as the negotiator for the King of France to sell the Louisiana Territory to the Spanish, afterward becoming the standard bearer for the Spanish king. (In 1803, hearing that Spain had secretly ceded the Louisiana Territory back to France, President Thomas Jefferson purchased it from Napoleon for $15 million and doubled the size of the United States.)

Growing up among the upper crust of New Orleans society during the ’40s and ’50s, Reggio had a pleasant childhood of garden parties and country clubs, social fraternities, and junior deb balls. “I can feel it like one smells an aroma,” he recalled. Even so, Reggio was troubled by the glaring incongruities of this stratified and, above all, racist society. He was troubled enough to walk away from it all at age 14, straight back 300 years into the early Renaissance.

Reggio became an initiate of the Christian Brothers, the French order of Catholic monks founded in 1680 by St. John Baptist de Salle. The order pursues human perfection through an ascetic and mystical way of life, and for the next five years, the gangling teenager was completely cloistered from the outside world. He lived in a self-reliant community of 160 monks in Lafayette, La., where he began a daily existence of silence, theological study and meditation, prayer and chanting. His preparation for apostolic work — one of the order’s ecclesiastical goals is the gratuitous teaching of the poor — dovetailed with his personal idealism.

At 19, Reggio was sent off to St. Michael’s College in Santa Fe, N.M., an institution founded by the Brothers for continued scholastic formation of young monks. Three years later, he emerged to teach in the religious community there and soon took up social work with Chicano street gangs. “It was probably the most intense period of my life,” Reggio said. “The gangs — the Porchos, the Unicitos, the West Siders — were widespread and very tough.” Eight years of essentially living on the streets with them affected his views. At 28, Reggio found himself in conflict with the policies of the Brothers. He quit the order.

“Since I had already taken final vows,” he recalled, “I needed a papal dispensation because the Brothers are under the direct jurisdiction of the pontiff. It’s pretty standard stuff, though dire in terms of the possible consequences to one’s soul. But I’m savable.” Long interested in the impact of media on conveying ideas rather than promoting commodities, Reggio began experimenting with film and helped found a collective of writers, artists, and media researchers called the Institute for Regional Education. All earnings from his films still go to the institute, which is based in Santa Fe, where he lives, and which operates as a nonprofit foundation. In return, he says, he gets a “reasonably comfortable” salary and the freedom to choose his projects.

“If you want to hold a mirror in front of everybody, the obvious medium is film,” Reggio explained. “I came to it out of left field. I had no technical preparation. I’m not a film historian, or even a film student. I haven’t seen a lot of film. But when I worked with the gangs, I could see how film touched them. I felt, as with everything else, I don’t want to be mystified by it. The medium of film is, in fact, a good example of mystification. We are awestruck by it.”

DEMYSTIFYING TECHNOLOGY

Given his antipathy to what he calls “high technique,” Reggio is mindful of the irony of expressing himself through a medium as technically sophisticated as film. In defense, he cites Aristotle’s thesis on pedagogy, which boils down to the idea that people learn in terms of what they already know. In other words, everybody goes to the movies and, if you’re going to demystify technology, you might as well use the most persuasive technology at hand.

Reggio also cites the Bible in his defense, quipping that “the devil comes bejeweled in a very seductive wrapping, not as a bag lady.” But devil’s advocate, he most definitely is not. By showing the brilliantly alluring aspects of mass society without ever making explicit moralistic statements about them, Reggio intends to sabotage the mystique of the devil at every step.

One has only to examine Reggio’s intellectual influences to recognize the intended demolition job. He is drawn to the 19th-century writers of the French Decadence, which was a reaction to industrialization, and especially to the anarchist philosophers best exemplified by Peter Kropotkin in “Common Sense.”

“The anarchists get such a bad rap I’m reluctant to cite them,” he said. “The Marxist-Leninists have made Kropotkin synonymous with crazy bomb-throwers, which he was not. Anarchists simply make the philosophic argument that small is better than large. They severely question the nature of the nation-state as an authoritarian, centralized power.”

Also essential to Reggio’s education: the Viennese economist Leopold Kohr, whom he calls “one of the great contemporary anarchists.” Celebrated for such books as The Breakdown of Nations and Development Without Aid, Kohr inspired the likes of E.F. Schumacher (Small Is Beautiful: Economics As If People Mattered ).

“Kohr’s principal analysis,” Reggio said, “is that the root of the problem we face is based on quantity. He says you cannot have a sane mass economy. It’s basically impossible to maintain. But he doesn’t say the problem is rooted in human nature, as some other people say. He blames the numbers. Quantity demands authorization to function. When you have quantity, you must have centralization.”

Reggio waxes eloquent about other influences. Nobody comes in for higher praise than Henry Miller — odd, it would seem, even for a former monk. “I know he’s popular for his novels, but I’m talking about his essays,” Reggio said. “They are among the most insightful things I’ve ever read. I think Miller was basically an irreverent person with a religious sensibility but not mystified by the mass society.”

That description fits Reggio himself. His given name, Godfrey, originally meant “he who is not afraid of God; he who is a friend of God.” The name was considered so irreverent among Christians in the early Middle Ages, he says, that it wasn’t used for a century or so. His religious sensibility is reflected, moreover, in the Hopi titles he gives to his unorthodox films and in his belief in the Hopi worldview.

“I guess you could call my affinity for Hopi thought mystical,” he admitted. “I’m not an anthropologist about it. The attraction is not rationally based. I felt a kinship — philosophical, theological, and metaphysical.

The Hopis believe from their signs and prophecies that the world has entered “the day of purification,” Reggio explained, a period of time that began some 50 to 60 years ago. His Hopi mentor David Monougye is a special messenger, he says, given the task of spreading the word of these prophesies to white people; the day of purification has various levels of meaning, which may be summed up in philosophical terms as the merging of death and life.

“According to David, we have entered a time when the world as we know it could end.” Reggio said. “That’s not to say the planet will not be here, but that our way of living is now being questioned. Maybe it will not survive. Many people see that as a negative thing. But if death brings life, which is a fairly universal belief, it can also be seen positively.”

For his part, Reggio takes the optimistic view — the old Reichstag and all that it symbolizes notwithstanding. He interprets “the day of purification” as the swing of a cosmic pendulum: Life on Earth has lacked balance for so long that the cumulative effect will force a correction.

“I feel a personal resonance with this idea,” he said. “It did not come to me through Hopi. I had it myself for some time. I think it’s lodged in the psyche of many people. I just find the Hopi expression of it gives tongue to the wisdom of the heart.”

A dozen years have passed since the release of Powaqqatsi, the second film in the “Qatsi” trilogy, but Reggio, now 60, has yet to make the third film. [See below.]

During that time, the Berlin Wall has crumbled, the Soviet Union was dismantled, and the Communist bloc no longer exists. Borders themselves have begun to disappear, both politically (particularly in Europe and North America) and cybernetically. How have these developments, especially the rise of the Internet, affected Reggio’s thinking and filmmaking?

17 YEARS LATER …

Godfrey Reggio now lives full-time in Santa Fe, N.M., having abandoned his lower Manhattan loft many years ago.

Recently, to prepare for next week’s film screenings at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, he was staying in town with his collaborator Philip Glass and took my call at the composer’s apartment on the Lower East Side. An edited version of our conversation follows.

What ever happened to the third film in the trilogy?

It is to be called Naqoyqatsi. “Naqoy” means war. “Qatsi” means life. In a compound it means, “war as a way of life.” But it’s war beyond the battle field — total war, or sanctioned aggression against the force of life itself. In a free translation, I would call it “civilized violence.” We’re hoping to make it soon. It’s all in preparation. We’re looking for an investor-angel. Perhaps if someone should see these other films at the BAM [Brooklyn Academy of Music] performances, they might be motivated to support it. [Naqoyqatsi, was completed in 2002 and released in 2003.]

What makes it so difficult to get the financing?

The difficulty for these kinds of projects is that without narrative exposition, without actors, they’re considered a freak show. They’re hard to categorize. It’s like trying to tell someone what a painting will look like before it’s finished or what a concert will sound like before it’s composed, which is very difficult. The clearest thing I can say is that it’s “concert cinema.” In that sense, we have a form that is capable of touching people, not everybody obviously, but some people. The form is not understood in the business, as it were.

How will Naqoyqatsi relate thematically to Powaqqatsi and Koyaanisqatsi?

Koyaanisqatsi dealt with northern hemisphere, hyperindustrial, technological grids. Powaqqatsi dealt with cultures of orality, cultures of tradition, handmade ways of living that were virtually eternal, that conscribed the southern part of our world, cultures that are defined by slowness rather than acceleration and speed. The third film will deal with the globalization of the world itself, the world that’s being served to us in the image and likeness of technology.

When we talked last, the Berlin Wall was still up. A lot has changed. How have your ideas changed?

It seems a thousand years ago, but I still see what I saw then. The new media are producing an enormous unity in the world. And more than ever that unity is held together through technical homogenization. In effect, we don’t use technology any more. We live it. Technology becomes the way of life, which is the quintessential focus of our subject in this trilogy. In the natural order, which I think is now subsumed in the post-natural order, the natural order’s unity is held through the mystery or the web of diversity. That diversity is being eliminated at the expense of technological homogenization. So the miracle that we witness through the Internet, through globalization, through the computerization of language, of culture, of every aspect of our existence, comes at the price of global diversification.

I’ll give an example, if I may. At the turn of the century we had approximately 30,000 languages and principal dialects. Today we’re approaching 4,000. Naqoyqatsi will speak to homogenization taking place. It will try to do so in a language that approximates what the language of the global world is. As the human world is in a state of great humility — and I feel it’s a tragedy untellable in its consequences — the language today is the image.

In the first two films, I had to go to locations that indicated the world that I was shooting. The location that I go to today for Naqoyqatsi is the image itself I relocate onto the image and revivify, reanimate. I try to take the known images of the world. You can call these the stock and archival images that make up the visual world in which we live, so I will try to show that familiar material in a completely unfamiliar way.

Can you give an example? In Powaqqatsi you have incredible shots of South African gold miners. In Koyaanisqatsi, you have these desolate high-rises. Would the new film use images, say, of the Statue of Liberty?

There you go. Or the astronauts on the moon. That’s a famous image. Or the planting of the flag at Iwo Jima. Or some great sporting event. Babe Ruth. Or images from the monstrous world wars. Instead of using them as they exist I’m going to make them digital, and make them look like a real-time comic book.

So you won’t be deconstructing them so much as making them move.

There you go. Time, motion and color.

Will Naqoyqatsi also have Philip Glass music?

It will have his score. We began this trilogy together. It’s my great fortune to work with him, and we’ll do a sound composition that we’ve never done before. The film that Philip and I envision is a much more extreme film, dramaturgically and emotively, than the other two. The other two films by my standards now are conservative. It gave us the moments to learn our language, as it were. Now we’d like to take all the stops out.

How did you decide to collaborate in the first place?

A dear friend in Santa Fe, Marsha Mikulak, herself a composer and a pianist and a very brilliant woman, helped me listen to the music of all the current composers [during the late 1970s]. It became clear without hesitation that Philip Glass was the person I was looking for. Then two friends — Rudy Wurlitzer, who is a screenwriter and a novelist, and Jeffrey Lew, who is an artist in Manhattan — introduced me to Philip. This was in 1977. Philip’s music was quintessentially cinematic, because it breathes. It allows the viewer or listener to participate in the sound. So I felt his music encourages direct transmission of something meaningful. I had a screening at the Anthology Film Archives in SoHo. I used some music that he had previously done, I think it was his “North Star,” and I put it to some images that I was shooting at the time. Philip came out of courtesy to Rudy Wurlitzer. At the end of the screening, Philip was still there, remarkably. He said, “Let’s begin.” I was able to let him “see” his music as I was able to let him “hear” my images. From that point on, we’ve been collaborators.

 

Explicit in your beliefs and implicit in these films is that diversity is good and homogenization is bad. Why?

Well, I see homogenization as something that is well worth criticizing or questioning. In my films, I don’t do the didactic form. I deliberately employ ambiguity. But I try to raise questions that only the audience can answer. I’m looking at it, not like advertising or propaganda, where the message is unmistakable; I’m looking at it more like art, though I don’t like the word. If 100 people were to see a painting, hopefully there could be 100 different points of view about it. I strive for the same kind of presentation in the films I make with Philip.

Without the technology you decry, you could not do your work or express your views.

Absolutely. And I want to be forthright about it. There’s no need to rationalize that. I feel that in the moment we live in, if the intention is to commune with an audience, we’re going to have to do so through the language of the audience. I have to talk in the language of the day. The language of the day, tragically, is the language of image. So these films, for love of the word, give up the word to produce a thousand images with the power of one word. If a picture is worth a thousand words, quite the opposite is true. These films consciously embrace the contradiction of criticizing the medium that they’re using. In that sense, I would compare them metaphorically to the idea of the Trojan horse. Or to say it another way, I view these as cultural kamikaze activities.

Have you considered distributing these films on the Internet?

Yes, because the Net, like television before it, is a ubiquitous medium. Not only have I considered distributing them but part of the very act of creating “Naqoyqatsi” is to produce it through the Net. To explain that is like trying to explain what a persimmon tastes like. Movies usually use the Net ex-post-facto, to promote a film that’s already made. I’m looking at it in a much more pro-active way. I’m looking at it in terms of the substance and subject, or the content. The content is the aesthetic. As McLuhan said, the medium is the message itself. This medium of the Internet — which is globalizing the world, producing the world in its own image and likeness–can also be used in the actual production process for both image and sound. So I will use that, hopefiilly creating a content that is itself new in the Internet.

How does Anima Mundi (another collaboration with Glass) fit into your scheme of things?

“The title means “soul of the world.” Anima means “soul.” Mundi means “of the world.” I took the name from Plato’s last known text, the “Timeus.” In that, he articulates the concept of “anima mundi,” meaning that the world itself is an intelligent being possessed of soul, of animation. The word “anima” also means to take in breath, to hold breath and to release breath. So I thought it was an appropriate title. The Bulgari family then gave this film to the World Wildlife Fund, as a kind of mainspring for their Biological Diversity campaign, which was happening at that time.

What is the imagery you use? Is it different from the images in the trilogy?

In this case, most of the images are of nature. I think there are 204 images in the film that stand in proxy for the whole world of nature. The world we’re looking at the “anima mundi” is the world apart from human beings. It is only human beings through consciousness who have somehow set up this duality or separation. What I tried to look at is the angels of nature — nature itself in all of its kingdoms and manifestations — to show how in that grand diversity unity is held.
ln other words, the world doesn’t have one tree, one kind of animal, one kind of terrain. The very mystery and power and, in fact, brutality of the world, are held together in this diversity. So for this film, the shibboleth was: Divided we stand.

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Comments

  1. Matt D. says

    Hi there, I just wanted to comment and say that this was a wonderful piece to read. It’s actually what brought me to your site, and it is what will have me returning (just bookmarked Arts Journal). I’ve been interested in the whole Qatsi series, and this extensive article gave me a lot of great information on Reggio, his views, his work. Thank you. ~

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