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The Qatsi Trilogy - Godfrey Reggio's Masterpieces Come To Edinburgh

One of the earliest Edinburgh sightings of Koyaanisqatsi, the first of
Godfrey Reggio's remarkable trilogy of films scored by minimalist
composer Philip Glass was in an old porn cinema opposite what is now
the Festival Theatre, then a bingo hall. Some bright spark had the idea
that showing late-night weekend double bills of art-house classics was
just what the student community on its doorstep required. Shown in
tandem with Luc Besson's early feature, the suitably subterranean The
Last Battle, to suggest that both the venue and the hour lent
Koyaanisqatsi's dizzying panorama of awe-inspiring landscapes upended
by the rush of urban chaos an extra frisson of sensory overload caused
by the room's seedy gloom followed by an escape into the full weekend
after-hours melee of Edinburgh's south side would be an understatement.
Never was the phrase 'Life out of balance', which the Hopi Indian word
Koyaanisqatsi translates as, more appropriate.

Now almost three decades since Koyaanisqatsi's release, both it and its
two sequels, 1988's Powaqquatsi (Life in transition) and 2002's
Naqoyqatsi (Life as war), are being screened at the Edinburgh
International Festival on consecutive nights. Just to show how far the
trilogy's standing has come since the porn cinema days, all three films
will be accompanied live by the Philip Glass Ensemble playing the
soundtrack, with Glass himself at the keyboard in what is somewhat
remarkably the New York-based composer's EIF debut.

While the appearance of both Glass and the Qatsi trilogy lay down
something of a marker in terms of EIF's ongoing introduction under
Jonathan Mills' tenure of more left-field contemporary musical forms
than is usually associated with the festival, one wonders whether the
move of such an obliquely counter-cultural body of work from low-level
cult status to the establishment acceptance of Edinburgh Playhouse
might cause something to be lost in translation. Speak to the trilogy's
director, however, and former monk Reggio makes it clear that his films
aren't as underground as they're presumed to be.

“To a person,” Reggio recalls, “everyone on the crew felt the film
wouldn't be seen, and that it would be viewed as an oddity. Then to
mine and everybody else's surprise we were invited to screen it at the
New York Film Festival at the Radio City music Hall, which holds five
thousand people. On opening night at 7.20pm the only person there was
the mother of one of the crew, then at 7.45pm the hall was packed, and
it played to full houses for the next three weeks.”

In the intervening years, Reggio's mesmeric visual meditation that took
a seven year labour of love to complete has ducked in and out of view,
finally appearing on DVD in 2002 after a decade out of print before
being selected for preservation by the United States Library of
Congress on the grounds of its cultural significance. Koyaanisqatsi's
two sequels are similarly breathtaking in their scope ambition, and,
particularly in the case of Naqoyqatsi, a sense of historical
happenstance. During filming, the September 11th 2001 aeroplane attack
on the World Trade Centre in New York had a profound influence on how
the film ended up in its completed form.

The roots of such a remarkable body of work – wordless, panoramic, and
with footage slowed down or sped up to indicate the contradictory
rhythms of urban and pastoral environments – date back to Reggio's time
as a monk with the Roman Catholic Christian Brothers and later as an
activist concerned with the use of technology to control behaviour.

“I had never made a film before,” Reggio says today. “I had never been
to film school, but the world we lived in was upside down, and with
Koyaanisqatsi we wanted to try and give people watching it a feeling
for that rather than feed them information. So the film is a baby of
naivete, where we were doing things with the film that we might not
have done if we had been to film school. These films get called
documentaries, but they're not really documentaries. They're not about
meaning. They're a visceral experience in the way that art films are.”

While the visual poetry of the trilogy is itself a stunning feat,
Glass' score is essential to the overall sensory experience. Glass'
presence, both on the soundtrack and at live events such as the EIF
screenings and performances, also undoubtedly helps boost box office.
If some people had had their way, however, Glass might never have been
involved.

“Nearly everyone to a man was against my choice of Philip Glass,” says
Reggio. “He's an extraordinary composer, and I knew I wanted him from
the start, but the crew felt he was a member if the broken needle. They
wanted Bach or Beethoven or one of the other old masters. Anything that
wasn't new. But I knew the soundtrack had to be new, so I contacted
Glass and I knocked on his door, and he said that he didn't do film
work. Eventually he agreed to come to a screening of the film, I think
just to get me off his back, and he watched the film, and straight
afterwards he said, 'when do we start?' In the films one medium
illustrates the other. It's a hand in glove operation, so the music and
the film become at one with each other, and I'm delighted to say that
our collaboration is now going into its thirty-fourth year.”

Making feature-length art films with the breadth of the Qatsi trilogy,
though, even with Glass on board, is probably an even harder sell to
the shysters in suits running Hollywood that it was when Reggio set out
on his fantastic voyage.

“These films are an anomaly,” he admits. “No-one watched anything from
these films until they were finished, because they're very difficult to
explain in advance of making them. You can't say what a meal's going to
taste like until it's cooked, an d equally you can't explain what such
a collaborative process as making these films is going to result in. So
it's been a very big journey, and I'm very proud of my children. They
make me very happy.”

And so the Qatsi journey goes on, with screenings accompanied live by
Glass already seen and heard across the globe, dates with the Los
Angeles Philharmonic and at New York's Lincoln Centre pending later
this year.

“These are real events,” Reggio observes, “that are about more than
just the films. You don't just hear the music at these events. You feel
it in your solar plexus so you can't move from it.”


Koyaanisqatsi, August 13th, Powaqquatsi, August 14th, Naqoyqatsi,
August 15th, all at Edinburgh Playhouse, 8.30pm.
www.eif.co.uk

The List, July 2011

ends

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