Monday, January 02, 2006

Powaqqatsi vs. Baraka...

Following some unconscious desire for spiritual cleansing at the year's end, and more specifically, a sort of antidote for all the crappy entertainment and media that one consumes in the course of 365 days, I walked into a video store the other day and rented Powaqqatsi and Baraka without hesitation or reflection. This was uncharacteristic on several levels. 1) I am generally against feelgood films and 2) l can linger way too long in those sneeze-ridden hellholes digging for non-existent truffles. This time I was in and out in three minutes, sure of my choices. (Although I was shocked to discover getting into the car that I had also rented "The Wedding Crashers"). By the way, there's a word for the state of consciousness that descends upon us when we enter a video store: Vidiocy.

Over the years I've seen all of these lush, plush, non-verbal, Earth-poem type films, and am not embarrassed to admit that I get something out of them. They all have a sort of naive generalism and broad-mindedness and global spirit that gets my inner-hippie nodding in awe. Great hangover TV too.

There's a particularly interesting newer one of these called Bodysong featuring a soundtrack by Radiohead's guitarist, Johnny Greenwood. It's got a lot more edge than the other films which tend towards the grandiose and the sexless. There's another one too I like, though very hippy-dippy in certain aspects of its approach. It's called One Giant Leap and is worth seeing. Interesting process, but a little too earnest.

But back to my DVD selections. Briefly, Powaqqatsi is the more interesting film. Baraka has better imagery and is more fun to watch (how can you forget this), but it lacks the epic swirling chaos and intellectual pomposity born of the Godfrey Reggio and Philip Glass collaboration. Jumping back a few thoughts, you might say Baraka is to Coldplay as Powaqqatsi is to Radiohead. If that makes any sense. Ron Fricke is a brilliant cinematographer but he or someone he works with has an annoying way of National Geographic-alizing everything. The effect is to anesthetize your feelings rather than challenge them. I don't live in a world of fluid and preciously composed shots of exotica. Reggio has this problem too, but again, his Qqatsi films are saved by his peculiar choices and his lunatic curiosity about how life on Earth works. A good way to really drive my point home is to watch the "making of" extras included on the DVDs. Listening to Ron Fricke talk about his special cameras and his trials and tribulations while globetrotting is as boring as Eric Clapton. Watching Reggio and Glass ramble on and on using long sentences full of Sunday times crossword puzzle words like shibboleth is also a little boring but in such a fascinating way. If that makes any sense. Now it should be noted that Ron Fricke was both writer and cinematographer on Koyaanisqatsi. I've heard that there was a falling out, and that Fricke thought he could do better on his own. I support that initiative, and I'm glad the film exists, even if the results are less interesting to this rainy day blogger. And if we talk soundtracks, well there's no comparison. Baraka is badly undermined by its sappy new age pan flutes and global multi-culti pastiche cliches... How on the nose can you get! Jeez. Philip Glass is one of our national treasures and I'm certain he has a great collection of aubergine sweater-shirts.

The caveat. All of these films suffer from the locked-in nature of linear film montage. You can feel the directors struggling to tell their tales with footage that just wants to live on its own. It's a very manipulative underpinning that smacks of ego and forced edits meant to synchronize the music and the mood and the very bigness of it all. Here's my solution for a digital age. Re-release the films as DVDs that have a random shuffle feature. Throw all the unused footage in there. Allow viewers to use the original soundtracks or select their own. Let the images pile up in their own way, tell their own story. Maybe in one version viewers can act as editor by clicking onto the next scene when they are ready. Or maybe there could also be a pre-edit feature that allowed you to select from the footage. Wait a minute. I thought I was a genius for a second, but I think I'm stealing this last idea from the Bodysong website. Yep, I am. OK, well it's a great idea anyway.

Some people can't stand these nonverbal movies. And certainly producers aren't lining up to make them by the dozen. Good enough. Still, I intend to make one of these films myself one day, as I think I have a different slant in mind that would add something to the genre. So you can email me your contributions or your estimated ticket price. In the meantime, if you seek some media lime sorbet that will counteract all the noisy and wordy entertainment out there, these films are the way to go.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think Koyannisquatsi is the best of the three/four films. To extrapolate on your music analogy, it's the Velvet Underground to your radiohead. It has a much rawer feel to it, in part becasue of it's low budget (some shot on 16mm) and partly because of its more concise editing. It makes it's point, and then moves forward. It follows it's own points to where they lead, unlike powaquattsi which loops endlessly back upon itself like a never-ending american express ad. The final 15 minutes of Koyannisquattsi are one of the most hypnotic, emotionally moving sequences of film I have ever seen. There is nothing in Powaquattsi or Baraka to compare with them. In the later films, Godfrey's scenario has been refined to a bland cinematic version of National Geographic (in Powaquattsi's case), and into a largely empty new age tone poem (in Baraka) -except for those baby chickens of course.)Philip Glass (whos music for Powaquattsi is stunning)should not have been given editorial say over some of the sequential/editing choices. Thats how you end up with sequences like the little girl stopping to look at the camera while the music swells into a magnificent pause, only to resume as she moves away. Wow! What does that show us, teach us, make us think about? Nothing. It's visual flash, the kind that confuses us and makes us think that something profound is happening, when in actuality we are being fed empty signifiers.

9:00 PM  

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