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A Mind-Blowing, In-Body Experience

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By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 15, 2002

"NAQOYQATSI" IS filmmaking at its purest and most visceral – a tale full of sound and visual fury, signifying, if not exactly nothing, then something not so readily articulated in words.

Like writer-director Godfrey Reggio's earlier two entries in the now complete "Qatsi" trilogy – 1983's stunning and dialogue-free "Koyaanisqatsi" (Hopi for "Life Out of Balance") and the 1988 follow-up "Powaqqatsi" ("Life in Transformation") – "Naqoyqatsi" works upon the retina and the eardrum like deep-tissue massage. At times painful to watch, at times as gentle as an Eskimo kiss, the film slowly softens your resistance to its lack of narrative by means of a nonstop barrage of often surreal imagery accompanied only by composer Philip Glass's chanting, swirling, droning, pounding score. What it wants to do is not so much make a point, but to leave you drooling into your popcorn from the corner of your mouth.

And like the two earlier films, which addressed issues of the environment and the assimilation of so-called primitive cultures into "civilized" society through a montage of nature footage and shots of Third World life sped up and slowed down, "Naqoyqatsi" consists entirely of sometimes random-seeming shots – a decrepit, ruined building, cloned sheep, athletes, stock traders, a mushroom cloud, wax celebrities and old advertisements. It's a high-tech pastiche of appropriated pictures: part animated graffiti, part smart-ass music video and part alien opera.

What Reggio has done here is to take mostly stock footage and digitally alter it, sometimes subtly, sometimes not so subtly, heightening what we see until a kind of eye fatigue sets in. You want to look away but you can't, not because the images are so seductive necessarily but because they browbeat us into a kind of submission that feels, ironically, voluntary. It hurts so good, in other words.

In essence, the director and his team of technological whiz kids (led by editor and visual designer Jon Kane and technologist Joe Beirne) have themselves done a kind of violence to their material, but it is one that brilliantly, and effectively, underscores the film's central theme of "war as a way of life" (a more fluid interpretation of the Hopi title, translated literally, but not very helpfully, in the press kit as "each other kill many life").

This is not to say that "Naqoyqatsi" is anti-military. Although scenes of soldiers figure prominently here, and the film's pacifist politics are pretty clear, the violence in question is more metaphorical, a kind of poetic allusion to the desecration that technology itself has inflicted on, well, pretty much everything, from our quality of life to the creation of life itself.

In the end, writing (or, for that matter, reading) a review of "Naqoyqatsi" seems beside the point. If Reggio had wanted to put something about the impermanence of material things, our own interconnectivity and the dangerous allure of the uses of science into words, he would have. Instead, he has given us something far greater: a work of art whose meaning, while obscure, enters our heads and our hearts through strangely beautiful, yet unintelligible channels.

NAQOYQATSI (PG, 89 minutes) Contains shots of naked babies and images of violence and destruction. At the Cineplex Odeon Inner Circle 3.


© 2002 The Washington Post Company

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