City Guide to Edinburgh, Scotland

City Guide to Edinburgh, Scotland

Naqoyqatsi, Philip Glass Ensemble, Review

By Euan Andrews - Posted on 17 August 2011

EIF 2011: Naqoyqatsi
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Philip Glass (Music), Godfrey Reggio (Director)
Philip Glass Ensemble (Performers), Michael Riesman (Conducter),

The final part of Godfrey Reggio’s Qatsi trilogy did not gain the same level of attention and acclaim that its illustrious predecessors had received. Lack of funding meant it was only finally released in 2002, fifteen years on from the mid-eighties joint triumph of Koyaanisqatsi (1983) and Powaqqatsi (1987).

As a film, Naqoyqatsi also feels markedly different from the first two chapters. Where they focused on man’s relationship to nature and the possibilities of the developing world, Naqoyqatsi portrays a downbeat vision of humanity’s present and future on a turbulent planet beset by war and buffeted by the ever-increasing demands of population growth and technological expansion.

Edinburgh International Festival’s decision to show all three films over consecutive nights complete with live performances of the all-important scores by the Philip Glass Ensemble created an excellent and ambitious musical centre point for their opening weekend and it’s clear that several members of the packed playhouse audience have been present for the full trilogy experience.

A fittingly huge cinema screen dominates the stage with the Ensemble seated unobtrusively in front, Glass himself on keyboards to the right hand side. Naqoyqatsi begins with images of desolated bombed-out buildings of once great opulence, now deserted by their former occupants and left to moulder. The music rolls and surges in the style typical of Glass’s later work.

As the film progresses, we are bombarded with images of those dispossessed by conflict, turbulent seas, information overload and the architects of war. There are counterpoints with glimpses of human achievement in the realms of sporting and scientific endeavour. A montage shows waxwork effigies of important and perhaps divisive modern cultural figures paraded before the camera. Einstein, Pope John Paul II, Castro, Diana, Reagan. We see George W Bush’s false image gazing unseeingly into camera, as a brief snippet of footage showing his original nemesis, Osama Bin Laden, reminds us of the unsettled era that Naqoyqatsi emerged into, and which has continued ever further since.

Unfortunately, Glass’s music does not come up to scratch in providing a suitably dramatic soundtrack for these images. While it’s excellent to hear it played well in a live setting with volume and gusto, it sounds too much like a rehashing of tropes and motifs from the previous two films as well as the more “commercial” end of Glass’s work in the preceding decade. It is, to be frank, dull and lacking emotional connection to the screen.

Naqoyqatsi’s final message to us is ultimately grim, offering little solace for the human condition’s future. The title, literally translated as “Life as War”, can also mean “A life of killing each other”. The final shot is of a solitary man spinning endlessly through space without direction or hope of changing course as he twists forever through a data minefield of his own making.

I was also at this concert and I have to say I thought the film really terrible but the music performed live was magnificent. I agree the previous two films were much better, in fact very good and suited the music. But this film was just a bad edit of stock news footage and really terrible video graphics, way out of date even for 2002. It did have a few powerful moments though. It got a standing ovation but I'm sure it was for the musicians, not the film. Anyone else out there see it and have a comment?