- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 16, 2002

The title of "Naqoyqatsi" is intoned several times in the opening minutes of the film, so acolytes should be able to imitate the official rendering. The goal is something like "nah-coy-cot-see," but each syllable should be prolonged as if one is doing repetitions of "Om "

It may be handier to refer to "Qatsi 3," because this reputedly concluding installment in the series of polemical, abstract documentary features masterminded by a former monk and community organizer named Godfrey Reggio was preceded by "Koyaanisqatsi" in 1983 and "Powaqqatsi" in 1988. Repeated spellings for review purposes will get on your nerves just as effectively as attempted pronunciations. Habits of a lifetime, notably typing u after q, are suddenly incorrect in the qatsi dialect.

Rumors of an abandoned "Cowabongaqatsi" in the mid-'90s probably are bogus. We have been led to believe that the canonic titles are Hopi in origin. Chronologically, they translate as "Life out of balance," "Life in transformation" and "Life as a way of killing each other."

The deadly connotations attributed to "Naqoyqatsi" are seldom confirmed by the images that accumulate during its miscellaneous 1-1/2 hours of running time. There's a new pictorial motif: imagery that has been altered in some digital or optical respect, distancing its origins as stock footage or archival footage or (less often) newly photographed footage.

"Koyaanisqatsi" made such a fetish of time-lapse photography, especially vistas of accelerated cloud formations, that the same celestial spectacle was borrowed by numerous directors of commercials and some directors of dramatic features, notably Francis Ford Coppola for "Rumble Fish." Mr. Coppola, having sponsored Mr. Reggio's prototype, had a proprietary interest in its stylistic novelties.

Slow motion became the recurrent device of "Powaqqatsi," which failed to rally a comparable delusion of metaphysical grandeur in art-house audiences. It remains to be seen if Mr. Reggio and his collaborators can empty the well a second time, almost 20 years removed from the first qatsi rapture. I would be very much surprised if Chapter 3 gets the job done.

The sequences, again accompanied by Philip Glass' sometimes throbbing and sometimes tinkling repetitions, don't sustain any particular premise beyond a cartoon length of six or seven minutes. The lack of an overall thematic thread becomes more apparent with every shift or fade-out.

The movie begins by touring what appears to be a bare ruined Reichsbuilding of some kind. I'm sure superior quiz-show candidates would enhance most showings by shouting out identifications, which wouldn't even have to be correct to have merit for kibitzing fun and games.

The architectural pile is supplanted by the cruel sea, which gives way to a brief encore of the Reggio clouds scurrying along and then to monumental pageantry that recalls Leni Riefenstahl, or perhaps steals directly from Leni Riefenstahl, who continues to be such an influence for the balance of the movie that one might mistake it for an homage in her centennial year.

A sequence that might be subtitled "Binary World" is followed by an identifiable martial motif: soldiers marching in various uniforms and formations. Then we're into celebrities of the Atomic Age (Alfred Einstein, Glenn Seaborg, etc.), surf and swimmers, marathoners, gymnasts, vintage Edward Muybridge records of humans in motion, bicyclists, skiers, skaters (Bonnie Blair at the Olympics, conspicuously), sprinters, cornfields and forests, freeways and skyscrapers and refineries, the Brooklyn Bridge (which gets a couple of encores from different angles), flags, movie stars, newsmakers, a wax-museum tour of famous folks, commercials, Yucca Flats test footage from the early 1950s, Columbine, the intifada and even Frida Kahlo, a timely plug for the new movie biography. An extended sky-diving interlude suffices as a finale, especially if you regard Mr. Reggio as a kind of cinematic sky pilot.

The violent emphasis suggested by the translation of the title remains fleeting at best. The panoramic attractions of the earlier films, which suggested enigmatic and pretentious Imax travelogues, also are diminished by the systematic image degradation or tinkering that obscures first-generation film documentation of one kind or another.

Even the natural world, supposedly a sacred object of contemplation in the earlier qatsis, gets filtered and masked into an abstract blur during most of Qatsi 3. The gist of the episodes, which are never narrated, would argue for a title such as "The Teeming Planet" or "The Ever-Busy Human Race." Maybe the Hopis don't have a word for those phenomena. Or maybe the Reggio interpretation of Hopi was always a trifle off the reservation, thematically and metaphorically speaking. But on the hopeful assumption that Mr. Reggio is Qatsied out, I can truthfully say that it's been a trip, dude.


TITLE: "Naqoyqatsi"

RATING: PG (Fleeting images with violent connotations)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Godfrey Reggio. Editing, visual design and second unit direction by Jon Kane. Music by Philip Glass, with cello solos by Yo-Yo Ma

RUNNING TIME: 89 minutes


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