”I do believe that technology is not something we use, but something we live,” Godfrey Reggio declared when interviewed by The New York Times back in the year 2000. Seven years before the first iPhone was sold, this respected yet largely unknown filmmaker talked about the power technology has to shape our lives and influence our societies. His quote rings even truer in 2017, as technological breakthroughs have dominated our reality in the last decade and will soon bring about game changing alterations to the way we live.
Nowhere is this more significant than in the automation of work. Experts like Johannes Moenius, director of the Institute for Spatial Economic Analysis (ISEA), calculated when interviewed by Business Insider that close to 60% of jobs in certain metropolitan areas in the United States could be taken over by robots by 2035. The future could be grim, as the world struggles to adapt to a reality that moves at a speed we can’t control. Yet there are some who have been warning us of the dangers technology could bring about, and one of those voices belongs to Godfrey Reggio, who’s been pointing a finger at the dangers mechanization since 1982.
The documentary director started out as a social worker, a role he continues to perform in his home state of New Mexico. A former monk in training with the Christian Brothers, he constructed an artistic vision very much inspired by the spiritual and socially conscious values he developed, before adventuring into the world of film and gaining a cult following after the release of Koyaanisqatsi, a frenetic documentary composed by images of industrialized society, accompanied by the haunting music of Phillip Glass.
This film, the first entry in his filmography, which is his most recognized work, defined the themes he would explore in the movies that followed: humanity’s loss of spirituality and balance, represented by the increasing power technology and machines have over us. His three most famous films, a trilogy that dives in and scrutinizes modernity with an unflinching eye, were titled in Hopi, the language of a Native American tribe that continues to inhabit Arizona: Koyaanisqatsi (life without balance), Powaqqatsi (life in transformation), and Naqoyqatsi (life as war).
Koyaanisqatsi is a film unlike any other. With its clever use of time-lapse, it paints a grim landscape of humanity in the twentieth century, a society of machines and mechanized daily lives. People stampede through cities; factories spit out infinite products; screens and headlights light up the night. These powerful images stick with you long after you’ve finished watching the film’s 85-minute running time, especially if viewed on a big screen, with the 35 year old score played live, which is common when screening this cult classic.
The film has been lauded as a masterpiece for its experimental use of images and music, gorgeous cinematography, and lack of plot and characters. It has influenced generations of filmmakers and advertisers. Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, and Steven Soderbergh are among the most famous director fans the film has, and they’ve too been influenced Reggio’s work, for without them, the filmmaker might have never received the recognition he rightfully deserves.
Soderbergh —winner of the Palme D’Or in Cannes with his debut feature Sex, Lies and Videotape—, for one, demanded Harvey Weinstein produce Reggio’s third feature, Naqoyqatsi, a condition the famed producer had to meet if he wanted to work with him. Lucas —the creator of Star Wars— endorsed and co-presented Powaqqatsi with Coppola when it was first released. But it’s the legendary director of The Godfather and Apocalypse Now who enshrined Reggio in cult cinema’s pantheon.
Reggio’s masterpiece, Koyaanisqatsi, was created with a minuscule budget of US$40,000. He traveled across the United States with cinematographer Ron Fricke, capturing images of imposing nature in the Grand Canyon in Colorado and ghastly portraits of urban life in megacities like New York City and Chicago. After years of work, they ended up with the material that made into the final cut of the movie.
Despite its power, it was and still would be a hard sale for a distributor. Koyaanisqatsi is not a film for everyone, since it’s a dense, frenetic journey, and the lack of plot makes it hard to not find it boring at times. But thanks to Francis Ford Coppola, it eventually made its way into the mainstream public. Reggio and Coppola were introduced to one another by a common acquaintance, and he expressed his desire to watch the film. After a private screening, he felt it was his obligation to make sure the film was seen by as many people as possible; that’s when he decided to lend his name to the movie.
Koyaanisqatsi opens with the words “Presented by Francis Ford Coppola.” This simple endorsement by one of cinema’s most renowned directors solidified the film’s reputation and propelled it into movie theaters around the world. “To this day,” recounted the mastermind behind The Godfather according to The New York Times, “’images and sequences from the film remain with me,” a sentiment shared by many who’ve been moved by a film that revolutionized its medium.
Making your way into the film industry is no simple thing. Talent is imperative, but it’s not the only requirement; money and luck are crucial for first time directors, so their work can be screened and distributed. This tale of success relied on the support an artist gave to another artist, a visionary who saw a revolutionary idea worth sharing and did what was necessary to make it happen. It’s not common, but knowing that stories like this one are real sheds light on the power of art and its capability to move people, be it famous directors or aspiring ones.
Now check out some classics that weren’t as lucky as Koyaanisqatsi and movies every film buff needs to watch.
The New York Times