Friday, December 19, 2014

Film History Paper #3... Godfrey Reggio by David Sarrett

Every semester I pick three outstanding final papers from my Film History class at the College of DuPage.  I will be posting these throughout the week.

Third one up... David Sarrett's take on GODFREY REGGIO.

Godfrey Reggio
By David Sarrett

            There are things around all of us that are hidden in plain sight. Things that are so present, normal, and ordinary that we do not see them for the intensity that they are.   Reggio takes these things and stares at them at length until they become strange.  This is the thread that sews Reggio’s work together in a cohesive approach to what has been branded as experimental documentaries.

            Born March 29, 1939 in New Orleans, Louisiana, Reggio was brought up in a traditional catholic family, in a catholic city, and attended Mater Dolorosa School (Spanish for Mother of Sorrows) through 8th grade.  At age fourteen, on his own volition, against his parents’ wishes but with their approval, Reggio left home and joined the Christian Brothers, a Roman Catholic pontifical order and a self-sufficient community of 140 monks that make their own food and clothes, care for their sick, and bury their dead. Reggio spent fourteen years living with the Christian Brothers in what he considered a middle ages culture.  This way of living was intense, rigorous and purposeful, and it had a demanding routine.  Although Reggio openly admits that this was not a monastery of total silence, he spent much of his time in silence, fasting, and prayer.  An intended lifer, Reggio took his final vows at age 25.  Akin to a male nun, Reggio, with a humble point of view, became a teacher while also servicing the poor.  He taught grade school, secondary school, and college. (IMDB)

Reggio was introduced to “Los Olvidados”, a film by Luis Bunuel about poor children in Mexico.  This film was a spiritual experience for Reggio. Its ambience and ethos produced a story beyond entertainment that touched Reggio’s soul. He watched it with his students over one hundred times, and this film became their bible.  It inspired Reggio to think about cinema as a poetic medium to inflict people with feeling about the world we live in. (CivilNet TV)

The Pope at the time was Pope John XXIII, who once said, “Question everything, accept nothing, including the structure of the church.”  This became Reggio’s marching orders, which would subsequently get him into trouble. While there were not many poor children at his school, they did lurk just outside the community in gangs. In 1963 he co-founded Young Citizens for Action, a community organization project that aided juveniles among the street gangs in Santa Fe, New Mexico. This work was not in the interest of the Christian Brothers, and Reggio was asked to leave at the age of 28. (Singularityweblog)

Reggio now saw the world with a new perspective, as an outsider looking in, stepping in, and being surrounded by it all.  Reggio has said that being in the church is like being in an exoteric form of religion.  Being in the religious order is like being in an esoteric form of religion in that it is more concentrated and more about the pursuit of perfection as opposed to the attainment.  Reggio goes on to say that, as a young monk the focus of intellectual attention was the love of the word.  The word is currently in a vast state of humiliation.  The word no longer describes the world in which we live.  This is a conundrum for Reggio because we see the world through language.  There is beauty in that we have different languages to describe our world.  It is tragic that we are losing our languages.  At the beginning of the twentieth century we had arguably 1.7 billion people on the planet speaking 35,000 different languages and principal dialects.  Today there are seven billion people speaking in the vicinity of four thousand languages.  This is an inverse relationship.  Inverse relationships are a concept Reggio likes to examine.  The study of ethnology at a University involves people of developed cultures putting subjective categories on indigenous people.  Reggio reverses this by taking indigenous people and putting their subjective categories on a progressive culture.  He demonstrates this perspective through the lens. Take the Napoleonic statement “A picture is worth a thousand words”, and turn it on its head.  Take a thousand pictures and summarize it in one word.  That’s how Reggio conceived the title of his first film, Koyaanisqatsi. (Singularityweblog)

Koyaanisqatsi is the first of a trilogy of “qatsi” speechless narrations. The name is a compound word that comes from the Hopi Indian language.  Qatsi means “life”.  Any word that predicates it furthers it’s meaning.  Koyaanis means “out of balance”.  The trilogy consists of Koyaanisqatsi, Powaqqatsi, and Naqoyqatsi. Defined as “Life out of Balance”, “Life in Transformation”, and “Life as War” respectively.  Reggio considers it a  Meta language, a poetic language. Not of word.  It is pictorial and non-mental in that it is aimed at the solar plexus to give the viewer a feeling.  This experience is visceral.  All of Reggio’s films can be considered impossible to categorize in the measure that they do not have something that precedes it as a point of view.  This is why they aren’t traditional documentary films because Reggio is not trying to explicate his point of view. He is not a propagandist. (CivilNet TV) His films were done as a collaborative form with Ron Fricke as the cinematographer and Philip Glass doing the unique score full of arpeggios, pipe organs and synths. Ron Fricke was heavily influenced by this project as witnessed in his own release of Baraka in 1992. 

Reggio explains that the qatsi trilogy was conceived as incomplete with the audience completing the subject.  “It isn’t a story to be told, it’s a story to behold.”  He wanted to get away from the linear landscape of cinema avoiding screenplay, narration, actors, story and plot.  What is left is motor speed, lenses, movement or stillness of camera, color, lack of color, and veracity of image.  Image is ubiquitous. (CivilNet TV) What Reggio saw hidden in plain sight all around was technology.  “The purpose of Koyaanisqatsi is to enter the vascular structure of the beast.  The beast is global communication, that which fulfills all of our technological desires.  This beast is the price we pay for the pursuit of those desires.” (Singularityweblog) This idea is portrayed first in Koyaanisqatsi with the camera focused on the Northern Hemisphere bouncing between untouched nature and human beings’ increasing dependence on technology.  Simply put, Koyaanisqatsi shows a way of life that calls for another way of living.  His second film, Powaqqatsi, created five years later, focuses on third world nations in the Southern Hemisphere.  Forgoing the sped-up aesthetic of the first film, a meditative slow motion technique is used to portray the beauty in those areas of the planet and how cultures are being eroded as their environments are taken over by industry.  The third film in the trilogy, Naqoyqatsi, tells of a world that has completed the transition from the natural to the artificial, from Old World to New World.  (IRE)

Three decades after his debut, Reggio completed his latest feature, Visitors. Whereas Koyaanisqatsi has 384 cuts, Powaqqatsi has exactly one hundred more at 484 cuts, and Naqoyqatsi has 565 cuts; Visitors has only seventy-four cuts.  Despite the differences in the number of cuts, each of these films is around 90 minutes in length.  With vastly fewer cuts than the previous films, Visitors pushes the viewer into a deprogramming, a forced slowing of our senses.  Reggio equates his filmmaking to churning butter, which he did as a child in the 1940s.  It’s a lengthy rigorous repetitive process, which consistently improves the product.  He continues to use the same subject, and keeping the film as his medium, he increasingly becomes more focused.  Visitors is shot digitally in 4K resolution in Black and White and infrared only.  4K allows more organic material to be on the screen.  All subjects are against an all black background, otherwise referred to as “black-ground”.  This black-ground gives an illusion of dimensionality.  Visitors is meant to put a mirror on the entire planet earth. Without giving away any possible interpretations of the film, aesthetics are paramount.  “Color contemporizes”, Reggio says.  Black and White elicits more emotion, giving birth to sensation, emotion and perception.  When asked about the hypocrisy of using 4K technologies to portray how technology has corrupted our civilization, Reggio admits he has a strong negative view in that he is a prisoner like the rest of us in the global madness we live in called progress and development. (Singularityweblog)

I think Reggio has bookended his career wonderfully.  As a man in his seventies, he tours the world still preaching to a younger audience as he quotes Goethe. “Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, DO IT.” Boldness has genius, magic and power in it.  Trust yourself and live a non self-conscious life.  He continues that the word “beauty” is derived from the Greek work “kallos”, which translates “to provoke”.  Reggio wants to provoke his audience plain and simple. Reggio describes a fork in the road that lies before us all; the New and the Old world.  The mantra of New World is “United We Stand”. The mantra of the Old World is “Divided We Stand.”  The beauty of life is its diversity.  Boring is one weather pattern, one season.  One Language is boring. Whereas the Old World has seasons, the New World has software.  Old and New respectively contrast mystery vs. certainty, stories vs. storage, the Sun vs. energy companies, The Word vs. digital zeros and ones, interaction vs. mediation.  The Old World has breath while the New World is breathless. (Singularityweblog) Reggio, however, is grateful to be alive and breathing and considers himself a fortunate refugee who has resurfaced in the twentieth century.  All this interviewing, speaking, and text splashed on the Internet was not a part of Reggio’s plan.  His conclusion has persistently been that the highest value of art has no predetermined meaning but meaning gleaned from the experience of the encounter.  Ultimately, it is whatever you make of it.

Works Cited

“Filmmaker Godfrey Reggio’s Unique View of the World.” CivilNet TV, July 9, 2013. Web. Dec. 8, 2014

 “Godfrey Reggio Biography.” IMDB, 2014. Web. Dec. 08, 2014

 “Criterion Collection Liner Notes.” IRE, 2013. Web. Dec. 08, 2014.

“Godfrey Reggio on Singularity 1 on 1: We are in the Cyborg State!” Singularityweblog, Nov. 11, 2013. Web. Dec. 08, 2014

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