Life Out of Balance – A Portrait of Godfrey Reggio

godfrey reggioA DAY IN FEBRUARY, 1983. Godfrey Reggio was standing in front of the old Reichstag in Berlin. A tall, gaunt man with pale blue eyes and a beard of graying stubble, he had just presented his documentary “Koyaanisqatsi” at the Berlin Film Festival. The notices were gratifying. One critic called it “a masterpiece . . . the highlight of the festival.” Reggio had a self-indulgent urge. He wanted to bask in the pleasurable glow of the film’s reception.

      “Koyaanisqatsi” was a relentless obsession that had claimed seven years of his life. Yet staring at the Reichstag, Reggio couldn’t help being assailed by gloomy feelings. Perhaps more than anyone except his chief collaborators — the composer Philip Glass and the cinematographer Ron Fricke — he knew what a desperate valentine he had brought to Berlin.
      The message of the film, as defined by its ancient Hopi Indian title, meant “life out of balance,” “life in turmoil,” “life disintegrating.” To be exact, the most tellingly accurate meaning of the word “koyaanisqatsi” was “life that calls for another way of living.” Ruminating on this, Reggio realized that he had been gazing at the ornate stone edifice for a very long time, fixated despite the bone-chilling cold. And then it dawned on him that he was looking not at a stone monument but at an hallucination of history, a grandiose embodiment of a vast, devoutly worshipped mystification. The Reichstag in all its ghostly Nazi glory shimmered with the mythos of the modern world.    More than the Kremlin in Moscow or the Capitol in Washington, it was the supremely haunting symbol of faith in mass society. He wondered, shivering, if anybody had calculated the radioactive half-life of state mysticism.
      Four years later, a day in July, 1987. Reggio was recounting his Reichstag experience in a bright, brick-lined study tucked at the back of a dark, sprawling factory loft in lower Manhattan. His desk was piled with neatly stacked books, all in the process of being read simultaneously: The Art of Memory, The Age of Illusion, Art and Politics in France: 1918-1940, Black Mask Witness, The Cosmological Eye. Standing 6-feet-7, Reggio towered over me. He offered a blue velvet armchair by the window and settled himself into a swivel seat with his back to the makeshift desk, a door laid flat on two small filing cabinets. The brick wall behind him, painted canary yellow, faced a whiteboard filled with indecipherable diagrams written in green ink. An orange canopy hung in a graceful arc from the ceiling.
      “Historically, the Reichstag represented the new cathedral — if you will, the new mysticism,” he said. “Bismarck created it as a symbol of unification of the nation-states of Germany. Every schoolboy knows that or should. So I was actually in the right place to be trembling.” [1] Sometimes the most staggering revelations are completely obvious, he said. “It became crystal clear, as I stood there, that the whole East-West conflict is a self-serving fraud. It is an enormous diversion perpetrated by the nations of both blocs. The Berlin Wall” — it was still standing that summer day — “is a kind of analogy of this insanity.”
      Reggio, who had been trained from adolescence in the ascetic self-effacement of the Christian Brothers, a rigorous order of Catholic teaching monks, paused and lit a cigarette. He stretched his long legs on the glossy wood floor. A photo of one of his spiritual mentors — David Monougye, a Hopi Indian more than 100 years old — hung over the doorway. Outside, the occasional sound of a distant foghorn from the harbor echoed through the deserted warehouse district.
      “The conflict has not been Capitalism vs. Communism,” Reggio said. “Both systems have had the same objective: an accelerated technological society that will create a geologic layer of synthetic commodities. Both have exploited the human need for mysticism by producing a mystical faith in the material world, an unquestioning belief in quantity and sheer size. This puts us in a deep spiritual and political social crisis. The real conflict is North-South, northern hemisphere thinking in Third World countries.”
      Then he reeled off a fairly exhaustive socio-political litany of polar opposites: large vs. small; synthetic vs. organic; centralized vs. decentralized; technological vs. traditional; homogenous vs. indigenous; mass scale vs. human scale; bureaucratic vs. democratic. Finally, exhaling a long plume of smoke, he said reflectively, “At that moment, confronted by the Reichstag, I became involved with these ideas as the basic concept of my next film.”
      That film — called “Powaqqatsi,” meaning “life in negative transformation” — was 60 days from completion. Strips of work prints culled from 500,000 feet of footage hung from ceiling to floor like a jungle of celluloid beyond the study. The footage had been shot in 13 countries in Asia, India, Africa, the Middle East, and South America. It would cost $4.2 million, almost double what it cost to bring “Koyaanisqatsi” to the screen. More visceral than “Koyaanisqatsi,” which was filmed in Europe and North America, it is the second part of a trilogy. The third part — “Naqoyqatsi,” meaning “civilized violence” — had yet to be made. Admittedly, Reggio’s themes had been heard before. Documentaries have proliferated — perhaps as fast as the overt travesties they report — on environmental destruction, the terrible effects of industrialization, the horror of war, the death of native cultures, the devastation of famine, the terror of The Bomb, and so on. But Reggio wanted to spare his films from being lumped into that category.   Unlike those documentaries, “Koyanaasqatsi” and “Powaqqatsi” have no narrative and no dialogue. They are “unmediated visualizations,” concert films with fully orchestrated musical scores. They are intended as purely aesthetic experiences. Notwithstanding Reggio’s deeply felt sociopolitical views, they leave out the slightest whisper of commentary or analysis. Their meaning is implicit.
      In case it needed to be spelled out, though, Reggio was easily up to the task with opinions shaped by an unusual personal history and a wide array of intellectual influences ranging from the 15th-century Saint Theresa of Avila to Henry Miller, from the 14th-century German monk Thomas à Kempis to the anarchist 19th-century philosopher Peter Kropotkin, from filmmakers Luis Buñuel and Fritz Lang to the writer E.F. Schumacher, from the renegade Catholic theologian Ivan Illich (a friend of Reggio’s), to Hopi legend to French sociologist Jacques Ellul to Viennese economist Leopold Kohr.
      Reggio made wordless films not because they could be appreciated more easily across different cultures — although that has been one of the results — but because he considers words a tool of authority. He explained, “I simply believe words tend to confuse and separate rather than bring greater enlightenment. Curiously enough, when the Church became irrelevant and lost its own oppressive hegemony over Europe, the central authority of the newly emergent fatherlands took everyone’s local language away and developed the mother tongue. It was a power greater than any army ever unleashed. The homogenization of language was one of the first tools used to develop the homogenization of the mass society. And the first coherent technology, as far as I’m concerned, was the nation-state.”
      This produced enormous mysticism, he added. “What is patriotism other than mysticism? The sadness and the danger, of course, is that we have become totally dependent on mass society for life itself. It’s not as if we have much choice. What can we do? These concepts are unutterable. They’re now beyond the pale of language. This is partly why I have used Hopi, a non-literate language, to name my films.
      “I felt that an insight from another point of view would be useful to people whose own language has become a propaganda and thus not useful to convey the meaning of things. We must find new experiences to become aware of these concepts, not just through the horrification of war or the opposing of injustice. Those are written into the fabric of mass society, which cannot be anything but unjust or at war.”
      Reggio maintained that, lacking sufficient distance, we fail to perceive just how autonomous and out of control the mass society has truly become. The distinguishing characteristics of individual cultures evaporate in the pressure cooker of accelerated industrialization. For example, technological societies seemingly as different as those of Japan and the United States or Western Europe are more alike than not, whatever their surface distinctions.
      The natural world becomes mere raw material to be consumed, digested, and reorganized by high technology. Instead of an “organized entity present among us,” Reggio noted, nature is dismantled and cannibalized like a dead carcass. It is manipulated strictly as a resource. Reprocessed in the laboratories of what he called “the high priests of technology” — the engineers, the architects, the city planners, to say nothing of the scientists — nature loses what traditional societies have always conceived of as its “animate being.”
      “What I’m saying,” Reggio continued, “is that science, which is now a servant of technology, has produced a life that is basically unquestioned and thus has lodged itself in the realm of faith. Faith by its nature is not rational. Hence the paradox that science — the Skeptical Philosophy, you may recall — has produced enormous mystification in the populations of mass societies. And by taking up a life that is totally technological, we have produced a deafening silence of the spirit. We are surrounded by an authoritarian mystique. That to me is the essence of fascism. I am using the term broadly, no doubt. But the fascism of the Hitler or Stalinist eras, or Roosevelt’s for that matter, is small potatoes compared to the fascism we experience today.”
      Reggio drew his conclusions from a lifetime of intellectual and spiritual pursuits. Born in 1940 — he was 47 years old when we spoke — Reggio was raised in New Orleans and comes from a distinguished family that traces its Louisiana ancestry back more than two centuries. The patriarch of the family was François Marie De Reggio, an Italian who came to Louisiana in 1751 with a commission from the King of France to establish two forts: the Fort of Baton Rouge and the Fort of Arkansas. He then acted as the negotiator for the King of France to sell the Louisiana Territory to the Spanish, afterward becoming the standard bearer for the Spanish king.
      Growing up among the upper crust of New Orleans society during the ’40s and ’50s, Reggio had a pleasant childhood of garden parties and country clubs, social fraternities, and junior deb balls. “I can feel it like one smells an aroma,” he recalled. Even so, Reggio was troubled by the glaring incongruities of this stratified, and above all, racist society. He was troubled enough to walk away from it at age 14, straight into the 17th century.
      Reggio became an initiate of the Christian Brothers — a French order of Catholic monks founded in 1680 by St. John Baptist de Salle that pursues human perfection through an ascetic and mystical way of life — and for the next five years was completely cloistered from the outside world. A gangling teenager, he lived among a self-reliant community of 160 monks in Lafayette, Louisiana, where daily existence consisted of silence, theological study and meditation, prayer and chanting.
      One of the order’s ecclesiastical goals is the gratuitous teaching of the poor, which dovetailed with his personal idealism. At 19, Reggio was sent off to St. Michael’s College in Santa Fe, New Mexcio, an institution founded by the Brothers for continued scholastic formation of young monks. Three years later, he emerged to teach in the religious community there and soon took up social work with Chicano street gangs.
      “It was probably the most intense period of my life,” Reggio said. “The gangs — the Porchos, the Unicitos, the West Siders — were widespread and very tough.” But eight years of essentially living on the streets with them affected his views. At 28, Reggio found himself in conflict with the policies of the Brothers. He quit the order.
      “Since I had already taken final vows,” he recalled, “I needed a papal dispensation because the Brothers are under the direct jurisdiction of the pontiff. It’s pretty standard stuff, though dire in terms of the possible consequences to one’s soul. But I am savable.”
      He smiled without irony as he said that.
      Long interested in the impact of media on conveying ideas rather than promoting commodities, Reggio began experimenting with film and helped found a collective of writers, artists, and media researchers called the Institute for Regional Education. All earnings from his films went to the institute, based in Santa Fe and operated as a nonprofit foundation. In return, he said, he received a “reasonably comfortable” salary and the freedom to choose his projects.
      “If you want to hold a mirror in front of everybody, the obvious medium is film,” Reggio explained. “I came to it out of left field. I had no technical preparation. I’m not a film historian, or even a film student. I haven’t seen a lot of film. But when I worked with the gangs, I could see how film touched them. I felt, as with everything else, I don’t want to be mystified by it. The medium of film is, in fact, a good example of mystification. We are awestruck by it.”
      Given his antipathy to what he called “high technique,” Reggio was mindful of the paradox of expressing himself through a medium as technically sophisticated as film. In self-defense, he cited Aristotle’s thesis on pedagogy, which boils down to the idea that people learn in terms of what they already know. Everybody goes to the movies and, if you’re going to demystify technology, you might as well use the most persuasive technology at hand.
      Reggio also cited the Bible in his defense, quipping that “the devil comes bejeweled in a very seductive wrapping, not as a bag lady.” But devil’s advocate, he most definitely was not. By showing the brilliantly alluring aspects of mass society without ever making explicit moralistic statements about them, Reggio intended to sabotage the mystique of the devil at every step.
      One has only to examine Reggio’s intellectual influences to recognize the intended demolition job. He was drawn to the 19th-century writers of the French Decadence, which was a reaction to industrialization, and especially to the anarchist philosophers best exemplified by Peter Kropotkin in Common Sense.
      “The anarchists get such a bad rap I’m reluctant to cite them,” he said. “The Marxist-Leninists have made Kropotkin synonymous with crazy bomb-throwers, which he was not. Anarchists simply make the philosophic argument that small is better than large. They severely question the nature of the nation-state as an authoritarian, centralized power.”
       Also essential to Reggio’s education was the Viennese economist Leopold Kohr, whom he called “one of the great contemporary anarchists.” Celebrated for such books as The Breakdown of Nations and Development Without Aid, Kohr inspired the likes of E.F. Schumacher (Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered). “Kohr’s principal analysis,” Reggio said, “is that the root of the problem we face is based on quantity. He says you cannot have a sane mass economy. It’s basically impossible to maintain. But he doesn’t say the problem is rooted in human nature, as some other people say. He blames the numbers. Quantity demands authorization to function. When you have quantity, you must have centralization.”
       Reggio waxed eloquent about other influences. Nobody came in for higher praise than Henry Miller — odd, it would seem, especially for a former monk. “I know he’s popular for his novels, but I’m talking about his essays,” Reggio said. “They are among the most insightful things I’ve ever read. I think Miller was basically an irreverent person with a religious sensibility but not mystified by the mass society.”
       That description fit Reggio himself. His given name, Godfrey, originally meant “he who is not afraid of God; he who is a friend of God.” The name was considered so irreverent among Christians in the early Middle Ages, he said, that it wasn’t used for a century or so. His religious sensibility is reflected, moreover, in the Hopi titles he gives to his unorthodox films and in his belief in the Hopi worldview.
      “I guess you could call my affinity for Hopi thought mystical,” he admitted. “I’m not an anthropologist about it. The attraction is not rationally based. I felt a kinship — philosophical, theological, and metaphysical.”
      The Hopis believe from their signs and prophecies that the world has entered “the day of purification,” a period of time that began some 50 to 60 years ago. Reggio’s Hopi mentor David Monougye is a special messenger, he said, given the task of spreading the word of these prophesies to white people; the day of purification has various levels of meaning, which may be summed up in philosophical terms as the merging of death and life.
      “According to David, we have entered a time when the world as we know it could end,” Reggio said. “That’s not to say the planet will not be here, but that our way of living is now being questioned. Maybe it will not survive. Many people see that as a negative thing. But if death brings life, which is a fairly universal belief, it can also be seen positively.”
      For his part, Reggio takes the optimistic view — the old Reichstag and all that it symbolizes notwithstanding. He interprets “the day of purification” as the swing of a cosmic pendulum: Life on Earth has lacked balance for so long that the cumulative effect will force a correction.
      “I feel a personal resonance with this idea,” he said. “It did not come to me through Hopi. I had it myself for some time. I think it’s lodged in the psyche of many people. I just find the Hopi expression of it gives tongue to the wisdom of the heart.”
      Fourteen years later, in October 2001, I spoke with Reggio again. He had long since abandoned his lower Manhattan loft and was living full-time in Santa Fe. “Powaqqatsi” had been released in 1988 and “Naqoyqatsi,” the third in the trilogy, was still being made. By then it wasn’t only the Berlin Wall that had crumbled. The Soviet Union itself had been dismantled, and the Communist bloc no longer existed. Borders had begun to disappear, politically (before the 9/11 antiterrorist policies set in) and cybernetically.
      Wondering how these developments, as well as the rise of the Internet, had affected Reggio’s thinking and filmmaking, I phoned him while he was staying on the Lower East Side with his collaborator Philip Glass. Reggio said that he was facing hurdles raising money for “Naqoyqatsi” that had more to do with the conventions of the movie industry than anything else. The cult following that had grown up around the first two films in the trilogy was actually symptomatic of the problem.
      “The difficulty for these kinds of projects is that without narrative exposition, without actors, they’re considered a freak show,” he said. “They’re hard to categorize. It’s like trying to tell someone what a painting will look like before it’s finished or what a concert will sound like before it’s composed. The clearest thing I can say is that it’s ‘concert cinema.’ In that sense, we have a form that is capable of touching people, not everybody obviously, but some people. The form is not understood in the business.”
      But Reggio could not discount the notion that potential backers of the conventional sort might see themselves as targets of a cinematic indictment. “Koyaanisqatsi” deals with northern hemisphere, hyperindustrial, technological grids. “Powaqqatsi” deals with cultures of orality — cultures of tradition, handmade ways of living that were virtually eternal, that circumscribed the southern part of the world, cultures that are defined by slowness rather than acceleration and speed. “Naqoyqatsi” will deal with “the globalization of the world itself,” Reggio said, “the world that’s being served to us in the image and likeness of technology.
      The title of “Naqoyqatsi” — compounded of the words “naqoy” (war) and “qatsi” (life) — means “war as a way of life,” he said. “But it is war beyond the battlefield, in other words total war or sanctioned aggression against the force of life itself. In a free translation, I would call it ‘civilized violence.’”
      Despite the vast political and technological changes since we had last spoken, Reggio said he still saw what he had seen then. “The new media are producing an enormous unity in the world. And more than ever that unity is held together through technical homogenization. In effect, we don’t use technology any more. We live it. Technology becomes the way of life, which is the quintessential focus of our subject in this trilogy.
      “In the natural order, which I think is now subsumed in the post-natural order, the natural order’s unity is held through the mystery or the web of diversity. That diversity is being eliminated at the expense of technological homogenization. So the miracle that we witness through the Internet, through globalization, through the computerization of language, of culture, of every aspect of our existence, comes at the price of global diversification.”
      Asked for an example, Reggio pointed out that at the turn of the 20th century there were approximately 30,000 languages and principal dialects. A hundred years later that number has been reduced to little more than 4,000. “Naqoyqatsi” addresses the homogenization, he said, “but it will try to do so in a language that approximates what the language of the global world is. As the human world is in a state of great humility — and I feel it’s a tragedy untellable in its consequences — the language today is the image.”
      In the first two films of the trilogy, Reggio had to go to the locations of the world he was filming. For “Naqoyqatsi” the location is the image itself. “I relocate onto the image and revivify it, reanimate it,” he said. “I try to take the known images of the world. You can call these the stock and archival images that make up the visual world in which we live, so I will try to show that familiar material in a completely unfamiliar way.”
      In contrast to “Powaqqatsi,” which featured long-distance shots of South African gold miners working like ants on an anthill, and “Koyaanisqatsi,” which featured desolate high-rises seen in geometric abstraction, “Naqoyqatsi” will use celebrated emblematic images. Such as? “The astronauts on the moon,” he said, “or the planting of the American flag at Iwo Jima, or Babe Ruth, or images from the monstrous world wars.” But instead of using them as they exist, “I’m going to make them digital, and make them look like a real-time comic book.” He won’t be deconstructing them so much as making them move.
      As before the working principle will be “time, motion, and color” with a score by Glass, but differently achieved, more adventurous. “Philip and I began this trilogy together,” Reggio said. “It’s my great fortune to work with him, and we’ll do a sound composition that we’ve never done before. The film we envision is a much more extreme film, dramaturgically and emotively, than the other two. The other two films by my standards now are conservative. It gave us the moments to learn our language, as it were. Now we’d like to take all the stops out.”
      I asked him again about the paradox of the trilogy: Without the technology he condemns he could not express his views.
      “Absolutely,” he said. “And I want to be forthright about it. There’s no need to rationalize that. I feel that in the moment we live in, if the intention is to commune with an audience, we’re going to have to do so through the language of the audience. I have to talk in the language of the day. The language of the day, tragically, is the language of image.
      “So for love of the word these films give up the word to produce a thousand images with the power of one word. If a picture is worth a thousand words, quite the opposite is true. These films consciously embrace the contradiction of criticizing the medium they’re using. In that sense, I would compare them metapho-rically to the idea of the Trojan horse. Or to say it another way, I view these as cultural kamikaze activities.”

Jan Herman

[1] A high-tech, corporate-style renovation of the Reichstag was completed in 1999. It is widely praised for the embodiment of transparency and openness. But the heavy historical burden remains preserved above the entrance exactly as before in the cast iron words “DEM DEUTSCHEN VOLKE.”



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