Na-qoy-qatsi: (nah koy’ kahtsee) N. From the Hopi Language.
1. A life of killing each other. 2. War as a way of life. 3. (Interpreted) Civilized violence.
One cannot talk about NAQOYQATSI without putting this film in context with its siblings. Naqoyqatsi is the third and final installment in a trilogy of films from director (artist) Godfrey Reggio. The first groundbreaking film in this series is Koyaanisqatsi (1983) followed by Powaqqatsi (1988). For those unfamiliar, these films combine stunning and provocative imagery with an unconventional score by composer Philip Glass to express ideas and explore universal themes. There is no verbal content to these films. They are intended to be universal and succeed quite well despite some culturally-defined content contained in their visual imagery. Indeed even the titles for these films are words carefully chosen from the Hopi language in an effort to keep the films from betraying an ownership by one or more dominant world culture. About the only further step Godfrey could have taken would be to fabricate some title to the effect of “the movie formerly known as Prince”. In lieu of such an abstract, I think that the Hopi language succeeds beautifully to convey the sense of semantic harmony and universality that Godfrey desires in distinguishing his 3-part masterpiece.
I’ll be honest and say that I’m not as enthusiastic about Naqoyquatsi as I am about the first two films. Koyaanisqatsi and Powaqqatsi were shot on traditional film stock with a minimum of “special effects”...most of their power comes from their presentation of everyday images, scenes, and objects that are patterned in sequences to suggest association and ascribe meaning. Naqoyquatsi takes a departure from this visual language (which seems ironically “traditional” by comparison) and expresses itself through digital manipulation and special effects combining stock photography/video with few on-site location shots. While perhaps avant-garde and daring, I can’t help but feel disappointed with the “video” look and feel of Naqoyqatsi (I don’t enjoy seeing scan-line aliasing and dot-crawl no matter how artistic and intentional these artifacts might be). The effect is also much more “media” driven which, for me, creates a barrier to my connecting with the film. However, this effect is assuredly perfectly in tune with Godfrey’s intensions, so please understand that I’m just expressing my own aesthetic tastes in this criticism.
A generally good image with 3 problems I should get out of the way:
Firstly, no fault of the DVD, are the limitations of the image quality of the source. Blow up composite video tapes of coffee commercials to fill a theater screen and what can a videophile expect? Or a glass-half-full perspective: the limitations of the source film and video elements are accurately and faithfully preserved in the transfer of this DVD. In all fairness that’s all a DVD should be required to do...to present the source material faithfully (ie, airbrushing out source film-print “problems” that were good enough for a 50 foot screen but deemed unsuitable for a 50” TV is bad). I only mention this first point because no doubt folks will see some scan-line aliasing, dot-crawl, or excessive grain and assume that the “DVD picture quality isn’t that good”. That’s just a DVD doing a good job with what it’s given, even if you don’t like the way it looks.
Issues two and three are “transfer” related and not source-material issues...at least to my knowledge. The first is compression artifacting. Based on the extremely high average bit-rate (typically hovering between 7 and 9 mbps) of this DVD, my assumption is that that the compressionist at Miramax was doing his best to encode this very challenging material and to keep MPEG2 nasties to a minimum. However, be advised that despite this generous bit-rate, there was significant mosquito noise in some scenes that at times I found distracting. I’m not sure that Naqoyqatsi could have been compressed much better given the 720 x 480 resolution and limitations of MPEG2 at the bit-rates possible on DVD, but I need to mention this just to be fair.
The third problem -- one that I feel might have been avoidable and so worth mentioning – is a relative softness to the overall picture. Fine detail seems curiously absent even in film-source segments. I wonder if Naqoyqatsi received a generous filtering to help ease compression chores? In any case, please bear in mind that I have not seen this film projected theatrically so my comments are largely assumptive on this point.
Whew! DaViD *never* gets critical quite like that about picture quality. What gives? Well, don’t take this to heart and those of you eager to purchase this title should not be dissuaded by my comments. I’m just doing my best to be as thorough as I can be so no fan is surprised by an anomaly that I failed to mention in an overly enthused glowing-review.
POSITIVES: Given the challenging source material and the previously stated presence of some mosquito noise, I was actually surprised that there wasn’t more compression artifacting to be seen. I don’t think we can see better until we obtain a new digital medium that uses a much heftier bit-rate (D-VHS) or an altogether new compression algorithm (WM9). Colors are strong and never over-saturated. Blacks are solid excepting source-related grain or noise (again, much of the content is recycled NTSC video). And naturally this transfer is 16x9 OAR...otherwise I wouldn’t be reviewing it...
Stretching... The point of some controversy over this DVD release (at least among enthusiasts on this forum) has been the alleged “stretching” of the image to fill the 1.78:1 frame. First the facts: Yes, the image on the DVD appears horizontally stretched...as if you took a 4x3 full-frame image and stretched it wide in “FULL” mode to fill your 16x9 TV. Reports from those who have seen this film projected theatrically seem to conflict...some folks remember the “stretching” and others do not. My suspicion is that this was indeed the way the film was presented theatrically for a couple of reasons:
- [*]Most of the source material for this film is 1.33:1 full-frame video and film content...and “stretching” this to fill a 1.85:1 film screen would make sense given the general appearance of image-alteration that is such a strong part of the visual language of this film.[*]The snap-shots from the film on the back of the DVD packaging display the same wide-stretch effect.[*]One of the 4x3 encoded special features on the DVD also shows clips from the film in 4x3 lbx...and they are also stretched.[*]The fact that some folks remember the “stretch” effect from theatrical presentation is more indicative of how it may have appeared that what folks don’t remember.[/list]
Feel free to form your own conclusion, discuss among yourselves, and offer up some conclusive evidence one-way or the other if you can find it!
Picture: 3.5 / 5
Ahhhh. Oh this is where this DVD really shines. And how. The 5.1 mix sounds about as good as Dolby Digital can sound...and presents a very natural sounding sonic landscape that I suspect would only reveal any shortcomings in direct comparison with the LPCM master.
You need to be able to enjoy 89 minutes of music composed/directed by Philip Glass to enjoy this film. If you can do it, dive right in. Yo-Yo Ma’s performance adds a distinctive “voice” to the music that is solidly delivered through the center channel. No downplaying of the center channel as I often hear with “5.1 music mixes”. The soundstage is dynamic, lush, and clear. Bass is solid and well defined. The soundstage extends far back behind the speakers...a genuinely holographic soundstage that reminds me of good vinyl. Surround use is strong and intentional. Surrounds are not really “surrounds” in this mix, but are treated with the same respect as any of the front three channels. Sounds pan front to back, left to right, and are an intrinsic part of the musical expression. One scene made a particular impression on me...and you’ll know it when you hear it: We start with a female vocal locked securely in the center channel in front of us...ringing out into the room with a beautiful melodic cant. Slowly, her voice is pulled out into the center of the room and then behind the listener...as Yo-Yo’s strings take her place front and center. It’s an unconventional and marvelous use of 5.1 mixing to create a bold and intentional statement with a confident sense of integrity. Listening to this mix in 2.0 down-mix would discard a viable layer of artistic expression. All that being said, the “surround” use is not gimmicky or distracting...it’s just what it should be given the type of musical landscape that Glass is trying to create...you’re placed inside the music where you can touch it -- up close and intimately.
Those of you who like Philip Glass or Yo-Yo Ma should purchase this DVD and listen to is as a 5.1 DVD-Audio disc even if you don’t care for the film itself.
Sound: 5/ 5
Miramax has delivered what, in my opinion, is a satisfying mass of bonus material on this disc. First up is a short 4x3 encoded “Life is War” spot that might be considered a promo of sorts. Included in this are some bits of dialog about the film by its creators and this is also where you’ll see the 4x3 lbxed snippets from the movie that reveal the same “stretched” WS image.
Next up we have a “Music of Naqoyqatsi” short which runs about 10 minutes or so (estimate) and pairs Glass and Yo-Yo Ma together in a conversation about the music and the film. I found it interesting, but I would have liked for Yo-Yo Ma to have spoken a little more. Fans of Glass or Ma will appreciate this extra to be sure.
We’ve got two trailers for the two previous films in the series but not for Naqoyqatsi itself (surprise surprise). The trailer for Koyaanisqatsi is 16x9 WS with 2.0 DD mono audio and isn’t much to look at in terms of picture or sound but it’s nice to have for collectionist reasons. The trailer for Powaqqatsi is 4x3 full-frame and has surprisingly good picture quality. Sound is 2.0 DD stereo and of impressive quality for a trailer.
The most impressive extra on this disc that I’m sure devotees will appreciate is the NYU panel discussion. Here we have Glass, Godfrey, and some other creative team-members appearing as a panel answering questions from an audience. Most of the questions are germane and interesting, and I found the discussion valuable and enlightening. Certainly I felt I understood Naqoyquatsi and its two sister films much better after this discussion along with a generally deeper sense of appreciation for this trilogy (and I had always considered myself fans of these films before). This is the sort of extra that is truly substantive and adds quality and depth to the DVD presentation. Thank-you Miramax.
Naqoyqatsi is not a film for everyone. This is an art-film in the truest sense. Given the excellent presentation on DVD by Miramax, I heartily recommend it for those of you who are already loyal Naqoyqatsi or Reggio-film fans. Additionally, every Philip Glass fan needs to purchase Naqoyqatsi (along with Koyaanisqatsi and Powaqqatsi) if for no other reason than to enjoy the artful score in glorious 5.1 even if you leave the television turned off. Regarding the rest of you -- if you enjoyed either of the first two films in this series or connect with other similar “image/sound” oriented art-films such as Fantasia or Baraka, you should definitely give Naqoyqatsi a try.