Baby, The Rain Must Fall: When Cinema Was Innocent and Fun

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“I don’t go to the movies much – if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all…Oh, no offense. Movies are entertaining enough for the masses, but the personalities on the screen just don’t impress me. I mean, they don’t talk. They don’t act. They just make a lot of dumb show…”

Cinema was essentially created as an escape.  A sort of mirror to our times, but heightened with dramatic flair, suspense, humor, or otherwise an alternative reality to our own.  No other period in Hollywood history matches this otherworldly view as within the golden age of musicals.  Escapism took shape in Technicolor extremes, where people break out into a song rather than contemplate their mistakes.  A little tap dance when words are insufficient.  This is not reality, but another dimension of reality filled with smiles, laughs, and a more care free innocent time.  We all know the good old days were not really good old days for everyone.  Times were rife with violence, racism, sexism, closeted sexual identities, and many more hushed tones within society.  The musical tossed all of that aside for the sheer exuberance of fun.

A lazy Saturday morning, the local art-house theater presented a single showing of the Stanley Donen/Gene Kelly film of “Singin’ In The Rain” for a charity organization.  A worthy cause and the perfect film to bring in an audience of all sizes and shapes.  Many were patrons who knew the film by heart and many were viewing it for the very first time.  What better venue to watch a big brassy Technicolor spectacle than on the big screen with big sound for the uninitiated with this classic film.  “Singin’ In The Rain” remains the pinnacle of Hollywood musicals for it perfectly grasped all its conventions using stellar wit, imagination, and the brilliant musical talents of Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor, and Debbie Reynolds, under the direction of Stanley Donen.

It was an absolute joy to see my ten year old watch with amazement the comic antics of Donald O’Connor defying gravity and laughing at how truly awful the voice of Lina Lamont (played with Academy Award winning comic gusto by Jean Hagen) was.  There was even a little cinema history lesson for him about how the silent film industry was turned on its head by the advent of sound introduced into cinema with the spectacular success of The Jazz Singer.  The pure joy of the musical numbers cast a spell upon him and myself included.  This film made us forget for two hours and brought constant smiles and laughs in the best way possible.  It is proof of a great film when sixty-five years later audiences will still clap after their favorite musical numbers.  We found ourselves doing the very same thing.  Its energy and sense of exuberance has not lost its luster in all that time.

Afterwards, we talked about what we had seen.  Everyone we saw on screen was gone (Debbie Reynolds being the last to go recently).  Their work certainly lives on in a ten year old’s mind today.  The stunts were performed by real people.  The incredible dancing and shenanigans throughout were carefully rehearsed.  The musical was at the height of it’s popularity when “Singin’ In The Rain” was released.  People flocked to these movies because it meant something to them.  Yes, a way for escape; to daydream and imagine a world without pain and suffering.  Just a little heartbreak is all.  It was this talk afterwards that set in motion how much history there is to teach our young minds.  To be a child in this day and age with so much to reach back to and experience for the very first time, if we adults just slow down and take the time to let it happen.

Gene Kelly was the athletic dancer, while Fred Astaire resembled the refined toe tapper.  Kelly was always a favorite with me simply because of his every-man persona and jaw dropping choreography which displayed a dance which sometimes felt as if anyone could do it if they put their mind to it.  Of course, this was the deceitful brilliance of Kelly.  No one could dance like he could.  Not even Astaire.  Within all the musical sequences, one has always stood out from all others for me with the peculiar quality of sexiness and eroticism surrounded by the typical Hollywood innocence of the film.  Take a closer look at the entire “Gotta Dance” number, in which a young innocent goes to the city to make it big on Broadway.  Kelly infuses his personality with innocence, joviality, and charm until he meets a dangerous woman, played by the lustful Cyd Charisse.  When these two dancers meet, lightening strikes.  You can practically see the electricity and seductive eroticism charging the celluloid image.  These two were made for each other as dance partners.  Charisse, an accomplished and equally athletic dancer in her own right, matches Kelly move for move and boldy seduces him right in front of us.  It made an impression at a young age and seeing it again today, brought back memories of that wide eyed innocence being dismantled brick by brick.

Cyd Charisse, I thank you from the bottom of my heart.

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“Singin’ In The Rain” (1952) directed by Stanley Donen/Gene Kelly, written by Betty Comden/Adolph Green, photography by Harold Rosson

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The Art of Political Satire: Preston Sturges and The Great McGinty

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On the heels of current events, the need for genuine political satire has never been more needed.  In this age of YouTubers and bloggers (such as myself), looking back into the past can sometimes be a telling signpost pointing to future events and a much more prescient truth.  One filmmaker from the past came to mind immediately; the brilliant Preston Sturges.  A consummate screenwriter and director, Sturges enjoyed some years of success due mainly to his furiously paced and very clever films including, The Lady Eve, Sullivan’s Travels, Unfaithfully Yours, and The Palm Beach Story to name a few.  All are delicious in their dialogue and screwball farce satire.  All were written and directed by Sturges with originality and a higher sense of comedic cinema language.  The films may be from the 1940’s and 50’s, but they feel as fresh today as when first released.  That is due to Sturges genius and the timeless quality of his words and ideas.

In 1939, Sturges turned in his first script entitled  The Story Of A Man (re-titled to The Great McGinty) to Paramount studios for ten dollars with the stipulation that he be allowed to direct it.  The studio agreed if he used lower paid actors and a strict budget.  Sturges surrounded himself with the best character actors working that day and produced a scathing and hysterically funny satire on the charade known as politics.  The dialogue alone is pure gold.

Skeeters: If it wasn’t for graft, you’d get a very low type of people in politics. Men without ambition. Jellyfish.

Catherine: Especially since you can’t rob the people anyway.

Skeeters: Sure. How was that?

Catherine: What you rob, you spend, and what you spend goes back to the people. So, where’s the robbery? I read that in one of my father’s books.

Skeeters: That book should be in every home.

Sturges presents a dishonest man who loses everything from being honest for one crazy moment.  The Great McGinty slices open the fallacy of an honest politician and the motivations for wanting such a seat of power.  The script is taut, very funny, and very scathing.  The film was released in 1940, but seems to ring true today more than ever.  Its treatment of a corrupt official being touted as a candidate for reform cannot be more telling.  And the dialogue…did one mention the sparkling dialogue in this film?  No comedic filmmaker working during that time could match Sturges wit.  Look again at the character named Skeeters from the quote above.  Is there a better name for a “blood sucking” political official?

Preston Sturges ended up winning for original screenplay for The Great McGinty and the film was named one of the top 10 best that year.  It launched the career of Sturges (and his recurring band of character actors), plus gave the confidence to take on a subversive role in the Hollywood dream factory.  It is imperative that a film like The Great McGinty be rediscovered and enjoyed as the biting political satire we all need today.

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  “The Great McGinty” (1940) written/directed by Preston Sturges, photography by William C. Mellor

Passing Into The Night: Terrence Malick Asks The Hard Questions

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“This great evil, where’s it come from? How’d it steal into the world? What seed, what root did it grow from? Who’s doing this? Who’s killing us, robbing us of life and light, mocking us with the sight of what we might’ve known? Does our ruin benefit the earth, does it help the grass to grow, the sun to shine? Is this darkness in you, too? Have you passed through this night?”
-Terrence Malick / The Thin Red Line


This great evil.  It exists in many forms, many disguises, and somehow perpetuates itself as something good or acceptable at times in society.  There are moments, thankfully few in my personal lifetime, that have emblazoned such evil and its effects upon me like some burn across my hands after touching a white hot cooking pan. Suffice to say that it is out there slithering along the muddy earth awaiting its next prey

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In 1998, the film “The Thin Red Line” was released to critical acclaim, but little box office. The public viewed it as yet another WWII film on the heels of Spielberg’s search for Private Ryan.  As kinetic and pulsing as Spielberg’s film was, Malick’s film is poetic and thoughtful.  In the long run, Malick’s film wins out for you can return to it like some favorite great novel that continues to teach and illuminate your life in unexpected ways. The narration alone, such as the one quoted above, is filled with questions and universal thoughts written to be examined and felt.


I speak of evil because lately in this world, the slithering creature seems to be having a field day.  I fear not only for our children, but for mankind as some higher being. I finished watching Malick’s epic take on the world alone a few nights ago and came away with a feeling of hopelessness or a kind of restlessness that we, as a family of men, have still yet to come together to work towards common goals and feed all that are hungry for justice, happiness, and love.  Are we not all looking for these three things?  Malick asks the hard questions and we still seem to be not listening.  We all struggle in our own way without the need for more to shoulder when the world rears its ugly head.  I am hungry, like all of you. I have my carefree times, my selfish goals, and self congratulatory moments.  That is why I take a step back and look at where I am and who I am surrounded by.


How we deal with the evil inside us, as well as the world around us is the key.  I am talking of the very real evil that festers and germinates within many and sprouts violence both physical and mental to others at will and without mercy.  It angers me and saddens me with my inability to change things.  War certainly brings that out (as this film displays brilliantly), but so does society that does not cultivate the real hope for happiness or change after such a climactic war; any war for that matter.  We either deal with it in outrage or apparent denial.  What is the right path or roads we need to take?  This film brought out these thoughts and challenged me to assess the situation as all great art should do, but I do not have any answers.


I do not subscribe to the world has gone mad analogy being presented each night on television.  Scare tactics for ratings do not impress upon me with any importance or merit. Each one of us has a story, a beginning, a reason for who we are and why we do what we do.  The small infantry of men charging up that grassy hill upon a barrage of fire from an entrenched Japanese enemy, seems simple enough to view that we are in the right and they are evil.  However, once that hill is taken, we discover that the faceless Japanese are also human with the same frailties we all suffer from.  The enemy becomes us.  We succumb to this righteous evil only to discover we are only perpetuating and spreading the evil ourselves.  The effects of such an act destroys lives and nature surrounding us.  Pretty heady stuff for a WWII film and the reason that it is so much more relevant today than when first released.


One can only end these thoughts with an image that has haunted me ever since I saw it in a darkened theater upon its first release.  The image, for me, shows how our propensity for violence and cruelty has a lasting impact on the innocent.  The image produces tragic consequences with a newborn bird caught amidst the onslaught of cannon fire, screaming men, and whizzing tracer fire.  This is us.  These are the results of our insanity and hate we still bear.  How do we end such evil?  Can we end such evil?  And a question that bears asking, do we want to end such evil?

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“The Thin Red Line” (1998) written/directed by Terrence Malick, Cinematography by John Toll

The Pain Under The Volcano: John Huston’s Almost Great Vision

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“The Consul felt a pang. Ah, to have a horse, and gallop away, singing, to someone you loved perhaps, into the heart of all the simplicity and peace in the world; was that not like the opportunity afforded man by life itself? Of course not. Still, just for a moment, it had seemed that it was.”
― Malcolm Lowry, Under the Volcano

Malcolm Lowry’s monumentally complicated novel, Under The Volcano (published in 1947) is arguably one of 20th Century’s greatest written works.  The story revolves around Geoffrey Firmin, a British Counsul living in Mexico, suffering from alcoholism and tormented memories during the Day Of The Dead festival on November 2, 1938.  Note the date for it is on the cusp of the impending second world war and the sunset of British control over what is left of their colonial rule.  The novel weaves in and out of unreliable narrators as the story tragically recalls the last day in Firmin’s life.  The novel is endlessly fascinating and conjures up an alcoholic haze of unforgettable images and words.  Lowry first started this novel while frequently drunk in Mexico and undergoing a nasty breakup with his first marriage.  Many revisions later, he fine tuned his paean to lost love which encompasses all the political and socioeconomics of his time.

Many directors have tried and failed to bring this “unfilmable” novel to the screen.  It took the legendary John Huston  in 1980 to option the book and hammer out a vision of the story.  Huston’s vision may not be a literal translation of Lowry’s masterpiece, but that was not his intention.  The essence of a man totally lost within his memories and unwilling to escape the demons which grasp his very soul, is a mighty huge undertaking to bring to the screen.  Huston was a man of passions and risk taking.  Under The Volcano was close to his heart and a project he felt he needed to accomplish before he was no longer able.  His failing health made this undertaking all the more urgent and a necessity.

Huston cast Albert Finney in the title role of the British Consul and he is staggeringly brilliant.  It is too easy to play a drunkard and slide into caricature.  Finney, never in a caricature, is astounding with the many nuances he brings to his sad character.  Pay close attention to his eyes and you can see the running gamut of emotions Finney brings to his portrayal.  Surrounded by Jacqueline Bisset (never better in the role of the Consul’s long suffering wife/muse) and Anthony Andrews (underrated as Hugh, the Consul’s half-brother and caretaker), the film imbues such a wide range of tones from the absurd to the tragic.  The script, by Guy Gallo and John Huston, captures the novel’s undertone, but can never really encompass all what Lowry achieved with his words.

This is an almost great vision.  It is a fascinating near miss at a classic film, with all its faults and mistakes.  However, one can return to it over and over (much like the novel) to catch subtle meanings and cast aside metaphors which abound in the film.  Whether Huston knew he was never going to do complete justice to Lowry’s novel, it really does not matter.  The mere fact that he tried is amazing in itself.  Mexico has always been a second home to Huston and one can feel it in his treatment with the heat, smells, and textures on the screen.  It all sounds so depressing and not a story to run to, but Huston gives it a light and love that is entirely worth watching; much like sipping a fine aged wine.

(a tribute to the novel written over a year ago in relation to Lowry’s quote above)

Horses, you say?
The freedom to feel
To say
All that is in your heart
Galloping madly to your lips
Expelling that curse
Kept locked away
That which keeps us
Wild horses could not drag
What truly lies within
Buried beneath tall grasses
The meadow plains sings
With hooves of love
Dragging the corpse of the past
Horses, you say?
Snorting, sweat filled pain
The muscular tinged rage
Racing across green hills
Glancing back into the distance
Running from that sun
That refuses to set

(Misha 2015)

“Under The Volcano” (1984) directed by John Huston, written by Guy Gallo & John Huston

A Beauty Revealed: Dr. Zhivago And The Melancholy Of Love Lost

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“How wonderful to be alive, he thought. But why does it always hurt?”  – Boris Pasternak

Completed in 1956 over the course of many years, Pasternak’s classic novel of individualism and criticism of the red storm in the midst of Russia’s October Revolution is also one of the great love stories.  Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958 much to the consternation of the then Soviet Union and to the glee of the propaganda minded United States.  The novel  is a favorite, a complicated and enriching experience which remains on the book shelf for many repeated returns.

British director David Lean, with a terrific script by Robert Bolt, created a film version that pulls the eerie cold beauty of Russia along with the soul crushing times it endured with a revolution that shook the world.  Photographed by the brilliant Freddie Young, Dr. Zhivago teems with striking images that verge on poetry.  Some of these images are still jaw dropping when one remembers this is years before the advent of computer generated blue screen epics of today.  The film is romantically majestic and yet brutal in its historical tragedies.

At the heart of this long, but worthwhile film is a story of love that comes but once in a lifetime; the love between Yuri Zhivago (doctor and poet) and Lara Guichard.  It is this love that permeates throughout the history flaring up all around them.  It is the perfect Valentine’s Day film to watch for it contains all the happiness, pain, and loss that love exercises in all of us.  There is a certain beauty revealed in displaying how this one singular emotion can take us to a top of a mountain, but also throw us down into an abyss of despair.  The film is certainly Hollywood gloss on the surface, but underneath is Lean’s trained eye at these humans fumbling in the dark.  These identifiable characters whose only fault is to attempt to love within a cold hard reality.  There are times when we are faced with loss, a love that has worn out or maybe impossible to somehow fix.  There is a certain melancholy beauty in that as well, as the film displays.  We learn and by some miracle we are lucky enough to truly experience what all of this can be about.  Pain is a part of life, but love, that one true love, is a rare coin that if found, you hold close to you for as long as you can.  Let’s hope we can all be so lucky to know this melancholy beauty…just once.

 

She wanted all the frames

Each containing fragments

Vaporous shards of feelings

Those quondam images

To be hung

With care

 

In total state of focus

Togetherness

In that tiny bubble

Order with chaos

Plunging into her cold waves

Leaving all his pride filled sin

 

He labored intensely

Keeping things centered and level

To show once more

Through triumphs

And tragedies

All was fair and good

 

She appeared troubled

As love’s labored hammer

Pounded upon her soul

Seemingly tumbling over

That inky black pool

Doubt casting waves upon the waters

 

The happy faces

Encased within twelve by sixteen

In that once empty hall of memories

He turned 

To look upon her face

That had no more tears to spare

 

Packing his now heavy tools

He glanced one last time

At her

Through such distant gray clouds

At least he hung all those frames

With such care

(Misha 2017)

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Dr. Zhivago (1965) directed by David Lean, written by Robert Bolt, photographed by F.E. Young, music by Maurice Jarre.

(images: Omar Sharif as Dr. Zhivago [top]  Julie Christie as Lara [bottom])

Raoul Peck: Cinema’s Political Voice

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“The paradox of education is precisely this – that as one begins to become conscious one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated.”  -James Baldwin

This could be constituted as more of a personal journalistic entry than a review or some cinema history lesson.  Cinema is the premier modern art form that encompasses all aesthetic values to entertain, teach, and make us ask questions.  Always ask questions.

Raoul Peck is a political activist Haitian born filmmaker who eschews the ordinary conventions of documentary film-making and embraces the fundamental fulcrum; question everything.  Peck was schooled in the United States and France which, in his words, has made him appreciate the subtle identity of being American.

Peck has released a new film that is up for an Academy Award in the best documentary feature category.  The film is getting a lot of attention for it speaks upon the subject of race in the immortal words of writer James Baldwin.  Baldwin is a deeply personal subject for director Peck and it is as if this is an artist commenting on an artist.  The film is not about Baldwin per se, but a commentary on how far we still have to go in so many ideological and sociological spheres.  “I Am Not Your Negro” is receiving critical acclaim and it is my intention to see it very soon.

The Lincoln Center For The Arts and Film Comment recently put forth a podcast of an interview with Raoul Peck by Eric Hynes (associate curator of Museum Of Moving Image) that is an excellent introduction to what drives him aesthetically and politically with film.  “I did not get into film because I wanted to tell stories.”  He got into films to question everything, to expand his ideas in an art form that would pull together many different sources into a cohesive statement.  He states he came from the sixties and seventies documentary world with shaky camera work, out of focus shots, and no particular attention to the actual craft of film.  Peck prides himself in making a film first, then delving into the subject…meaning he cares about choosing his shots carefully, making full use of the cinema tricks to bring across to the audience all perspectives clearly before asking all his questions.  Peck came across as one of the smartest individuals working in film today with this interview, but extremely humble about his career and his craft.  James Baldwin is a hero to him and as a child, saw himself in his writings.  He points to trying to find himself in William Faulkner novels, one of the few writers at the time actually writing about African Americans, but discovered how skewed the “inner voice” was that Faulkner was displaying.  Upon discovering Baldwin soon after, Peck found his voice and his identity, or at least a road to his identity.

During the podcast, we discover it took ten years to make his latest film.  It is a labor of love and a striking example of an artist given free reign to “find the film” as he was working on it.  Peck was given free access to all of James Baldwin’s material, including personal letters, to find those interconnecting stories between his own words and his life.  Peck is well aware of the difference in making a film with a political stance, as opposed to making a full out propaganda film.  He constantly states that we always need to question everything.  If we don’t, we are simply pawns in someone else’s arena.

Why is the subject of “I Am Not Your Negro” relevant today?  As eloquently explained in the podcast, Peck’s sole decision to tell this story evolved over time when recent events mirrored what his hero wrote and talked about over thirty years ago.  As time went on, he saw the connections that we are still trying to achieve today and uses the film to question why we still have a long road to travel.  After listening to this wonderful interview, the urgent need to see this film became ever more stronger and necessary.  A follow-up piece will be forthcoming after viewing Peck’s much lauded film.

Question everything.  A mantra  that is much more resonant in today’s times.

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“I Am Not Your Negro”  (2017) produced and directed by Raoul Peck with narration by Samuel L. Jackson.

Life Out Of Balance: The Cinema Of Godfrey Reggio

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In 1982, director and writer Godfrey Reggio, cinematographer Ron Fricke, and composer Philip Glass unleashed an experimental film project derived from the Hopi Indian word Koyaanisqatsi meaning “life out of balance”.  The project began back in 1975 in St. Louis Missouri with only $40,000 and some 16mm film that would continue to span on and off till post production in 1981.  Low on funds, the film caught the attention of director Francis Ford Coppola and it was with his additional funding that the film was able to be completed and released.

Just what is the end result known as “Koyaanisqatsi”?  This is not so much a documentary in the ordinary sense of the word, but a free floating cosmic statement on the human relationship between nature and the increased saturation of man’s ability to control his surroundings.  No dialogue is present nor is it needed.  Instead, director Reggio uses images to convey the downward slide and its effect on humans in general.  Fricke’s cinematography is a marvel to behold with time-lapse images, haunted faces, beautiful natural landscapes, and frightening modern terrain made by man.  It’s a bold political statement that strikes right at the heart of the emptiness we are creating.  The central image of this emptiness chills us with a face.

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We cannot turn away.  There is no place to hide.  The strict order of life is thrown askew with our indifference to the world around us.  Reggio and Fricke wields such power miraculously without words.  The soul of the film belongs to Philip Glass, the world renowned composer who lends the repetitious and sumptuous score that lifts the film from just a series of jaw dropping images.

The director returned to his theme in 1988 with “Powaqqatsi” meaning life in transformation.  Reggio concentrated on the conflict of third world countries of ancient customs with modern technology.  Without Ron Fricke, Reggio captured wonderfully soulful images with  Graham Berry and Leonidas Zourdoumis on this project.  Again, with no words, the images flow across the screen with such balletic grace and exudes dignity to its subjects; the people of these third world cultures.

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The music of Philip Glass on “Powaqqatsi” is one of his best.  It mixes strings, percussion, and an ethereal chanting that sends chills.  Image and sound are the hallmarks of cinema and Reggio once again makes a statement that stays with you long after you see it.

In 2002, director Reggio made his last film in the Qatri trilogy entitled “Naqoyqatsi” meaning life as war.  Shot by Russel Lee Fine with music once more by the brilliant Philip Glass, “Naqoyqatsi” purports to detail the transition from a natural environment to a solely technological one.  Reggio mixes digitally manipulated and enhanced images from a variety of sources, many layered to give one the impression of man’s continual building upon the shoulders of others.  This is Reggio’s most experimental work yet and not entirely successful.  It is worthy in its effort to assault the viewer with technological advances, but ultimately remains almost soulless in its delivery.  Glass’s score is once again above the material to make this effort worth watching despite its flaws.

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The two men, Godfrey Reggio and Philip Glass deserve accolades for pulling off one of the most stunning experimental achievements ever depicting man’s relationship with nature and with himself.  It is a testament to Reggio’s willpower in giving us another perspective on our way of life with all its triumphs and all its follies.  The soul of the Qatsi Trilogy is the peaceful existence we yearn for that is possible if we just slow down.  How many films can you name that strive for that kind of statement?

The Qatsi Trilogy is available on Criterion Collection label and currently streaming on FilmStruck.

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(Director Godfrey Reggio [left] and composer Philip Glass)

Koyaaniqatsi 1982

Powaqqatsi 1988

Naqoyqatsi 2002

“All things have inner meaning and form and power.”