Life in Balance: ten arthouse classics that have influenced poetic cinematic experimentalist Godfrey Reggio

An anarchic comedy told without words: this is Once Within a Time, directed by Godfrey Reggio.
An anarchic comedy told without words: this is Once Within a Time, directed by Godfrey Reggio.

Once Within a Time director Godfrey Reggio talks Steven Soderbergh’s body language, the abstraction of brilliant thought and the mysteries of the soul as he shares ten arthouse classics that have influenced his poetically experimental career.

We only get a Godfrey Reggio feature film once a decade and each is one to savor. He began in 1982 at 42 years old with Koyaanisqatsi, which quickly became the benchmark for experimental documentaries (currently it is ranked sixteenth in Letterboxd’s official all-time top documentaries list). Celebrated for innovative time lapses, slow-motion frame-speed and Philip Glass’ original score, it was the first in the Qatsi trilogy. Powaqqatsi followed in 1988 and Naqoyqatsi in 2002, furthering his study of the relationships between humankind, nature and technology.

In the 21 years since the last entry, the director has released just one film—2013’s Visitors, a similarly wordless documentary, but with the lens squarely on human faces—and now at 83 years old, we have a new passion project from Reggio that runs a few minutes short of an hour. For those most familiar with the Qatsi trilogy, Once Within a Time is a far stretch from his earlier style. It’s a delirious marriage of early-20th-century filmmaking and modern-day visual effects, giving it the vibe of being a direct descendant of Georges Méliès.

In a first for Reggio, we have characters (including Mike Tyson) and we have dialogue (but it’s in gibberish—you’ll get the gist). Despite its short length, the film is dense with surrealist imagery, from the elaborate costumes and sets to the green-screen phantasmagoria. Though it seems only distantly related to the director’s other films, it continues his thematic interests. As with Koyaanisqatsi’s subtitle and translation from the Hopi language (‘Life Out of Balance’), Reggio is curious about the juxtapositions in the way people exist in the present world.

Andy Miller has cracked its code and sees the hope in the chaos through the group of innocent children who traverse the film’s kaleidoscopic narrative: “The ailments of tech are obvious, but it is the children who decide the future ... You can move mountains, you can walk on water.” Ben Andrews expands on the film’s weary depiction of iPhones, emojis and VR glasses, “Humanity has created a co-dependent symbiotic relationship with AI; it also needs humans to function because it isn’t alive. Once Within a Time beautifully illustrates this by pushing the creative boundaries of its medium.”

Paired with another mesmerizing Philip Glass score and the support of executive producer Steven Soderbergh, Once Within a Time will scratch the itch for those looking for the next maximalist avant-garde rush. To celebrate the theatrical release, we asked Godfrey Reggio to tell us about the films that inspired him, and he gave us ten arthouse classics. 

Director Godfrey Reggio.
Director Godfrey Reggio.

In a note accompanying his selection, Reggio wrote: “Allow me the opportunity to put my remarks in context as a person who sees very few films. I begin with my limits. Octavio Paz, my mentor of form, says: ‘In things regarding art, all meaning is in the form… what you think you have put into it is much fuller than you imagine…’

“So, I must say my favorite films are the films I’ve been involved in. Every time I see them anew, each time I hear and see what I did not see before, everything from the past becomes the present and reveals connections that I never knew I made. All meaning is in the form…

“Let me make a general comment as well: there are a number of directors and their cinematic poetry that greatly influenced me—Luis Buñuel, Artavazd Peleshian, Sir Alfred Hitchcock, Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Soderbergh, Oliver Stone and Paul Schrader. These prime directors speak clearly for themselves.

“Now, may I give you ten films that also influenced me?

Drop your tab of acid and buckle up.

Grand Illusion (1937)

Directed by Jean Renoir, written by Renoir and Charles Spaak.

La Grande Illusion is done in brilliant color with collaborating music, perfect characterization and an intriguing plot. The ‘grand illusion’ in cinema reveals the grand delusion that we all live under.”

Lord of the Flies (1990)

Directed by Harry Hook, written by Jay Presson Allen based on the book by William Golding.

Lord of the Flies is, for me, a quintessential experience of nihilism. Scratch the surface and there is an -ism within us all. I like the provocation of its pessimism, for it offers an opportunity to go beyond nihilism—to go beyond the flies, to complete the film in fluttering butterflies.”

Schizopolis (1996)

Written and directed by Steven Soderbergh.

“Soderbergh not only created the film—he acted in it—and his body language was totally brilliant. So, if you wish to see a film that has more to say than can be spoken, see Schizopolis.”

Z (1969)

Directed by Costa-Gavras, written by Costa-Gravras and Jorge Semprún based on the novel by Vassilis Vassilikos.

“From the beginning, the shot seizes you by the throat. A mystery thriller, political in nature, that is both true and real. It lays bare the contemporary forms of butcher governments. It is as real then as it is this day, even more so.”

Wings of Desire (1987)

Directed by Wim Wenders, written by Wenders, Peter Handke and Richard Reitinger.

“The title Wings of Desire is of utmost importance to me because the title should tell you exactly what you are going to experience. The angels in the city of Berlin are a sight to behold; while disembodied, they give life to the bodies we see in the film. Their wings of desire carry us over the tundra of Berlin into the mysteries of the soul.”

Easy Rider (1969)

Directed by Dennis Hopper, written by Hopper, Peter Fonda and Terry Southern.

Spoiler warning for ‘Easy Rider’.

“The acting, the plot and the experience speak volumes about hippydom. Freedom is the shibboleth; the motorcycle is the vehicle. Riding carefree through the world, they are here to discover until they meet the white men in Louisiana. As in war, the final argument of all days in this beautiful film sees the primary actors end up with two bullet holes in their heads. While this is, of course, depressing, the actors leave the screen but are embedded in your hearts forever.”

A Brief History of Time (1991)

Directed by Errol Morris, based on the book by Stephen Hawking.

“Stephen Hawking, the renowned physicist, is visualized not on location but with the abstraction of brilliant thought. He explains in an inexplicable manner the conundrum of time. Errol’s technique of interview takes the form of Hawking’s essence, a story that must be told.”

Eraserhead (1977)

Written and directed by David Lynch.

Eraserhead, in black-and-white, breaks all cinematic rules. While not popular at its opening like many great films, its insight grew over time and is now considered a masterpiece of avant-garde cult cinema.”

Don’t Look Now (1973)

Directed by Nicolas Roeg, written by Allan Scott and Chris Bryant based on the short story by Daphne du Maurier.

Don’t Look Now is a shocking experience created by a cinematic master. Extremely well-acted, this horror film explores the devastation caused to a family by the drowning of their child. Suspense, mystery and clarity in form are what you will always get from Nicolas Roeg.”

The Color of Pomegranates (1969)

Written and directed by Sergei Parajanov.

The Color of Pomegranates is a film of magnificent color and a quintessential cinematic poem. This Armenian director shows us that poetry and cinema may and can be tied at the hip; they become cinematic twins. It’s a story for the soul, visualized in a manner that will leave its mark on you.”

Once Within a Time’ releases in limited US theaters from October 13 courtesy of Oscilloscope.

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