Godfrey Reggio is a filmmaker whose best-known work could be seen as a forerunner of the experimental documentary style that has become so widespread in recent years. His Qatsi trilogy — Koyaanisqatsi (1982), Powaqqatsi (1988), and Naqoyqatsi (2002) — were global symphonies that told stories in which all of humanity was the protagonist. Through his use of macro-images of mass movement, ecological extremity, and the clash of cultures, these films attained a kind of exposure that eludes most experimental cinema. Part of this is due, no doubt, to Reggio’s close collaboration with composer Philip Glass, who was arguably at the height of his creative powers during the 1980s. But Reggio’s deft editing was also pivotal here, since he was able to take otherwise disconnected images of human and natural events and wrangle them into a clear narrative of impending catastrophe. He was almost like Adam Curtis, but without the voiceover, confident that his images and Glass’ sounds would speak for themselves.
By contrast, Reggio’s latest film exhibits very little confidence in its images, and even less in its viewer. Once Within a Time is a very different kind of film, its vision made possible through digital compositing and video collage techniques that, thankfully, were not available during the Qatsi period. Once again, he warns that technology will be the death of us, but now, instead of watching the Global South toil in the mines for First World luxuries, we are given nameless people (mostly children) being hypnotized by iPhones. Too much screen time is dangerous, says Reggio. In fact, with his references to Georges Méliès and the 19th-century phenakistoscope, Once Within a Time strongly implies that cinema itself has brought about the end of the world by providing us with a dazzling simulacrum of the real world.
Throughout the film’s 45 minutes plus credits, we see a group of children being lured through this degraded landscape. They start out giving their rapt attention to the Mother Muse (Sussan Deyhim), who passes them off to a vaguely menacing, buck-toothed clown, the Nonsense Man (Brian Belott), and finally, they are implored to fight by none other than Mike Tyson, whose role as the Mentor could be to save these future adults, or to hasten their demise. It’s hard to tell. In between these segments, we observe a man and woman (Apollo Garcia Orellana and Tara Khozein) who are listed in the credits as “Robots.” True, they seem to wear Faraday cages on their heads, but within the realm of Once Within a Time, there seems to be little distinction between distracted automatons and figures of flesh and blood.
The stunt casting of Tyson (who acquits himself nicely) calls to mind the guest stars who appear in Matthew Barney’s films — Norman Mailer, Richard Serra, Aimee Mullins — and to be honest, the experience of watching Once Within a Time is frustrating precisely because each image, every passage, calls to mind the work of other artists that cover less ground but do so with greater aesthetic depth. In addition to Barney, the viewer may notice hints of Guy Maddin, Stacey Steers, Matthew Rankin, Norman McLaren, Phil Tippett, Pat O’Neill, Ericka Beckmann, Botticelli, certain interstitial bumpers from Sesame Street, and above all, the music videos of Jim Blashfield (Talking Heads’ “And She Was,” Paul Simon’s “The Boy in the Bubble”) and Oli Goldsmith (Our Lady Peace’s “In Repair”).
For some, this kind of trainspotting for influence provides its own pleasures. But it speaks to Reggio’s inability to forge a coherent aesthetic in this film. Yes, it all looks like a piece, but it doesn’t deepen, doesn’t gel, and seems to place The Message above any artistic considerations. Once Within a Time is a film that features a marionette with Greta Thunberg’s face affixed to it, and at one point, it has a scene in which the sky quite literally begins falling. Reggio has given us a nearly feature-length, animated rendition of a placard reading “NO PLANET B,” and while that is certainly an achievement, it doesn’t really cry out for further examination.
DIRECTOR: Godfrey Reggio; CAST: Mike Tyson, Brian Belott, Sussan Deyhim; DISTRIBUTOR: Oscilloscope; IN THEATERS: October 13; RUNTIME: 52 min.