The Spool / Movies
Once Within a Time looks to a new generation

Godfrey Reggio’s latest uses a mix of visuals, past and futuristic, to argue for resting our hopes on the children.

This piece was written during the 2023 SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the actors currently on strike, the works being covered here wouldn’t exist.

When Godfrey Reggio’s monumental experimental documentary Koyannistqatsi (Life Out of Balance in Hopi) first entered the zeitgeist, its radical nature as a postmodern film, with a thoroughly entrancing score by Phillip Glass, became intertwined with the rise of MTV and a new era of visual aesthetic being born within the music sphere. From the noise rock band Cows to electronic musicians Dr. Atmo and Oliver Leib to superstar pop singer Madonna, the film had an indelible effect on music and the music video. 

Reggio’s latest film, Once Within a Time, arriving nearly 40 years after his debut, can be seen as his first “narrative feature.” Still, it is also lyrical and wholly dominated by the fluid movements of music more than by any discernible “story.”

Once Within a Time (Optic Nerve)
You were promised a tree lady. Here you go. (Optic Nerve)

Using an audience of people watching a play as a framing device, the movie opens on a woman dressed as a singing tree. It then moves to a children’s playground, where an apple from a tree falls to the ground and comes to life. Various movements of the film flow into each other and repeat, much like a music video. Its aesthetic combines the pulsing grainy celluloid of silent cinema with a rotoscopic look. The visuals blend both the past and a futuristic vision. This approach aligns with his philosophical motivation. As Reggio stated in an LA Times piece. he made the film for children. He believes “the kids aren’t of the future, they are our future.” 

In homage, Once Within a Time uses imagery of the past like George Milies’ La voyage dans de lune and quick bursts of the director’s own work, the Qatsi trilogy. However, it treats them as relics in an increasingly accelerated vision of the future. The film presents a cyclical and three-dimensional portrayal of how media has transformed through the decades via screen technology. Hand-holding phone screens give birth to a new form of emotive but disjointed communication. For most of the movie, the kids don’t have an active role in the events that play out in the film. They are merely observers, looking at whimsical shapes and colors that soon turn dark and apocalyptic.

Its aesthetic combines the pulsing grainy celluloid of silent cinema with a rotoscopic look.

The visual canvas, wordless other than singing on the film’s extensive soundtrack once again composed and arranged by Phillip Glass, moves with a sense of purpose. The free association of imagery conveys how overwhelming the rapid pace of modern life. It seems that, even after all this time, Godfrey Reggio still wrestles with the concept of “Life out of balance.” If his most famous films of the Qatsi Trilogy depicted a world coming unraveled at the edges, Once Within a Time portrays its total untethering. The lasting image he wants you to see is kids springing into action. As he says, they are the future.

Once Within a Time microdoses audiences with a mix of hope and apocalyptic thinking in theatres now.

Once Within a Time Trailer: