Thursday, June 21, 2007
Koyaanisqatsi (1982) dir. Godfrey Reggio
“Koyaanisqatsi” is essential viewing for all. For those unaware it’s a non-traditional documentary made in 1982 using then state of the art high speed cameras to translate visually and aurally our increasing disconnect with the natural world. The word “Koyaanisqatsi” translated from the Hopi language means, “Life Out of Balance”. We are currently in an age of popular and important social and political documentaries. Anyone interested in films such as “An Inconvenient Truth”, or “Manufactured Landscapes” or “The Corporation” has to see this. DVD will suffice, but if there’s ever a rep cinema screening in your city, you must make some time for this film.
“Koyaanisqatsi” features only images and music - the lush and awe-inspiring cinematography of Ron Fricke and the potent music of Philip Glass. The film is structured in roughly ten acts, starting off showing off the awesome construction of nature – the Grand Canyon. Untouched by man, the natural wonder truly is a site to behold. Then the film shows off the beauty and grace of the wind, water and clouds. Using timelapse photography Reggio shows the movements of the clouds in the sky as they move and sway like ghosts gliding through the air. The film then abruptly shows the power of man and its intervention into nature’s wondrous constructions. Machines and explosions destroying the land, the patterns of crops show man’s manipulation of the land. The sequence ends with the ironic beauty of an awesome extended shot of an atomic explosion and billowing mushroom cloud.
The film kicks into another gear when we are brought into urban gentrification. Images such as a plane emerging as a mirage on a runway, the dramatic contrast of a sunbathing beach next to a nuclear powerplant, the patterns of cars flowing across a highway, the extreme slo-motion images of pedestrians walking to and fro are beautiful images which allow us to watch ourselves from a unique point of view. Fricke manages to capture shots with unbelievable visual clarity and depth of field, the smallest details in the background far distances away are clear and distinct as the foreground. Philip Glass’ music gradually ramps up in intensity over the next 3 acts. By the end of the lengthy sequence we are being bombarded with a sledgehammer of visuals and sound – epileptics beware.
After the climax, catching our breath, we are brought into a beautiful set of slo-motion close ups of various people in New York doing mundane tasks. There’s something compelling about observing someone unaware of the camera, or the expressionless face of someone staring straight at us. It’s so simple but contrasted with the images we’ve just seen in the film, it’s absolutely beautiful.
The final image in the film wasn’t shot by the crew, instead it’s a single long take of a rocket falling from the sky. The camera holds on the exploding rocket for such a long time and pushes in close to a single fragment of metal falling from the sky. It always reminded me of when you stare at something for a long time, it morphs into something abstract. The same occurs with this tiny piece of metal. You just have to watch it to understand.
The film is as much a product of Philip Glass as Reggio and Fricke. His opening keyboard chords are brooding, ominous and Wagner-like. “Koyaanistqatsi” was edited and created in time with the music. In other words, the film organically was created and influenced by Glass’ music. In 1982, the Glass sound was virtually unheard of in film and for much of the 80’s and 90’s it was a rare for Glass to score a film. But since the 00’s arguably Glass’s scores have become repetitive and ubiquitous. Can you tell the difference between “The Hours”, “The Illusionist” and “Notes From a Scandal”? And so his score for this film is a reminder of when it was an honour to have a Philip Glass score. (BTW: apparently he’s scoring a Woody Allen movie next. Huh?)
Since 1983 countless music videos (including the Strokes’ “Hard to Explain”), documentaries, and commercials used and reused the techniques and even the same footage as “Koyaanisqatsi”. But after 25 years the film is still as powerful as ever. Two sequels were made by Reggio – “Powaqqaytsi” and “Noqoyqatsi” as well the Ron Fricke film “Baraka” – and though each has its merits, arguably neither could live up to the standard set by the original. “Koyaanisqatsi” is still the best. Enjoy.
Buy it here: Koyaanisqatsi - Life Out of Balance