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Non-Review Review: Koyaanisqatsi

Koyaanisqatsi is a word that comes from the language of the Hopi. It’s handily translated at the end of the film, with one of the meanings lending the film its unofficial subtitle: “life out of balance”. Brought to the screen by director Godfrey Reggio and composer Philip Glass (not that you’d know it from the film’s sparse opening credits which simply identify the film as “a Francis Ford Coppola production”), it’s safe to say that Koyaanisqatsi is one of a kind. Or, given the two sequels, one of three of a kind, but that’s still quite impressive.

Let there be light...

For those unfamiliar with the production, it’s basically an hour-and-a-half documentary scratched together from footage – generally sped up to allow the viewer to perceive events playing out over long periods of time (sometimes seeing an entire day in seconds). All of this is beautifully choreographed to the music of Philip Glass. Even if you’ve never seen the film, odds are that you’ve heard bits an pieces of Glass’ iconic score – whether through Watchmen or Grand Theft Auto IV or the one million other places that the music has filtered down through.

I suppose that Koyaanisqatsi is a “documentary”, if only in the fact that it doesn’t feature performances or a narrative. It isn’t a conventional documentary – in that it doesn’t feature any dialogue or narration (instead placing its trust in the powerful score from one of the world’s best living composers). In effect, it’s like the longest montage you’ve ever seen, and essentially offers the same function: it’s an encapsulated and efficient means of demonstrating events occurring, without getting bogged down in the particulars.

The film’s cinematography is beautiful, composed of long and graceful shots. Though we occasionally focus on individuals, whether in what seem to be portraits (a pilot standing by his plane) or in motion (people at work, or walking down streets), but the bulk of the movie offers us landscapes, whether in a static shot playing out the repeating patterns that play out or offering us a tour of this sort of environment. It’s breathtaking – and something that rewards High Definition viewing. Even in simplicity – watching shadows play over landscapes – it’s genuinely stunning. The closest comparison I can think of is the High Definition landmark series Planet: Earth (although the BBC documentary does have a more impressive technical specification if only because it’s more modern).

The film is structured almost as a collection of sequences, each focusing on a particular aspect of man’s interaction with nature. We open, for example, with sweeping vistas of undisturbed landscapes – nature untouched by the hand of man. Reggio certainly has an eye for beauty – the image that stays with me is of a sea, shimmering like the stars, as it bobs up and down.

Then man is revealed, almost like an old-fashioned movie monster. We’re introduced to a large, worn construction vehicle – itself soon swallowed (like the camera) by the ominous black smoke it produces. There’s a clear environmental message to the film, as perhaps you might have supposed from the introduction and even the meaning of the title – we’re shown man’s scarring of the landscape – in one shot, an oil pipeline stretching like a snake, forever. However, even amidst this clear message about the harm that our activities cause, the film still manages to make some of it look oddly (and even ironically) beautiful – pools of water outside a refinery sit like shards of a broken mirror, reflecting the sky above. Some of the film’s work is a bit obvious – mushroom clouds in the desert (and we get to see a “big boy” bomb later on) – but most of the work is impressive enough that we forgive it such simplicity.

A towering accomplishment...

When humans are finally introduced beyond their machinery and vehicles and buildings, it feels like a nature documentary on our species. It offers examples of our congregation habits, social rituals, daytime and nocturnal activities. Cars move on a highway like a stampede of buffalo – it’s a truly fascinating way of looking at us, and one that could easily have been over-played by the addition of dialogue or narration. Staging it with only the sound of Glass’ symphony in the background, we are almost disconnected observers – allowed the distance for us to view our own lifestyle objectively. We are inevitably a destructive species (we’re treated to a “stuff exploding” montage) but there’s also room for aspiration and hop (shots of us “reaching for the stars”, even if not always successfully).

Perhaps the most iconic work of the movie is that of the cities (New York, Los Vegas and more than few others). As with the rest of the movie, it’s stunningly put together, evoking the feel of a wildlife film crew hoping to catch us unsuspecting (the camera creeps around the corner, tracks in and out, as if trying to watch us completely unobserved). It’s this section which eats up the second half of the film, and also features the most iconic imagery and music – notably the harrowing Pruit Igoe section. Note that beautiful tracking shot of the urban wasteland.

As with the rest of the film, it’s particular shots which stay with you – for me it’s rush hour in New York, the ebb and flow of people like insects, or the streams of light as we follow cars driving through the night (none-too-subtly stolen by Madonna for her “Ray of Light” video) or an ingenious juxtaposition of communities as seen from space and a microscopic picture of a microchip. Of course, some of these segments get a bit repetitive – there is, after all, only so many times we can watch timelapsed footage of people coming and going from buildings or means of transport before it gets a little tired. Fortunately, there’s more than enough of interest here to keep the audience engaged. The film also suffers from some weird transitions. As Glass’ music dies, it will focus on an image, and then bam – but it never allows the image to sink in before cutting away. The movie is almost so in love with its own score that it’s afraid of silence.

Of course it’s right to be – Glass’ stuff is powerful and perhaps even more enduring than the film it came from. This is true union of visual and sound (the movie was reportedly recut around Glass’ score after he wrote it to compliment the first cut – so picture and music are in perfect synch). As a whole, the film is trippy, amazing to withhold, but also strangely ambient. Although I have no problem watching this on its own as a feature film, I also think it would make the perfect ambient feature to have playing on a television at a party or similar event.

It’s not everybody’s cup of tea – arguably more suited to fans of documentaries than fans of cinema, but it’s still absolutely beautiful.

3 Responses

  1. I love Philip Glass’ score as well. Like you say, the union of images and music here is incredibly top notch. It’s definitely one to check out.

    The other films in the series aren’t nearly as good, which was disappointing, but I guess there’s only so much you can do with the format.

    • Yep, I kinda still want to check them out though, I must confess. It’s just a beautiful synergy, in a way that doesn’t make “synergy” seem like an awkwardly forced business term.

  2. I can understand the desire. I had the same feeling after only seeing this one. Have you seen Baraka? I still haven’t seen that. It’s directed by the cinematographer of this.

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