CAPSULE: KOYAANISQATSI (1982)

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“These films have never been about the effect of technology, of industry on people. It’s been that everyone: politics, education, things of the financial structure, the nation-state structure, language, the culture, religion, all of that exists within the host of technology. So it’s not the effect of, it’s that everything exists within [technology]. It’s not that we use technology, we live technology. Technology has become as ubiquitous as the air we breathe…”–director Godfrey Reggio

“I just shot anything that I thought would look good on film. Shooting bums, as well as buildings, didn’t matter. It was all the same from my standpoint. I just shot the form of things.”–director of photography Ron Fricke

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: the music of Philip Glass

PLOT: The film explores the fragile balance of humanity’s use of and interaction with the natural world and the inexorable advance of time through montage, juxtaposing time-lapse and slow-motion photography.

Still from Koyaanisqatsi (1982)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Koyaanisqatsi is a landmark motion picture, creating a memorable visual language and utilizing time-honored cinematic techniques in wholly new ways. But it’s a strange sort of success: a wordless visual essay which points the finger firmly at its audience to the beat of a musical minimalist icon. An experimental film that becomes a movie lingua franca would normally be an easy call for this list. But, you see, we’re kind of running out of room…

COMMENTS: My son was an unexpectedly gracious and patient viewer of Koyaanisqatsi. Surely it would be too much to expect a pre-adolescent boy to be enthused about a movie that opens with ten minutes of canyons and clouds. But he was a game spectator, settling for his own running commentary to keep himself amused. So it was a particular thrill when we arrived at the legendary implosion of the Pruitt-Igoe housing project, leading him to blurt out a shocked “What?” followed by silence throughout the ensuing montage of destruction, and concluding with a pained, “Why would they do that?”

Director Reggio, a veteran of media campaigns to warn of the dangers of technology, couldn’t have asked for a better reaction. Given the most common translation of the film’s Hopi-language title–“life out of balance”–it’s clear that we’re supposed to be horrified by mankind’s wanton destruction of both the natural world and its own psyche. In fact, it’s a little shocking to see how angry contemporary critics were at the film’s stance: Roger Ebert called it “an invitation to knee-jerk environmentalism of the most sentimental kind” while Variety described it as “a cynical display of decadence intending to edify and anger to action, but instead alienating with its one-sidedness.” More than three decades later, continued environmental peril has placed the judgment of history strongly on the side of the movie. But Koyaanisqatsi remains an effective advocate on its own, with images that feel timeless but present the ongoing battle between nature and progress with stark clarity.

With no proper narrative to speak of, it’s the choice of images by Reggio and cinematographer Ron Fricke that has to tell the tale, and in defense of those angry critics, the filmmakers do have their thumb on the scale. In some respects, Koyaanisqatsi is most successful as a feature-length demonstration of the Kuleshov effect, the theory that the editing of a sequence can convey a particular meaning beyond that which any single image could deliver. Consider a shot of a horde of humans spilling out of a bank of escalators. Coming as it does after a shot of a hot dog production line, the immediate implication is that we have become cogs in a machine of our own making, spat out like so much consumer effluvia. But Reggio could easily have placed that footage in a very different context: alongside the many striking images of highway traffic at blinding speed, or in counterpoint to water spewing from a massive hydroelectric dam. But Koyaanisqatsi (the concept) is Reggio’s thesis statement, and everything is carefully stitched together to make the point. After 80 minutes of man’s terrifying world, it’s only fitting to finish with a mighty rocket exploding mid-flight and plummeting inexorably back to Earth.

What pictures, though. If Koyaanisqatsi is an angry screed, it’s certainly one of the most visually awesome diatribes you are likely to find. The film’s technique is canny, heavily undercranking to mimic the hectic pace of modern life, then switching to slo-mo to give us a closer look at the people who occupy and blindly tolerate this crazed existence. Many of the images are also eerily prescient, anticipating catastrophes like the collapse of the World Trade Center, the Challenger explosion, or even the proliferation of mind-numbing TV news. There’s a reason so many of Fricke’s inspirations have been so widely copied, parodied, and appropriated.

Those images find a perfect match in the film’s score. It’s hard to imagine there has ever been a better showcase for the controversial minimalist stylings of Philip Glass. Ripe for satire himself, his escalating arpeggios and extended drones (to say nothing of his employment of an absurd basso profundo to intone the film’s title) are ideal companions to Reggio and Fricke’s images, in turns breathlessly hyperactive and mournfully contemplative. Like the movie itself, Glass has found unexpected mainstreaming as a result of this very unlikely source.

Despite two sequels, additional films from Reggio and Fricke that utilize the same techniques, and countless lifts of the tropes that it pioneered, there’s really nothing like Koyaanisqatsi: a weird political art piece that defied many expectations and became enormously influential and memorable. We honor “the cinematically surreal, bizarre, cult, oddball, fantastique, strange, psychedelic, and the just plain WEIRD!” on this site; we may never stick a number next to its name, but Koyaanisqatsi stakes a claim nonetheless.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“At one point or another while watching it, one is sure to be reminded of everything from ‘Modern Times’ and ‘Fantasia’ to ‘This Is Cinerama’ and ‘Billy Jack.’ However, more than reminding me of any single film, it recalls the briefly fashionable 1960’s idea that going to the movies should be a psychedelic experience. At its best, that’s exactly what ‘Koyaanisqatsi’ is.… ‘Koyaanisqatsi’ is an oddball and – if one is willing to put up with a certain amount of solemn picturesqueness – entertaining trip.”–Vincent Canby, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by “Irene,” who called it “weirdly beautiful”. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

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