Cinophile: Koyaanisqatsi

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Some things cannot be explained on paper, as a photo or in words, even if they accompany moving pictures. Some things have to be left to the audience who allow the emotion of the moment to sweep over them.

Most people today agree that the world is in serious trouble and our modern way of living has brought wonders, but also great destruction. Most films that look at this stake out a very specific part of the conversation, the most recent being a flurry of documentaries about how we are destroying the environment. Yet those rarely take in the bigger picture. Yes, maybe the price is too great, but the accomplishment of modern society is also impressive. Especially if you like medical care, long-distance travel or toilet paper.

Only staunch hippies live on the fringe of rejecting the modern lifestyle, kinda how captains of industry like to pretend that we aren’t busy destroying everything around us. For the person in the middle, it’s not as clean cut. We’ve done great things and we’ve done awful things.

Koyaanisqatsi is a movie for that debate. There is no narrative: not a single word is uttered during its entire runtime. Instead the movie is a stunning video montage featuring natural landscapes, industrial compounds, clouds floating off mountains, humans scurrying to work. The shots vary from aerial swoops over ancient mountains and alongside buildings being demolished, time-lapse captures of the ebb and flow of an incoming tide or traffic moving at high speed on a mega highway. There are intimate up-close moments: the camera staring at a person or its lens capturing people in slow motion as they walk along. We see factory lines assemble food and cars, the power of exploding bombs, skyscrapers in the dusk looking downright alien and juxtaposed up-close shots of circuit boards.

Blending all of these together is a mesmerizing soundtrack as legendary as the film itself. Instead of telling a story, Koyaanisqatsi takes viewers on a journey where they make up their own mind of what they are seeing. It is meant to be an emotional experience, both a celebration and condemnation of our current society. At least, that is how it looks today. Back in 1982 the film was groundbreaking: nobody had done anything like it before. Today we take for granted that we have a peephole into anything happening in the world, but three decades ago that was a rarity. Koyaanisqatsi sought to change that and introduce people to the world they were creating. It was such a remarkable feat that Francis Ford Coppola called it one of the most important films ever made and decided to finance its post-production and distribution. The later sequels would attract similar patronage from George Lucas and Steven Soderbergh.

Watching it today is a bit jarring. Not because of how far we’ve come, but actually how little things have changed. The world has not evolved in the past three decades as much as it has become more intense. Koyaanisqatsi serves as a time capsule of the late Seventies and its subsequent sequels – both official and unofficial – have charted similar maps for the Eighties, Nineties and early 21st century. But instead of being the usual collection of collapsing icecaps and polluted landscapes, these films paint a much more profound picture.

Later films in the series would explore the impact of the modern world on older societies, but Koyaanisqatsi – a Hopi word that translates to ‘life in chaos’ or ‘unbalanced life’ – is more like browsing through the modern world’s photo album: fun, scary, disappointing and fantastic. If art is about holding a mirror to society, cinema has rarely delivered a greater masterpiece than this amazing documentary.

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Koyaanisqatsi took six years to film and another three years to create the soundtrack. the idea came to being when director Godfrey Reggio and cinematographer Ron Fricke worked together on a series of short films about how technology is changing the natural world. As that project wound down and with a little budget left at the institution that commissioned the shorts, the pair decided to embark on a longer version of their previous work.
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The legendary soundtrack was composed by Philip Glass. Godfrey Reggio was dead set on having Glass create the music for the film, but the composer was not interested – saying he did not make music for movies. Reggio, though, was relentless and Glass eventually agreed to meet him. Reggio arranged a private showing of a montage of photos from the footage along with Glass’ previous music. Glass liked it so much he agreed to create the soundtrack. He has since made music for several movies and even has three Academy nominations for best soundtrack. When Reggio heard the soundtrack, he re-edited the movie to fit it.
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The movie is rather unique in having spawned both two proper and spiritual sequels – perhaps even more. Godfrey Reggio would go on to make Powaqqatsi and Naqoyqatsi. Ron Fricke didn’t help shoot those, but instead created his own movies in the Koyaanisqatsi tradition: Baraka and Samsara. He also created Chronos, a shorter predecessor to Baraka. In all of these movies visuals of the modern world blend with music sequences.
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Koyaanisqatsi has shown up in numerous places. Several of its sequences have reappeared in other movies and documentaries – many of the clips are actually quite familiar to anyone who grew up with television. Its style has been copied as well: the trailer for Grand Theft Auto IV and Madonna’s music video of Ray Of Light are two popular examples that mimic Koyaanisqatsi. The soundtrack also reappeared several times, again in GTA IV as well as in Watchmen and Scrubs.

Cinophile is a weekly feature showcasing films that are strange, brilliant, bizarre and explains why we love the movies.

Last Updated: March 16, 2015

James

A total movie glutton, nothing is too bad or too obscure to watch, unless it's something like The Human Centipede. If you enjoyed that, there is something wrong with you. But bless you anyway - even video nasties need love...

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