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.[/column] [column size=one_half position=last ] [/column]
Cinophile is a weekly feature showcasing films that are strange, brilliant, bizarre and explains why we love the movies.
Last Updated: March 16, 2015