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Koyaanisqatsi

Directed by Godfrey Reggio, color, 87 minutes, 1983

DVD cover

DVD cover

By Carter B. Horsley

In the post-silent film era, Koyaanisqatsi stands out as the cinema's greatest paen to cinematography and it has the greatest musical score in film history.

The title is a Hopi Indian word that means "crazy life," or "life in turmoil," or "life disintegrating," or "life out of balance," or "a state of life that calls for another way of living."

The film begins with the word being chanted and the first half or so of the film is devoted to fabulous dramatic, awesome and beautiful shots of the wonders of nature, many shot with time-lapse photography and the second half or so of the film shows man's impact on nature with equally compelling photography. The obvious point of the movie is that modern life is out of balance with nature and creates problems that should be addressed. It is the visual anthem of environmentalism.

Surprisingly, the movie has been criticized as a polemic. Roger Ebert, one of the most incisive and brilliant film critics of his era, argued in his September 26, 1983 review of the movie that it "is an invitation to knee-jerk environmentalism of the most sentimental kind," adding that "There is no overt message except the obvious one (the Grand Canyon is prettier than Manhattan)." "It has been hailed as a vast and sorrowful vision, but to what end? If the people in all those cars on all those expressways are indeed living crazy lives, their problem is not the expressway (which is all that makes life in L.A. manageable) but perhaps social facts such as unemployment, racism, drug abuse and illiteracy - issues so complicated that a return to nature seems like an elitist joke at their expense."

The fact that there is no dialogue in the movie and no actors should not necessarily be construed as a failing. Indeed, cosmic works that encompass every issue such as Ebert's "unemployment, racism, drug abuse and illiteracy" often seem confused and dilluted of impact. While it is true that the movie attacts its solitary issue with a sledgehammer that some sophisticates might consider none too subtle, it does so with remarkable artistry. It is 83 minutes of non-stop, jaw-dropping imagery accompanied by a score by Phillip Glass that is viscerally memorable with its pounding intensity and majesty.

In his October 6, 1982 article in Variety Weekly, Jim Robbins wrote that "When Hollywood is rightfully accused of frequently turning out the same old stuff (often badly), any film that's unique, inventive and pioneering should be welcomed," adding that "Still, when the result is simplistic and interminable as 'Koyaanisqatsi," it's back to the drawing board."

The film was the first of a trilogy and it was made between 1975 and 1982. It was followed by Powaqqasti, which focused on the natives of the Third World, and "Nagoyqatsi" that dwelt on the "transition from the natural milieu, old nature, to the 'new' nature, the technological milieu." "Koyaanisqatsi" is the finest work in the trilogy.

I attended its New York premiere when it was shown at the New York Film Festival at Radio City Music Hall and I made a tape recording of it that was far superior to the subsequent CD soundtrack perhaps because of the hall's acoustics and the fact that it was played very, very loud. I subsequently viewed the film on many occasions in other theaters and noted that the soundtrack, while still wonderful, did not sound as good as it did in Radio City Music Hall. I also went to a concert performance by Philip Glass of the movie and had to leave because the acoustics in Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center were unbearably loud.

Glass's score is stupendous and profoundly in sync with the spectacular images that hold up incredibly well over the years. It is surprisingly that Ebert and Robbins were out-of-tune and out-of-sync with the movie as it is indelibly provocative and inspiring.

Perhaps the finest sequences are the clouds rushing over mountains, the balletic slow movements of a jumbo jet taxiing for take-off and the speeded-up highway lights.

Godfrey Reggio, the director, and Ron Fricke, the cinematographer, have orchestrated a momentous, dizzying onslaught on the viewer's perception of beauty and time and man's place in nature and its cinematic techniques have been extremely influential.

"Koyaanisqatsi" is haunting and spellbinding.

On May 16, 2003 Patrick Keegan submitted a review of the film to amazon.com in which he stated that "As Western Civilisation tears a path across Earth, it leaves the debris of its construction scattered over the surface of the planet."

"America's `purple mountained majesty' and `spacious skies,'" he continued, "have fallen to strip mines and heavily patrolled air space. Biological evolution has become irrelevant, replaced by the manipulation of our environment and genetic modification. We are rapidly constructing a civilisation of destruction. We have raped the earth of her beauty and replaced it with towers of corporate power and industrial wastelands. We have dehumanised ourselves, disconnected of earth itself we lose all identity as human creatures and are now but the interchangeable parts of a global machine. It is the horror of what we have become that forms the core of Godfrey Reggio's Koyaanisqatsi. By juxtaposing the cool tranquillity of nature against the frantic rat race of man, Reggio demonstrates to us just how far we are removed from our origins. Unlike the desert calm or rolling clouds, we are the violent actions of Earth....In the final shot of the film, one which lasts several minutes, we watch a shuttle launch into space. Space exploration, man's greatest achievement, becomes a metaphor for its creator. As the craft rises above the earth it carries the hopes of a species. It is majestic, the pinnacle of technology, the culmination of 100 000 years of modern human existence. However, like man, the craft is doomed for failure. As the explosion tears the craft apart, so are the dreams of man strewn across the empty sky. The camera follows a piece of flaming debris as it falls to earth. This is our fate. As Lucifer fell from heaven, so must man fall from grace."

Click here to order the DVD from Amazon.com for 27 percent off its $14.98 list price

This film is ranked 37th in Carter B. Horsley's Top 500 Sound Films

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