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."