(USA - 1983)

by Vanes Naldi

Cast: -
Genre: Documentary
Director: Godfrey Reggio
Screenplay: Ron Fricke, Godfrey Reggio, Alton Walpole, Michael Hoenig
Cinematography: Ron Fricke
Composer: Philip Glass
Runtime: 87 minutes

I don't want to call Koyaanisqatsi a "film." This is visual poetry, or rather visual AND musical poetry connected to perfection. The "film" starts showing us old Hopi Indian paintings of men and moves to beautiful, astonishing landscape panoramic of natural beauties untouched by man. All these images are so beautiful and quiet in their simplicity; it's a calm feeling, very relaxing. All this simplicity comes off as perfectly balanced and ordered, connecting one thing to the other like a divine act.

The film gradually moves from the beauty of all this to the sheer brutality of machines: the cold, chaotic world of technology and consumerism. This is shockingly brutal in its honesty. The rumbling chaos of the machines created by man is a perfect contrast to the almost godly calmness and tranquillity of nature's creation.

The third part of the film focuses on mankind, not particularly "men." We're shot from a god-like perspective, and everything possible is done to make us look like futile insects dependent to machines and technology. Every facet of our life is guided by and related to machines. From the food we eat, to the way we entertain ourselves, to our work, to the place where we live, EVERYTHING involves machines. The point is man will cause his own demise.

From the moment the first machine is shown on screen, the message is pretty clear. Koyaanisqatsi is Hopi for "life disintegrating" or a way of life that requires a new way of living. We're reminded of the world we created, its brutality and pathetic continuity in contrast to the beauty and amazing balance of the world we used to live in. There's a scene I consider one of the all-time best works of cinematography. It starts with a bird's eye view of New York then zooms out to a satellite view of the city while shots of microchips are intertwined in the picture. It looks very similar, to the point we come to understand we've become like transistors, like ants. We keep mindlessly doing our work without taking into account what we're doing to our planet.

The last part of the film represents what could be considered an Apocalypse, with various explosions such as buildings blowing up. The last shot is both beautiful and brutal at the same time: a rocket is shown exploding in the air and the camera focuses on it until the very last moment, reminding us what could happen if we keep living like this. The attention to detail even in the frantic and chaotic atmosphere is incredible.

The first thing that comes to mind watching this 87 minutes masterpiece is the amazing cinematography, from the beautifully shot first part, portraying earth's natural beauties, to the frantic chaos of the second and third part. The night scenes are amazing, especially when everything speeds up to the point we only see colored lines.

The score by minimalist extraordinaire Philip Glass is simply incredible. The way the camera shoots the fast evolving world, the frantic repetitivity of it, matches perfectly with Glass' redundant and simple tracks. Sometimes the score offers touches of Carmina Burana-like choirs, ominous low-key tones, giving it a poetic feeling. The score is so involving in its simplicity, so effective, so touching, that it adds tremendously to the film. I envy those who saw the film in theaters with the live orchestra because this is as much a musical experience as it is visually.

People say this film has no story, but subliminally, there's a story. There's a gradual progression from nature to machines and eventually to man and what he did to nature. It all comes down to the message of the title itself, Koyaanisqatsi or life disintegrating. Reggio is saying that life needs to be changed for the better.

This not only is the most powerful visual experience I've ever witnessed, but it contains one of the most effective soundtracks ever, amazing cinematography, and incredible sense of timing and pacing. It's also perfect in conveying the need for a change, in giving its final message. Much like what Kubrick did with 2001, the visuals tell much more than the dialogue. When you enter this experience, you become involved in it. Time becomes relative, but you become abstract to it. At times it passes slowly, so slow it makes you wonder how much time you spent watching the same scenes. At times, it's so frantic and chaotic that it completely reverses that feeling.

Koyaanisqatsi is obviously not for everybody because getting the message requires a long attention span, an open mind, and attention to detail. If you don't possess these three qualities you'll probably think it's just a collection of weird shots and want to look elsewhere for "cooler" explosions.

Watching Koyaanisqatsi on a regular TV won't allow you to appreciate it as much as if you can see it on the big screen or on a Widescreen TV in Dolby Digital with the loud speakers guiding you through the film. This is like a poem written with images and sounds, and one of the most memorable experiences in all of cinema.




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