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In some ways, this film is probably a victim of its own success - many of
the visual techniques have been copied and developed to the point that
they're little more than clichés. But in this film, they are not used as
mere gimmicks - they are central to the film's messages.
Despite the rather heavy-handed explanation at the end of the film of the meaning of 'Koyaanisqatsi' and the other Hopi phrases that are chanted, this is ultimately one of those films where the viewer is genuinely left to reach their own conclusions. For me, this film was about seeing a different perspective of the world to that which we usually experience. Through timelapse photography we see both the awesome power of nature and that of alienation - the subjection of man by his creations. Nature and technology both have an effortless grace in this film, whereas people, caught in the middle, are presented as being insignificant parts of a much larger system, and stumble around clumsily trying to fulfil their roles. At one point, Reggio draws a comparison between the layouts of cities and of circuit boards, as though people are equivalent to bits of information, flowing from A to B, guided by the system rather than by their own free will. But every so often we are reminded that we are individuals, and we can choose not to be a part of that system.
'Beautiful' is not a word I would use to describe this movie, although there are many images that are spectacular to look at. By the end of it, the overall feeling I had was one of discomfort (compounded by the images of debris falling from the sky - at the time I saw it I didn't realise it was merely an unmanned satellite). Though it may be fairly one-sided, the picture this film paints is of humanity under threat from itself - not through conflict, but by a gradual corruption of the Earth.
Still, that's only my interpretation, and another person might well take a completely different view.
To only see Koyaanisqatsi 20 years after release is to be late to the party.
Somehow I missed out on striking up a joint and watching/analysing it during
my student days.
There is much to admire from a detatched, generational-shift viewing of Koyaanisqatsi, not least its notable legacy of many types of film/camera techniques. It is a true precursor of the glossy pop promo, and a prototype for what has been realised through digital effects. It's stylistics have been copied a million times from the opening of 'Bedazzled' to the slow character zooms of Madonna's version of 'American Pie'.
In that sense it loses some of the experiental qualities it would have had in 1983, when its use of time-lapse, slow tracking shots and other tricks had greater novelty value. Nevertheless, some of the sequences, particularly the 'tidal humanity' in the middle of the film possess great power.
The aspect of eye candy aside, Koyaanisqatsi works on the level of revealing the systematic aspects of modern life. This may appear an utter truism, we all know how organised and systematic life is, but seeing it demonstrated in the flow of a bank of escalators, and then segueing that into a hot-dog production line reveals it anew.
However, the film's rather facile corollary - that this is pretty much a bad thing and will all end in apocalyptic disaster is one I do not automatically follow. In some ways it becomes, unintentionally, a paean to the ability of humanity since the Enlightenment to organise, feed and transport itself.
Okay, the Indian prophesies predict a 'Day of Purification', but the fact remains that after millenia of starvation, rampant disease and vulnerability to the elements we life in a life of unimaginable comfort to those ancient seers. The 'nature myth' is a pretty simplistic one, and juxtaposing beautiful mountain ranges and nuclear weapons is a process where the visual impact exceeds the depth of the idea: where these mountains not created by forces many times greater than our biggest nuclear devices? Kindly mother nature has demonstrated herself more than capable of extinguishing several eras of life on this planet. Her depiction as a terminal victim of human rapacious is quite wrong.
In this Koyaanisqatsi is definitely not timeless, and a product of that period between early post-hippy environmental awareness and emerging Reagan-era paranoia of Mutually Assured Destruction. Nowadays our fears are more prosaic - we expect a nuke in our backyard, not the sky filled with them; we're lamenting the loss of specific species, not fearing the entire sky is going to burn up.
Koyaanisqatsi is still beautiful and worth watching, but maybe the Indians got it wrong after all.
This is quite simply the most beautiful film I have ever seen, with the most amazing soundtrack I've ever heard. What other fillm with no dialogue could captivate some for nearly an hour and a half? Showed this to friends who are into typical 'lads' films, such as Pulp Fiction, The Terminator and so on. They had no idea what they were about to watch and when they discovered there was no plot or dialogue they were weary. By the end they were amazed!
What else is there to say about KOYAANISQATSI, that has not been
expounded on before. In the supplemental interviews on the DVD release
the director, Godfrey Reggio, laments about the meaning on the film for
what seems like hours. I'm glad that he is a thoughtful film-maker, who
has back-stopped his theory for the film with deep insight and
pseudo-religious thought. KOYAANISQATSI, when it was released, was a
groundbreaking film that challenged the minds of those who saw it.
Using the then fairly unproven technique of time-lapse photography, with no dialogue or narrative structure, the only voice in the production being the starkly minimalist score by Philip Glass, it changed the face of documentary art. It stands the test of time.
The film begins with a natural setting: clouds dancing in the wind, a crane shot of waterfalls, sun drenched landscapes. It then moves to the world of technology. The interesting aspect is that due to the structure of the film, Reggio simply presents the similarities and differences between the two worlds. The overpass at night, with the cascading headlights resembles the waterfall from earlier in the film.
There are many such examples of this, which serves to cement the theory that all this, nature and machine, exist in the same world. Static and dynamic. One does get the sense that Reggio has taken a more Liberal stance concerning conservation of the planet, but this is not heavy-handed or preaching. The final conclusions are left up to the viewer.
Is KOYAANISQATSI simply an intellectual meditation in style? a deeply moral presentation of the world in which we live? A cautionary fable of modern life? Is it all of these thing or none of them? That is the wonderful aspect of this film; one can simply let the awe inspiring images wash over them, nothing more, and the film has still succeeded in its purpose. If one were to chose to deconstruct KOYAANISQATSI, fragment by fragment, one could, but every individual perception would be different. The film has no answers, it simply is. More schools should show this film to their students; it not only generates varied viewpoints, but also offers a glimpse of American film making that transcends the likes of THE MATRIX ten fold, with its thought provoking images and originality. 9/10.
I can't add anything here that has not been said over the previous 70 comments. The simple fact that a film with no dialogue at all has so many people saying what a masterpiece it is 20 years after it's release speaks for its self. It's suitable for anyone who is willing to think about a film whilst watching it. Probably best avoided by action movie fans and people who voted for George W Bush.
This landmark film sure is totally unique in any way. That perhaps is the reason why a few people rated under 8 or 9 - I think they must have been either not open-minded enough or they just haven´t realized resp. esteemed the power of movie language here. A-never-before-seen interplay of three forces: editing , music, photography.
Life out of Balance
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' 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. Volcanoes, we erupt upon the surface, creating havoc and destroying all that lie in our path. Reggio prompts us to ask ourselves why we are what we have become.
Koyaanisqatsi, despite dating to 1983, is still highly relevant. It's timeless. It transcends the barriers of language, relying only upon images and music to transmit its message. The message is sometimes confused, hidden behind a façade of beauty, but it is in this façade that the message is found. The juxtaposition of nature's beauty against man's hideous creations is intended to reveal our true nature. Our awesome construction projects, the very indicator of our power, are ugly. The fabric of our society, the web we weave, is weak. Every inch we raise ourselves above what is considered base, is merely another inch for us to fall.
Reggio's film is a cinematic masterpiece. Each shot is beautifully composed, offering us new perception into the world we spend our every waking moment in. However, it is in the manipulation of the images that the message is created. By under and over cranking the camera, Reggio changes not only our visual perception but also our relationship with time. He is able to isolate people on the crowded streets of New York and Los Angeles, slowing the rush of a nine to five existence. The sense of worthlessness is overwhelming, these individuals are lost amongst the masses, one of millions who crowd the streets. Yet for a few brief seconds this individual is bought to a near halt, immortalised on celluloid. It demonstrates the very banality of modern human existence. Humanity strives for immortality is some form or another, but in our very quest we have wrought our own destruction.
Humanity's zenith has passed. 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.
The film attempts to illustrate the flaws of man. In our success lies our failure. It does not advocate any cause or lifestyle, it merely informs us of who we are and what we will become of our future should we continue as we are.
Having read through 60+ comments already online about this film, I won't
bother to add to that verbiage. Instead, I'll describe the experience of
first seeing it, which is still vivid in my memory.
Koyaanisqatsi was shown at Radio City Music Hall when it was released, as part of the New York Film Festival. Once it was over, the sold out house made its way out onto the streets of midtown Manhattan, during busy evening traffic for the theater district. The audience had been transfixed by the film sufficiently that it had temporarily forgotten how to "behave" as pedestrians. Scores of people wandered off the sidewalks and into the streets, such that it snarled up traffic. Perhaps they were considering the intensity of city life as ephemera or illusion. And so, a cacophony of taxi horns filled the air, and the drivers rolled down their windows to curse and yell, trying to bring the crowd back to "reality". Which everyone was busy considering in unconventional ways. Memorable juxtaposition.
Inexplicably, in the midst of it all, was a man from Bolivia with a llama. For some modest fee, you could have yourself photographed with the furry Andean ruminant. Completely cryptic, but somehow appropriate, and as sensible as anything else around and about at the time.
Koyaanisqatsi was (and is) beautiful and thoughtful. About ways of life that can endure, and those which carry the seeds of their own destruction. Told in a non-narrative, non-verbal way.
There is no way to put this film into words. Rent it. Buy it. Catch it on TV. It doesn't matter how, just see this film. It is truly a life changing experience. Every frame is true perfection. Every bit of music heard in the film is true perfection. Godfrey Reggio is KING!
It is only fair to say that before I start this review I should introduce
myself so as to show what standpoint I come from. I will see any movie. I
can look at films as art and as interesting ways of killing two hours. A
successful movie is one that I can remember long after I leave the theater,
which for me is a huge stretch because my short-term memory has been killed
by all the fast-paced editing we see everywhere today. To put it simply,
after seeing Goldmember the only thing I remembered from that whole movie
was the very beginning with the mock opening. And this was just as I got to
the parking lot.
I had heard only briefly of Koyaanisqatsi after seeing posters for Naqoyqatsi, the final part of the trilogy. Hearing all the hoopla about the first film being revolutionary and exciting, I went and got it. I took it home, saved myself an hour and a half of nothing to do and put it on.
Someone had told me that this movie's praise in the early 80s came from the fact that no one had ever been exposed to shots like the ones in the film before. There were no long-form time lapse shots, no IMAX-like landscape views, no shots of random people staring at you for five minutes, and that alone is revolutionary. Indeed you are left to draw your own conclusions after you finish watching everything and that in itself is a dangerous idea.
The cinematography is beautiful. Yes, you could find a lot of these shots on inspirational posters, but inspirational posters don't compare city grids to motherboards or the minor bustle of Grand Central Station during rush hour to the quiet stillness of nature. And finally, Koyaanisqatsi has no poorly-written one-liners. The DVD cover is enough to have photography majors in my school giggle with joy.
The score for this movie, done by Philip Glass, is incredible. It can be said that it's aural poetry when combined with the images the music is put to. Glass, himself, said on the DVD that he would write music to fit exactly what he saw, and it's crystal clear what he going for in most senses. When there was a bustling crowd or a rushing flood of weiner dogs, Glass would be there to compliment the frenetic pace. It beats Madonna's "Ray of Light" video to the punch.
Unfortunately what mostly gives this movie its downfall at this day and age is how outdated it is for its message. The music, though minimalist (barely) and symphonic, is electronic in parts and can sound like your average B-rated educational video. And look at the hair on those women. It must be the 80s. As a time capsule, this film works beautifully to ressurect images locked in our minds from that era of the late 70s, early 80s, but for us in the new century, the concept of the film spouting "Life without Balance" can be lost quite quickly.
Being new to the films I couldn't help but hold my breath every minute as shot after shot revealed the basis of what would be parody after parody after parody in later years. Who knew "Vessels" by Philip Glass was what was being parodied by South Park, or how many times have we seen time lapse shots of cars on a freeway in terrible educational videos? So many things seem to have come from this movie it is astounding.
If you've heard about this movie and have just a slight interest in seeing it, give yourself the time and patience to give it a shot. Not much will seem new to you, but if you let the engaging visuals and Glass' impressive score enter your senses, you'll find yourself entranced all the way to the credits.
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