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Film Review: Koyaanisqatsi

By Vladimir Zelevinsky
staff reporter

Directed by Godfrey Reggio.

Written by Ron Fricke, Michael Hoenig, Godfrey Reggio, Alton Walpole.

Music by Philip Glass.

Koyaanisqatsi is indescribable, and I have to grope for metaphors. Like the words used by John Steinbeck to describe Cannery Row as "a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream," Koyaanisqatsi is a visual tone poem, an essay, a concert, a comedy, a tragedy, a rollercoaster ride, a humbling and elating experience, and, to put it succinctly, one of the most important pieces of cinematic art created in late 20th century.

Koyaanisqatsi was filmed by Godfrey Reggio in 1983 (or, rather, released in 1983 the filming itself took years) and given a magnificent score by one of the leading modern composers, minimalist Philip Glass. I saw it in the Wang Center, accompanied live by Glass and his orchestra, as the only Boston performance on the national tour of Koyaanisqatsi Live! This title is somewhat tautological, since the titular Hopi Indian word means "life out of balance," or, according to a more esoteric translation, "a way of life that calls for another way of living."

What is so surprising about Koyaanisqatsi is that it's assembled from simple and easily identifiable ingredients. It is a 90-minute film, with no plot, dialogue, or characters. It consists exclusively of shots of nature clouds, canyons, ocean and shots of dense urban landscapes, packed with machines, buildings, cars, and humans. Some of the shots are in realtime, some are in slow motion, and some are filmed with time-lapse photography.

But, as it is usually with art, the total is much greater than the sum of the parts. Reggio proceeds from languorously beautiful nature shots to the frantically paced, edited at the speed of light, footage of human life. There are shots of huge buildings, toppled by demolition explosions, more impressive and horrifying than anything seen in any Hollywood sci-fi extravaganzas; time-lapse scenes of city traffic, with cars flooding the streets (imagine Boston traffic at five times the speed now add the pedestrians); shots of human masses piling onto elevators interspersed with meat being stuffed into hot dogs. All of it is interwoven with slow-motion closeups of human faces faces that are funny, sad, frightening, and, most impressively, blank at the sight of teeming crowds.

Prepare for information overload. Reggio edits his film almost at the threshold of incomprehension but doesn't quite cross it, with his images as lucid even at the high speed. He is also quite adept at pure film technique there are time-lapse shots with "moving camera" (technically quite difficult), long extended shots of nighttime neon lights streaming towards the viewer similar to the finale of Kubrick's 2001 but comprehensible and an eerie instance of double exposure, where the trading floor of the stock exchange seems to be inhabited by whirling ghosts.

That's only the visual aspect. Music by Glass is as important to the overall effect and maybe even more so. Minimalistic music, usually achieved by extremely rapid repetition of short, rhythmically complex phrases, is a perfect fit to accompany such a transcendent vision of modern life as the one presented here.

But the most interesting thing about Koyaanisqatsi is its overall effect; ultimately, the film proves another thing about art, namely that the artist is capable of creating work which transcends the original intentions. It is quite clear that Reggio intended his work as an indictment of modern times, a grand elegy over the lost bond between the Man and Nature. While this theme is certainly loud and distinct, Koyaanisqatsi also leaves the viewer with the feeling of elation and triumph. The sheer complexity of the urban activity and power and variety of humanity on display is enough to make one proud to be a part of these extravagant species.

I'm sure Koyaanisqatsi is available on video; but I would recommend waiting around until you can see it on the big screen. With all the distractions of watching a movie on television, I doubt it will be such a transporting experience. There is something to be said for sitting in a dark auditorium with several hundred other people and forgetting to breathe. When Koyaanisqatsi ends and you walk out, a single individual as a part of a teeming crowd, and your world view won't ever quite be the same.