What would you say the most visually imitated film of the last 30 years is?
“Blade Runner”? One could certainly argue that. If I see one more moody smoky rainy future city, I’m going to beat someone to death with a neon tube. “The Road Warrior”? How many crappy post-apocalyptic films can you count that borrowed or stole Miller’s aesthetic completely? “Toy Story”? Without that film’s advances, the entire animation industry would be completely different right now.
Even so, I’d argue that “Koyaanisqatsi” dwarfs any of them in terms of sheer impact on what we’ve seen since its release in 1983. The advertising industry alone has stripped the bones of the film completely clean a dozen times over, poaching and parsing every frame of Godfrey Reggio’s film to sell any product you can name. It’s particularly creepy when you realize just how opposed to the commercial consumer culture Reggio’s film really is.
And yet, considering the enormous reach that the film has had, it’s still a cult item at best, largely unknown to the mainstream. For many people, the soundtrack to the Mars sequence in “Watchmen” last month may have sounded vaguely familiar, but chances are they couldn’t tell you where it was originally used or how. And many audiences, if shown the film now, would think it was simply a rehash of imagery they’ve seen a thousand times over without realizing that this is the source of that imagery, the place from which it was ripped off that thousand times. It’s sort of like someone watching Phil Kaufman’s “The Right Stuff” and grumbling about how it stole from “Armageddon.”
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So what is “Koyaanisqatsi” in the first place? The word itself is a Hopi Indian term for “life out of balance,” which sums up the philosophical point of the movie. Director Godfrey Reggio isn’t your average filmmaker, even in the avant garde world. He spent 14 years as a monk, immersed in silence and prayer, and when he emerged into the secular world, he became an educator, eventually deciding to focus on how he could use media to help seed certain vital messages.
Working with cinematographer Ron Fricke, Reggio set off on a six year quest to make a movie that would capture the wonder of the natural world and contrast it with the choking horror of the industrial world. Reggio’s greatest fear is that man has lost touch with the planet, that we are no longer creatures of nature, but instead, that we are destroyers of nature, consumers who rebuild nothing, and “Koyaanisqatsi” is a wounded cry for help, a furious scream into the encroaching darkness, and it’s unlike anything that came before it. I remember when I first saw it in 1984, a year after it had been released. I was 14 at the time, and I can honestly say that “Koyaanisqatsi” was one of the first films to ever lull me into a trance state. I was raised in a traditionally Christian household, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve embraced a more general sense of spirituality that doesn’t name things with quite the same dogmatic fervor. Part of what I’ve embraced from many of the eastern philosophies is the importance of meditation. And that first time I saw “Koyaanisqatsi,” I was so hypnotized by it that I actually dropped into the same sort of detached state that I accomplish now through careful meditation. That’s due in part, I’m sure, to the score by Philip Glass, which is simple, moody, cyclical, and ominous.
The film isn’t built like any other movie. It’s assembled from footage of natural spaces shot to emphasize the grandeur and the beauty of them, as well as footage of cities and factories and abandoned housing projects, industrial decay writ large. On the rare occasion Reggio actually stops on a human face, he does everything he can to make it uncomfortable and upsetting, getting as close as he can to some truly ruined human beings, as if to show us the toll that this modern life takes on us all.
There is a chant that recurs several times in the film, consisting of the title as well as other Hopi words, and in the film’s closing moments, a translation of the chant appears:
“If we dig precious things from the land, we will invite disaster.
Near the Day of Purification, there will be cobwebs spun back and forth in the sky.
A container of ashes might one day be thrown from the sky, which could burn the land and boil the oceans.”
Reggio continued to explore these same themes in “Powaqqatsi” and “Naqoyqatsi,” and Ron Fricke went on to make “Cronos” and the ravishing “Baraka,” which are similar as well. But I’d argue that none of those films have the reach or the enduring power of “Koyaanisqatsi,” and for any viewers who are willing to accept cinema that doesn’t rely on narrative for its power, it is a singular, epic experience.
Now where’s the goddamn BluRay?
If you’d like to watch along with me for the rest of the week, you can expect reviews for the following films: “Love and Death,” “M.,” and “Night Moves.”
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