May 10, 2010

Review of Koyaanisqatsi

I recently reported on Koyaanis-Scratchy in The Simpsons, a parody of a classic cult film. Now here's a report on the original:

Koyaanisqatsi:  ReviewAs translated in a note at the end of the film, the Hopi word koyaanisqatsi means "crazy life, life in turmoil, life disintegrating, life out of balance, or a state of life that calls for another way of living." Godfrey Reggio's film, made over the course of seven years, is a wordless anti-travelogue in which Philip Glass's score works with the images of Reggio and cinematographer Ron Fricke to show us a world rapidly spinning out of control.

KOYAANISQATSI opens with scenes of the American southwest, many of them filmed from the air and displaying the sheer hugeness of the area: deep chasms, enormous rocks on vast plains, all with little vegetable and no human life. Shots of Niagara Falls and other troubled waters and an increasingly ominous tone to the music set the viewer on edge, as one begins to see signs of human presence: machines, pipelines, power lines take a place in the landscape. Nuclear explosions produce mushroom clouds over the desert.

People are eventually seen, sunbathing on a beach in the shadow of an enormous factory. The natural world soon disappears altogether, replaced long shots of packed highways. Sped up, they look like rivers of erratic light. The music becomes dominated by swirling arpeggios, simultaneously controlled and hectic.

The central segment of the film, set to a Philip Glass piece called "The Grid," consists primarily of sped-up footage of people traveling to and working at their jobs, mostly assembly-line factory work. The music has a relentlessly steady pulse, and grows subtly more complicated as it proceeds. The footage also increases in intensity, giving the impression of motion that has reached the physical limits of velocity.

Just as they seem about to explode in a frenzy, the images and the music stop, replaced by slow-motion footage of people who seem displaced, derelict; the music also grows much slower and simpler, largely a solo organ and chanting voices. After the previous section, this feels like a hangover. The movie ends with an astonishing, unbroken tracking shot of a rocket that explodes in mid-air shortly after liftoff. For several long minutes, the camera follows a piece of burning wreckage so steadily that it appears not to be falling at all, merely spinning in space.
A slow start

The film starts with ancient Indian pictographs and a portentous chanting of the word "Koyaanisqatsi":

KoyaanisqatsiThe first image in the film is of a Fremont pictogram located in The Great Gallery of Horseshoe Canyon, part of Canyonlands National Park, Utah. The section shown depicts several tall darkly-shadowed figures standing near a taller figure adorned with a crown. The next image is a close-up of the Saturn V rocket from the Apollo 12 mission during liftoff. The film fades into a shot of a desolate desert landscape ("Organic").The initial message seems to be something like, "The spirits are watching. They're concerned about what they see. They want humans to stop screwing up the world they've been given."

Unfortunately, the nature shots didn't impress me that much. I'd say they're inferior to what you see in a typical National Geographic special. Having viewed such high-definition films as the Planet Earth series, I can't be impressed by low-budget aerial shots from 30 years ago. Some shots are from Monument Valley and Canyon de Chelly--Navajo locations that people have filmed many times.

Koyaanisqatsi eventually segues to scenes from civilization: mining operations, power plants, atomic-bomb detonations, Boeing 747s on a runway, building implosions. If you've never seen an exploding bomb or a collapsing building, these scenes might be affecting. But some of us were ducking under our disks during bomb drills in kindergarten. Three decades after the 1950s, the movie's implicit warning is a little late.

Roger Ebert notes how the technological images don't necessarily fit the "life out of balance" theme:This film has one idea, a simplistic one. It contrasts the glory of nature with the mess made by man. But man is a messy beast, given to leaving reminders of his presence all over the surface of planet Earth. Although a Hopi word is used to evoke unspoiled nature, no Hopis are seen, and the contrast in the movie doesn't seem to be between American Indian society and Los Angeles expressways, but between expressways and a beautiful world empty of man. Thanks, but no thanks.

I had another problem. All of the images in this movie are beautiful, even the images of man despoiling the environment. The first shot of smokestacks is no doubt supposed to make us recoil in horror, but actually I thought they looked rather noble. The shots of the expressways are also two-edged. Given the clue in the title, we can consider them as an example of life out of control. Or--and here's the catch--we can marvel at the fast-action photography and reflect about all those people moving so quickly to their thousands of individual destinations. What a piece of work is a man! And what expressways he builds!

"Koyaanisqatsi," then, is an invitation to knee-jerk environmentalism of the most sentimental kind. It is all images and music. There is no overt message except the obvious one (the Grand Canyon is prettier than Manhattan).
The best parts

I'd say only two of the film's segments are impressive. First, "The Grid," where the images and music finally combine to convey the chaos of modern life. Again, from Wikipedia:"The Grid" is the film's longest sequence, roughly 21 minutes in length. The cinematic theme of this sequence is the speed of modern life. The sequence begins with shots of buildings and a shot of a sunset reflected in the glass of a skyscraper. The sequence uses time-lapse photography of the activity of modern life, taking events typically shot at normal speed and accelerating them. The events captured in this sequence involve people interacting with modern technology.And the last segment:"Ending" shows stock footage of a rocket lifting off and then exploding. (The film is actually two separate events—the first moments of the launch is a Saturn V rocket, while the rocket shown clearing the tower and later exploding is the first Atlas-Centaur, which was launched on May 8, 1962.) The footage follows a flaming rocket engine as it plummets to earth. The film comes full circle with a shot of a different portion of The Great Gallery pictograph.This segment goes on too long, but it's chilling. It reminds you of the Challenger disaster, which happened four years later. You imagine the falling piece of rocket is the crew plunging to their doom.

The segment's point is obvious. Humanity's hubris...the folly of relying on technology...Icarus flying too high and plummeting back to earth. Unlike the other segments, it's memorable because we haven't seen similar scenes over and over.

Anyway, I give Koyaanisqatsi a 7.0 of 10. Mostly for "The Grid" segment, which you can see an excerpt of below. The concept--contrasting nature with modern life--is a good one, but only "The Grid" achieves the effect Reggio was going for.

For more on the subject, see The Best Indian Movies.

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