#215 Koyaanisqatsi

(1983, Godfrey Reggio)

Koyaanisqatsi is a weird anomaly of a film. It’s a movie that celebrates cinematography and exists to make film an artistic statement without using pesky things like plot, characters or dialogue. Just pictures and music, the very basic definition of audio-visual entertainment.

That’s right, Koyaanisqatsi has no plot, at least not one that’s obvious. Based on the Hopi word meaning “life out of balance”, Koyaanisqatsi presents us with ninety minutes of moving images and asks us to interpret our own meaning out of it.

So this is an absolute disaster, right? I mean, I often criticise movies for having meandering or unclear plots, so one that openly admits that it lacks one at all must be horrendously unwatchable, surely? Well, I don’t know about that. I was curious to see how this would pan out. It’s experimental and unusual and I had no idea how the concept could be sustained for a feature-length film.

On the surface, this is the kind of thing you’ll find in a modern art instalment. This is the kind of video that sits on a screen in the corner and makes people scratch their chins in wonder, before going to their arty friends and making up some drivel about the corner of a table being a metaphor for the horrors of war or something. It’s a series of seemingly connected images that all relate to a vague “unbalanced life” concept. The director openly tells people to take their own meaning from it. How can it be anything but a disembodied contemporary art piece?

Well, unlike some of the more pretentious contemporary art efforts out there, Koyaanisqatsi is bizarrely fascinating. It starts slowly, with endless shots of the desert with vaguely spooky music. But then the smoke-spewing tractors appear, the miles of factories blight the landscape and suddenly bombs start going off and buildings begin collapsing. It felt like I was watching an apocalypse from a distance, and despite its advertised lack of plot, it still oddly felt like it had one.

The second half of the movie is less apocalyptic, instead presenting us with time-lapse shots of society in motion. Factory workers, office workers, bustling subway stations, VIDEO GAMES, it’s all here, rushing past you at breakneck speed, apparently a statement on the nature of modern life. It also amusingly features shots of people passing by the camera with increasingly confused looks on their faces.

How these two halves relate is less clear, but let me try and come up with an explanation. Perhaps the first half is a warning about the misuse of technology, reminding us to stay in touch with nature lest we all get destroyed. Meanwhile, the second half is showing us how far civilisation has come, with a focus on faces towards the end expressing a reminder that society is still made up of individual people and not just cogs in a machine. Basically, here is everything, this must all be balanced.

Or something. I don’t know the full meaning behind it all, but it was interesting trying to piece it all together.

Koyaanisqatsi also just looks really, really good. Filmed on a bunch of time-lapse cameras, we get huge long-range shots that are genuinely breath-taking. It’s fascinating seeing the bizarre sand structures of the desert scenes, and the image of clouds passing over cities is downright hypnotic, as are the many shots of traffic bustling through those cities. It is definitely a movie that celebrates cinematography over all else, and they went all out making the cinematography genuinely good.

The score, sadly, is less impressive. At times it worked really well, complimenting the images on show, whereas other times it got a tad repetitive, especially during the fast-paced society moments, where I wished it would do something new after about ten minutes of the same looping bloopy synth.

Koyaanisqatsi isn’t for everyone, of course. But for fans of films that look good, and wish to sit and think about a film, it might interest you. It’s an experimental art piece, so your enjoyment of it is based entirely on how willing you are to accept that. If you like action and explosions, you might want to stay clear.

Produced by Godfrey Reggio
Music by Phillip Glass
Cinematography by Ron Fricke
Edited by Alton Walpole & Ron Fricke

Favourite Scene: Has to be the confused looks of the passers-by who noticed the camera. Made me giggle every time. I don’t care if this isn’t the point of the film.
Scene That Bugged Me: The repetitive music in the fast-moving society bit did wear on me a little.

Watch it if: You like pretty pictures
Avoid it if: Plot is the most important thing in a movie for you

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Posted on September 3, 2013, in 1980s, Documentary and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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