Saturday, October 14, 2006
To understand this unusual film, it helps to start with the title. “Koyaanisqatsi” is a Hopi Indian term. Among its translations is “life out of balance,” or “a way of life that demands a different way of living.” “Koyaanisqatsi” came out in 1983, and became the first in a set of three films. “Powaqqatsi” (Life in Transformation) appeared in 1988, and Naqoyqatsi (Life as War) was released in 2002. I haven’t seen the other two, but I understand they are similar at least in style to the first film.
The movie begins with an image of an Indian pictograph, which morphs into footage of a rocket launch. Then there is aerial footage of various desert landscapes and other natural processes, which ultimately gives way to footage of human activities, including mining, traffic, urban crowd scenes, and a nuclear warhead detonation. All of this is set to music by composer Philip Glass. There is no dialog, plot, narration, or characters. To the extent that there is a story, it is created in your mind as you view the various scenes and think about how they connect to each other.
I watched “Koyaanisqatsi” on the recommendation of a friend, and I have to admit that for about the first third of the film I felt like I had been misdirected. While I liked the desert landscapes, the scenes felt long and slow, and the music isn’t really all that impressive. I wondered if maybe you had to be on drugs to watch “Koyaanisqatsi.” My wife came in to join me, and she made fun of the film a little bit. We both agreed that while the footage was interesting looking, we weren’t up for another hour of it. But then something happened. We somehow didn’t turn the movie off and go do something else. We just sat there and kept watching for about 20 minutes worth of time-lapse imagery of cars moving through city streets and freeways. We watched as thousands of people fast-forwarded their way through train and subway stations. As the camera picked out individual faces from city streets, we watched. We started out making fun of the movie, but by the end we were talking about how cool it was. With its strangely captivating images set to classical music, “Koyaanisqatsi” is “Baby Einstein” for adults!
Saturday Night Live once did a skit in which Mr. Rogers (of children’s show fame) interviews a blues musician. He asks the man, “When I hear you play your bass I think about sheep…. or candies, fresh little candies. What do you think about when you play?” The musician replies, “I mostly think about my financial situation.” To me, that is what defines good art. A good work of art stimulates the mind in such a way that different people will have varying responses to it. In that sense, “Koyaanisqatsi” is amazing. There are probably as many interpretations of this film as there have been viewers. Based on the title of the movie, I get the impression that director Godfrey Reggio wanted to make a statement about how the natural world is ordered and sedate, while the world of humans is adulterated, frantic, impersonal, and destructive. I had a somewhat different take on the meaning of the images, which is odd, because I would normally agree with that whole “natural world is better than human world” concept. As I watched the film, I was struck by how the natural images of landforms, clouds, and ocean waves all tended to repeat certain patterns, even though the individual elements moved independently. I believe this concept is the foundation of chaos theory. Not surprisingly, the scenes of human activity also showed patterns arising from chaos. Also, the human activities seemed to recreate patterns from nature. Explosions create fire and smoke patterns that are very similar to the movements of clouds, but faster. Freeway traffic looks very similar to footage I have seen of blood cells moving through our capillaries. As the band Love and Rockets pointed out, “Going against nature is part of nature, too.”
“Koyaanisqatsi” has plenty of explosions and car chases, yet I don’t think it will appeal to the Jerry Bruckheimer crowd. If you are patient enough to sit back and let the movie develop, however, it offers a unique, thought-provoking, and truly enjoyable movie experience.
4 out of 5.