Friday, April 14, 2006


This evening I saw Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance the first movie in the Qatsi trilogy. Although released in 1983 it only became available on DVD late in 2002. Even though it is apparently something of a cult-classic, I’ve not heard of it. A new movie in the making, of the same genre, is Savage Eden/Holy Smoke.

Koyaanisqatsi is directed by Godfrey Reggio with music composed by minimalist composer Philip Glass and cinematography by Ron Fricke. All three partners (director, composer and photographer) are crucial to this film’s success. The cinematography itself is mostly slow motion and time-lapse photography. As a documentary it contains no narration and relies heavily on the hypnotic music to set the film's tone. It focuses on natural and person-made environments, the relation between these and the cypher-like people who live in this interface. Indeed, one is forced to compare nature with non-natural environments.

The film is based on the Hopi word 'koyaanisqatsi', meaning ‘life of moral corruption and turmoil’ or ‘life out of balance’. Reggo has indicated that each viewer can draw what they like from the film and tries not to be prescriptive. Indeed I found the photography so stunningly beautiful that I was diverted from its 'message'. The photography's interaction with the music provides a fascinating view of a driven, frenzied metropolis as well as the drama of nature.

The film views people as anonymous participants in alien environments and clearly has a critical mission – some have gone so far as to describe it as a ‘satanic meditation’ though Reggio spent his adolescent years in a monastery of the Christian Brothers order. Indeed rather than 'satanic', the film has almost monastic discipline. Moreover, its message while presented in a artistic way, has a scary and sinister side. Reggio has said of the Qatsi series in general:
" ...these films have never been about the effect of technology, of industry on people. It's been that everyone: politics, education, things of the financial structure, the nation state structure, language, the culture, religion, all of that exists within the host of technology. So it's not the effect of it's that everything exists within technology]. It's not that we use technology, we live technology. Technology has become as ubiquitous as the air we breathe...".
The film was made over about six years. Three were spent shooting it while Glass and Reggio spent the other three years composing a score to fit the film and recutting the footage to fit the score. You can enjoy the music without watching the film – it is at least 50% of the experience.

The Qatsi series is brilliantly reviewed by Salon where Shana Lipton refers to the series as “Weapons of Mass Instruction’. I thought Koyaanisqatsi was an exquisite, entertaining experience. It grows slowly over you – initially as one of those ‘high end’ artistic films that you think you really should like but suspect you won’t. But the skillful, dramatic photography and music draw you into an unusual experience. I’ll hunt around for the remaining DVDs in the Qatsi series and have searched the web for discussion of other nonverbal films – an informative site is here. I'd be interested to know how how this movie went financially. Francis Ford Coppola lent his name to the enterprise as an 'executive producer' which must have given it a boost but I cannot imagine this beautiful, though I imagine expensive film, competing in a mass market.


P.A. Coplay said...

I agree about the music (and liked Koyaanisqati the film too as a visual thing (though have not seen it for a long time - possibly the music has aged better than the film?) Though my favorite Phillip Glass piece is the opera Sataygraha! (particularly the second act)

hc said...

p.a.c., I thought the music brilliant and the filmwork close to mega-brilliant. I'll try to listen to the Phillip Glass opera you like.

I watched Koyaanisqatsi yesterday but still thinking about it 24 hours later. Will watch again tonight and maybe update my earlier views.