It is forbiddingly hard to write about movies sometimes, because movies are images, not words; and Koyaanisqatsi is made of some of the grandest and most haunting imagery captured by a camera. It is a truly experimental movie, because you have no way of knowing what your reaction to it is going to be until you finally do see it. Most films are designed to tell a story of some sort. Koyaanisqatsi is not a contrived story about a preconceived moral point or character facet, but an experience on the same order of magnitude as a vast painting or a landscape.
It's also hard to talk about Koyaanisqatsi without trying to reinstill the same frame of mind that it evoked when it first appeared in 1983. Because so much of what the film accomplished has been hybridized into the way popular culture sees things, it has something of the same effect as the original Alfred Hitchcock version of Psycho does on modern audiences. We're so used to the derivate, the parody, the things influenced by it that when we finally do come back to the original there is an overwhelming shock of newness to it.
Koyaanisqatsi first came to my attention through Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel's At the Movies TV show, which at the time aired on PBS. I owe Ebert a great deal in terms of how I look at movies and also which specific movies I see. When he recommended a film this downright outlandish, I imagined there had to be something to it. Later on, PBS's Great Performances aired the film in its entirety, uncut and without commercial interruptions. I saw this version of the film, and in a strange way it was akin to seeing it in a theater, because there was no way to stop the film or rewind it. It didn't matter; I could not take my eyes off the movie at all.
Director Godfrey Reggio created the film from three basic elements: images of man and his works, images of nature, and an alternately somber and celebratory Philip Glass score. The images are almost never shot as they would be in real time — sometimes they are sped up, sometimes slowed down, sometimes even multiple-exposed to create ghostly effects. He spent twelve years working with Glass and his cinematographer, Ron Fricke, to find the right combinations of things. The end result is timeless, because it is not about any one of these things but rather about how they play off each other and interact.
The film's first shot is of a sand painting made thousands of years ago, the only hint of mankind in the film for its first twenty minutes or so. We see only the natural world of the American Midwest — rolling clouds, endless desert and cavern, sunbaked rock. But here and there Reggio calls our attention to things that are eerily reminiscent of human intervention. A hole in a cavern's ceiling looks almost manmade, and a gnarled segment of rock looks uncannily like a human corpse.
Slowly, but with mounting forcefulness, the film turns from a totally natural landscape to one which has been managed and tapped into by mankind. Mines, power plants, electrical wires, dams, endless multicolored fields of grains all go streaming by, undercut by Glass's arpeggiating music. The process of tapping-in is no less awe-inspiring than the resources we tap into, the movie seems to be saying. Our use of these resources is entirely two-edged, too: we cut from the atomic bomb being detonated to a shot of people happily sunbathing in front of a peacefully running nuclear power plant. The implementation of this power, the movie seems to be saying, is ours to choose.
In the same way, we see planes, roadways and cars merging into less benign tanks, missiles and warplanes. The cars on the Los Angeles Expressway in these shots look like cells in the bloodstream of a giant super-organism. The things we create can either merge us into a greater power or tear us apart: Reggio makes the point clearest when he moves into war footage, showing us bombs spiraling lazily to earth (much as the planes did, so innocent-looking) and then unleashing devastation.
Reggio provides us with another dichotomy when he contrasts New York City from a distance with the close-up wreck of the failed Pruitt-Igoe Housing Project. What looked so grand from a distance is on closer inspection a crumbling disaster. Pruitt-Igoe is leveled as we watch, along with many other buildings; it seems we have to destroy to build no matter where or what we build.
Slowly, the human being itself comes more into the foreground. Reggio and Fricke hold the camera dead still and point it at people — random passers-by, no one we recognized or probably ever will. Passers-by in Times Square; a woman on the subway; waitresses in Reno — their faces are poignantly expressionless, or they stand there with oddly fixed smiles. Instead of standing out, they seem all the more anonymous. In a world of six billion people, who really does stand out, anyway?
One critic of the film singled out this approach as being "proof" that Reggio doesn't think much of his fellow man, but I disagree: I think Reggio is using this to force us to realize how little we really look at other people, in the same way we never really look at the environment we have built around ourselves. The film is in a sense an educational film, about truly noticing the world as it is and removing the casual acceptance that goes with what we see. It's probably no accident Reggio called his film company the Institute for Regional Education.
"We have gone from the natural environment as our sustainer of life to the artificial environment," Reggio says in an interview on the disc, "and this transiting has gone largely unnoticed. These films have not been about the effect of technology on people, it's that everything exists within. We do not use technology; we live technology. So in making this film I ripped out all the foreground of a traditional movie — plot, character, story, etc. — and replaced them with the background that goes unseen and unquestioned. Life unquestioned is life lived in a religious state." Reggio certainly knows about this: he spent 14 years of his life in a religious order where he took a vow of silence and engaged in good works. If before he inhabited faith, here he uses our faith in the makeup of our world as the subject for his ruthlessly precise gaze.
This leads into the film's masterpiece segment, "The Grid," in which Glass's music rises to an almost techno-music-like frenzy of arpeggiated phrases. The world around us is now seen as a massive, wired, pulsating thing, a digital organism with light in its veins and a billion windows for eyes. Everyday life is compressed and expanded at the same time, with wide-angle lenses used to capture thousands of people streaming through Grand Central Station or the food court of a local mall. Cars, TVs, hot dogs and Twinkies come spewing out of assembly lines. Reggio's time-lapse technique, now copied endlessly in movies and commercials, shows us ourselves as a kind of trillion-legged creature endlessly fascinated with itself.
Abruptly the movie switches away to an eerie if obvious superimposition: a cityscape intercut with the gridlines of a microchip. On the very big and very small scales, our works tend to resemble each other. Then the human being once again makes an appearance in stark closeup, this time slowed down drastically. And again, instead of making the people Fricke and Reggio single out feel more human, it makes them feel remote; Reggio's use of zoom lenses to contract the distance between the foreground and background of the shot only enhances this feeling further.
The final images of the film haunt me. A Saturn V rocket lifts out of his silo, explodes, and the camera follows a single flaming piece of debris down to the ground as it turns end over end. The very last thing we see is another Hopi sand painting, and then the credits roll over a montage of street noises and TV broadcasts. I originally saw the last few moments as being a kind of testament to man's essential mortality and humility. For all his great works, he is still humble, he is still as much a creature of the earth in his blood as were the Hopi men who created the paintings that open and close the movie.
Because of the movie's strong juxtaposition of nature and technology, a common criticism of the film is that it is a knee-jerk environmentalist parable. Reggio himself disputes this. It's true, he says, that he wanted the film to be about "the beauty of the beast," as he puts it — the glory and the terror of the world we make — but he also did not intend for it to be an open lambasting of technology and progress. The very same technology makes the film possible, makes Reggio's own vision possible, and so condemning technology out of hand is not really the film's point. It uses the "beauty of the beast" to make us really see the world around us as if we are only just now noticing it for the first time. "The viewer is an active participant in this movie," Reggio says; there is a three-way dialogue between the viewer, the music, and the image, with us bringing to it as much as the movie brings to us.
Much of the criticism about the movie comes because of the choice of title, I suspect. Reggio says: "I originally didn't want a name for the movie, but an image. Why have a word for something unnamable? It's not for lack of love of the language that these movies have no words, but it is because the language is in such a humiliating state; it no longer has the ability to describe the world we live in. Koyaanisqatsi was a word that had no cultural baggage, from a culture that was aliterate, that held everything we called normal to be abnormal and sane to be insane.
"That was music to my ears, because I wasn't trying in these films to make commentary on Hopi life or culture; this is not an ethnography of Hopis. It's the opportunity to find inspiration in another person's point of view in how we live." Ironically enough, the baggage-less word that Reggio wanted to use now has accumulated quite a bit of baggage on its own. Very few other movies that willfully abandon plot or narrative or character or anything resembling the usual trappings of a film work as well as this one, and certainly almost no other "experimental" film has been celebrated as broadly as this one.
Koyaanisqatsi is now something of an institution: it plays regularly in theaters around the world, a "concert cinema" (Reggio's term) offering an experience that stays with us and changes our perceptions. After seeing the film for the first time, I went outside and realized how managed and manufactured everything in my neighborhood was — not as a bad thing but simply as a measure of the expanded awareness of our world the movie offers.
Reggio claims any interpretation of the film is personal, and my own feelings are probably not going to echo anyone else's, but here goes: Contrary to what is claimed, in my opinion the movie does have a plot, characters, etc. The main characters: the natural world and the human race. The story is about the way the two interact and yet remain unchanged: while we change our world and create this new environment to live in, we remain inalterably human, and we must not ignore our human frailty lest it vanishes amidst steel and concrete and silicon. And meanwhile, outside of our houses and our grids, the clouds move on and the sand dunes shimmer...