MGM // 1983 // 87 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky (Retired) // September 2nd, 2002
"It is the journey that is the objective." -- Godfrey Reggio
It is a world where clouds roll over mountains like a wild river. It is a world where men dressed like surgeons step back to reveal a hot dog sorting machine. It is a world where the moon looks more artificial, more anomalous, than a skyscraper. It is a world out of balance.
From the first image, human figures painted on a cave wall, we are already defined by language. Techne, the Greek word for skill in both art and craft: technology as productive, as a bringing forth. As Martin Heidegger points out, techne is both a manifestation of the law (the determined, the craft) and a bursting out, a disruption, always threatening to bring something new to presence. The potential of the Other: the image of the cave paintings is superceded by a holocaust of rocket exhaust, a painful, muscular lurching toward the stars.
The title of the film, Koyaanisqatsi, is derived from Hopi and means roughly "crazy life," or "life out of balance." Godfrey Reggio, with the help of master cinematographer Ron Fricke, captures the essence of balance, an almost Taoist mingling of opposites, through the juxtaposition of images, environments, themes, and speeds. We make connections between cuts and even within a single shot's mise en scène, where light balances shadow, stillness or slowness balance movement. The viewer assembles causal patterns. Impassive office buildings surrounded by clouds resemble canyons. Airliners transform to cars to tanks to jet fighters unleashing fire. Shining glass monoliths clash with collapsing brick skeletons with broken windows.
At first glance, it seems that Koyaanisqatsi might just be a random collection of images, driven by a pulsating Philip Glass score. But there is a subtle structure to Reggio's journey. We begin with the four elements: fire, earth, air, and water. As technology reshapes the environment, we see these elements transform: white clouds become black smoke, airplanes swim through shimmering, heated air. Families sunbathe in the shadow of a refinery. The poor roam through a glacier of shattered brick and rubble. As night becomes day, we watch the daily lives of teeming humanity, racing like frantic ants. Reggio employs time-shifting photography, speeding or slowing images to force us to see the familiar in a new way. Soon, we become those ants, unable to stop our own momentum. Pure light, we become like electrons -- and the city itself becomes technology: the microchip. Landscape and machine become one. Suddenly, the people become impossibly slow, their actions grave, their bodies spectral. We become lost souls.
While Reggio's cinematic techniques have been much imitated, almost to the point of parody, in the nearly 20 years since Koyaanisqatsi's release, the film loses none of its power. Much of this can be credited to his powerful imagery, but just as much credit is due to the marvelous Philip Glass score. The music, representative of Glass' early, more minimalist period (very different from his scores for the other two films in Reggio's "Qatsi" trilogy -- but more on that in my review of Powaqqatsi), builds momentum steadily. You can feel melodic lines straining for resolution, being pulled back, finally breaking free. For a film with no direct narrative and no dialogue at all, Koyaanisqatsi is a wrenching, visceral experience. The only comparable exploration of our relationship to the urban landscape, its movement and stasis, may be Jacques Tati's stunning Playtime (if you have not picked up a copy of this disc, you'd better hurry -- Criterion just took it out of print), although Tati's vision is less apocalyptic than dryly nostalgic. Reggio is more blunt: the final image of that same rocket that promised us so much in the opening of the film detonates, leaving flaming shrapnel tumbling through space. Is this our destiny?
Reggio seems rather more hopeful in the excellent 25-minute interview segment accompanying the feature. Titled "Essence of Life," the featurette is as densely packed as an entire commentary track, as the director talks about his influences, shows clips from his earlier work, and discusses the themes of the film. Because "we live technology," Reggio admits that he cannot simply make a film about technology's effects, as if it might be separable from human life: we are already immersed in technology and must learn to find our balance within an always transforming world. Philip Glass chats about his five-year collaboration with Reggio on the film. Both men are highly articulate and engaging, offering detailed and cogent analysis of their work. You will never again tolerate the usual throwaway featurette puff pieces offered on other discs.
MGM's anamorphic transfer of Koyaanisqatsi shows a little dirt and fading, the product of the varied filming conditions and limited budget. Oddly, the intrusion of a little nature into this technical medium seems to fit. Of course, Philip Glass' score is presented in 5.1 surround, as it should be. That is about it for MGM's packaging efforts here: there is not even an insert in the disc case.
Apart from the marvelous featurette, MGM's treatment of Koyaanisqatsi feels a little indifferent. But the price is right ($20, $30 if you buy it in a two-pack with Powaqqatsi), and the film continues to amaze even after repeated viewings. I cannot even count how many times I have watched this over the years, and I still discover new details and interpretations. Even Godfrey Reggio admits that the film can be interpreted in many ways, as each viewer proceeds on his or her own journey toward understanding our relationship to the world. Koyaanisqatsi offers an intense journey to each viewer -- try it for yourself and see.
Humanity's destiny is still unfolding, and this court has no jurisdiction over the outcome. With the third film in the "Qatsi" trilogy (Naqoyqatsi) to hit theaters in October, Godfrey Reggio and Philip Glass are released with the court's blessing.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 87 Minutes
Release Year: 1983
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* "Essence of Life": Interviews with Godfrey Reggio and Philip Glass