What’s that? You’ve never heard of it? Okay, I’ll forgive you. I’d have missed it too had I not tuned into BBC film critic Barry Norman’s regular late night review show way back in 1982. Norman’s positive critique (which included an arresting clip from the film showing stunning time-lapse footage of New York City accompanied by music like nothing I’d heard before) convinced me this was a film I needed to see. Cue an unforgettable trip to London with my equally enthusiastic friends to see this arthouse classic.
In the Hopi language, Koyaanisqatsi means Life Out Of Balance. The translation gives you a clue about director Godfrey Reggio’s political agenda in making the film. Devoid of both conventional narrative and dialogue (it lacks even a voiceover), Koyaanisqatsi is a feature-length assault on the senses presenting a vision of our planet as a natural resource being steadily consumed by man. Depressing? I’d go for ‘thought-provoking’, though you might want to make sure you’re not on a downer going in. It certainly made a powerful impression on my teenage self. But, even though Koyaanisqatsi wears its devastating environmental manifesto on its sleeve, its real strength lies its breathtaking beauty.
Koyaanisqatsi begins in the American West with natural-world images of canyons and skies. Reggio plays with camera speeds, using time-lapse photography to turn cloudscapes into boiling cauldrons and juxtaposing them with real-time footage of waterfalls. Moving through industrial hinterlands, he closes in on cities, whose office towers look like glass-and-metal reincarnations of the rocky mesas of the Painted Desert. The message is clear – sometimes crashingly unsubtle – as explosions bite into virgin landscapes, demolition charges reduce apartment blocks to rubble and dust, and stony-faced commuters glide in slow-motion through metal-lined subways. But always there’s poetry, not least with what I believe is the film’s only optical composite: a glorious time-lapse shot of the full moon rising behind a skyscraper.
The entire, mesmerising experience is greatly enhanced by a monumental Philip Glass score, without which the film would be, if not nothing, then certainly so much less. Koyaanisqatsi introduced me to Glass’s music and I haven’t been able to let go of it since.
These days, the kind of imagery presented by Reggio in Koyaanisqatsi is ten-a-penny. You only have to visit YouTube or Vimeo to watch fabulous HD scenes of natural wonders or architects’ dreams. You’ve even got kids are sending cameras into space on weather balloons. That said, Koyaanisqatsi holds up well, partly because it still looks and sounds great, but mostly because of Reggio’s uncompromising editorial vision.
The trailer below is well worth a look, though it scarcely does the film justice. The only way to experience Koyaanisqatisi is to, well, experience it. Choose a big screen and turn the volume up. Way up. You may come out hating it. Or, like me, you may fall just a little bit in love. Either way, I defy you to forget it.
This trip down memory lane was triggered by a tweet from VFX supervisor Paul Franklin who, while linking to this gorgeous time-lapse footage of Mt Everest, remarked that ‘Vimeo is becoming an ever-expanding crowd-sourced Koyaanisqatsi.’