If it weren’t for the many copycats and wannabes that have since followed in its wake, Koyaanisqatsi would be one of those rare films that could be described as unlike anything you’ve ever seen before and a truly original work of art. It has no spoken dialogue and seemingly no conventional narrative to it, and consists simply of striking images of the world around us set to music by Philip Glass. And yet what a potent and visceral combination these elements make in the hands of director Godfrey Reggio and cinematographer Ron Fricke.
Koyaanisqatsi has a message all right, but it’s largely left to the viewer to discern what that may be – at least until a caption at the end gives a pretty big hint at what conclusions you’re meant to have drawn by that point. It starts with images of the natural world – rocky mountains and canyons from the American southwest, along with fog, clouds and waterfalls – before slowly moving into more man-made environs and finally into the largest cities in the United States, from Los Angeles and Las Vegas in the west to Chicago and New York in the east.
When I first saw this film as a teenager I confess I found the natural world sequences rather slow moving and dull, especially compared with the exciting city-set scenes which are whipped up into a hyper-frenzy by time lapse photography (a new innovation back then but commonplace to the point of overuse today.) My takeaway message at the time was that man-made artefacts could be just as spectacular and as beautiful an addition to the environment as nature’s, and to this day I still see the artistry in towering glass-fronted skyscrapers and the sinuous curves of highways. Even the brutally practical elements such as electricity lines and pylons stretching over the natural terrain have their own appeal and industrialist style.
That was how I saw things as a youth; but coming back to this film now, many years later and three decades older, and a lot has changed in the world and in my view of it – and they’re all reflected in my reaction to this film in 2014 compared with how I felt about it in the 1980s. Now I revel in the landscapes (especially the ones that I’ve since visited myself) and resent the growing intrusion of man-made elements in them as the film progresses. And while the city-set sequences still have their appeal, the way they race on and on, faster and faster eventually becomes overwhelming to the point where you just want it to stop – and when it does, very abruptly, it’s hard not to lurch forward in your seat as if you’ve just been in a car crash. It’s as powerful and as visceral an experience as that, thanks to Philip Glass’s music at the heart of things driving it all forward at terrifying speed.
The passing years have added another layer of depth to the filmmakers’ original intentions: the architecture and fashions they record are so quintessentially mid-70s that it’s like a different world, horribly dated to such an extent that it undermines any fashionable appeal that it might have had when it was originally filmed. By contrast, the natural vistas are as unchangingly vibrant, magnificent and awe-inspiring today as they were when they were filmed and indeed have been for millennia. It makes you realise just how ephemeral and impermanent man is by comparison, how capricious and fleeting our all-consuming obsessions really are, and how none of it is anywhere near as important as we think it is in our day-to-day lives.
As an example, one of the glass-fronted monoliths captured in the film is the corporate headquarters for a company called Microdata, which must have thought itself a very big deal to have such eye-catching premises. Few have heard of it today as it was soon taken over by a succession of companies and subsumed into the corporate omnisphere: the name now lives on only in the 30 seconds of screen time it gets in Koyaanisqatsi. Similarly it’s hard not to wonder what happened to the people we see in the film – many of them just ordinary blue-collar workers heading to their office, or down-and-outs trying to stay alive on the streets of New York. They look nothing like the faces we see around us today and yet at the same time they are the ghosts of the past that haunt us. For much of the time, the people and the vehicles in which they travel are reduced to blurs and streaks of light by the time-lapse photography – no longer people but packets of information swept along no longer under their own control, moving from one part of the city to another like data in the circuitry of a microprocessing chip (an image expressly conveyed in the film’s final act.)
That sense of modern society and city life progressively dehumanising individuals into machine components, and the way that the human presence as a whole is gradually spreading over the natural landscape like a cancerous growth, is the film’s central thesis. The film begins with a closeup of a pictogram on a cave wall in Utah, a scene of pre-historic social life as villages worship a crowned figure. The film then cuts – apparently incongruously – to the launching of a Saturn V space rocket, contrasting the oldest products of humans with the newest and most hi-tech (of the time it was filmed.) The film ends with a bookend sequence, where we follow a rocket racing through the air … only for it to suddenly explode in a ball of flame. The cameras pick out a single piece of flaming, jagged wreckage as it spirals to the ground, and then cuts to another cave drawing this time of some sort of ancient social gathering. The message it leaves in our minds is how our hi-tech wonders may be leading us to similar explosive disaster as a civilisation if we forget what’s truly important to us as human beings.
While it’s entirely possible to read the film in different ways according to the inclinations of the viewer, one of the final captions does rather remove all ambiguity as to how Reggio and Fricke are thinking: the Hopi word “koyaanisqatsi” is revealed to mean life in turmoil or out of balance; a state of life that calls for another way of living. They’re saying that our modern world is a state of affairs that can’t go on much longer without disintegrating.
That the world has actually gone on for another 30 years might tend to refute the film’s argument, but if anything the current state of society – with the dissatisfaction and intolerance of people with everything from bankers and politicians to immigrants and benefit claimants, the rapid consumption of the world’s resources and the looming threat of climate change – means that Koyaanisqatsi appears even more mainstream and prescient now than it did when it was made. It’s telling us a story that we feel we know in our bones already, which profoundly changes the way we respond to the film’s portrayal of this current untenable state of affairs.
It’s not a film for everyone, and not everyone will view it in the same way even if they do enjoy it – but that’s what makes this a true piece of art, that it’s open for interpretation by each individual and not a pre-fabricated film leaving no gaps for the viewer to have a thought of their own. I think it’s magnificent – possibly one of my top 20 films of all time – and can watch it again and again without ever feeling bored or quite the same way about it at the end.
The film along with its 1988 sequel Powaqqatsi has just been released on Blu-ray in the UK by Arrow Films, and the high definition format is both an obvious and a curious call for the film. Yes, the film’s spectacular images are well-served by the higher resolution in this new restoration version – but it is also a film that was shot on a shoestring budget and which had to use 16mm film to save money. Even when it got more financing, new 35mm footage had to be processed and degraded to fit in with the older shots and with the bought-in stock footage that is employed throughout. The end result is a massive amount of grain across almost every scene, and that could be very distracting and disappointing for anyone expecting a pristine, noise-free image from their Blu-rays.
There’s not much that can be done about it – the grain is so prevalent that it could never be removed without significant impairment to the underlying images. And once you accept the grain as integral to the film then high definition makes absolute sense, because ironically all that detailed noise plays havoc with standard definition formats which have to either smooth it out or risk ugly digital artefacts to cope with the amount of visual information they’re being asked to handle. The Blu-ray does a wonderful job then of making the grain as fine and sharp as the images behind it, and believe it or not that’s pretty much the ideal way to handle the film.
There’s no caveats about the audio on this release, however, and Philip Glass’ score sounds phenomenal in both DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and the downsampled LPCM 2.0 available here. It’s actually better than having a CD release of the score.
Extras-wise, the two-disc boxset might not be as replete with features as we might like, but what is present is certainly top quality. There’s a brief introduction to the film by filmmaker and composer Gary Tarn and a two-part interview with Reggio and Glass totalling 46 minutes. As well as original unrestored standard definition theatrical trailers, here’s also a short film called Anima Mundi which has photographic images of various animal groups set to a Glass score. Added to that, the Arrow boxset comes with an impressive 72-page full-colour booklet which features an appreciation of the two films by writer Anton Bitel and also contains contemporary reviews (not very favourable it must be said!) as well as an article from American Cinematographer on the work of Ron Fricke, who himself later went on to make the highly regarded films Chronos, Baraka and Samsara which have something of the same nature as Koyaanisqatsi.
It’s unfortunate that there is the conspicuous absence from the boxset of the third film in the Qatsi trilogy, 2002’s Naqoyqatsi. Even though it’s seen as very much the least of the three, its omission here is irksome especially when it was part of the Criterion Collection edition that was issued in the US at the end of 2012. Presumably rights issues got in the way of its UK release – the films have long had trouble in that department, to the point where Koyaanisqatsi was out of print and unavailable for much of the 1990s while it was sorted out.
But mild irritations aside, the Koyaanisqatsi/Powaqqatsi boxset is really rather magnificent and a joy to behold, and well worth every penny. Unlike many films I pick up on DVD or Blu-ray, this is one I know I’m going to return to and watch time and again , and each time I’ll view it with different eyes and come to slightly different conclusions – which is a good thing, rather like the way a familiar vista outside the window looks different minute-by-minute through changes in the light and clouds. Life is very much what you yourself bring to it, and that’s equally as true of the unique appeal of viewing Koyaanisqatsi whether for the first or the hundredth time.
The Koyaanisqatsi/Powaqqatsi Blu-ray boxset from Arrow Films is available to purchase in store and online. Click on any of the illustrations in this review for a direct link to the correct page on Amazon.co.uk.