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Bucket List Movie #431: Koyaanisqatsi

Updated on March 11, 2014
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What can I say about a movie like Koyaanisqatsi? I confess, for the first half hour, I was brainstorming a list of clever-only-to-me subtitles, such as “Stock Footage: the Movie” or “Man is Screwing Up Nature!”. Koyaanisqatsi, for the record, is from the Hopi language, meaning “life out of balance” (this is often used as the subtitle in some prints). It is basically an environmental allegory/documentary, only without a narrative, actors, or even a grave narrator in the vein of Morgan Freeman. It’s just a series of images, first focusing on nature, then on urban life. I’m afraid I’m very conventional-minded, because I prefer actual stories with strong characters, and documentaries with narration and/or talking heads. I love beautiful imagery, but if the narrative is too weak, then I’m not going to care very much. That is why I’ve never warmed to 2001: A Space Odyssey or The Tree of Life. I confess I was prepared to snooze through Koyaanisqatsi.


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That was the first half hour. After that, I was completely hooked. Koyaanisqatsi has a way of drawing you in without even realizing it. The fact that there is no narrative at all in Koyaanisqatsi is what lends it its power. You are allowed to just drink in Ron Fricke’s meticulous cinematography, and it is a reminder of what kind of films we’re capable of making without the assistance of CGI. There is liberal use of time lapse photography, and as a result we are treated some of the most gorgeous footage of nature ever captured on film. The movie opens with cave drawings, followed by gorgeous, slow motion shots of canyons, and it easy to forget the subtle layers of colors that exist in canyons; they aren’t just orange. There are rich, sweeping, overhead shots of the ocean, an entity so expansive that it is a new discovery every time we see it. We see footage of feathery clouds, rolling and twisting in the sky, choreographed by the wind itself. And, my favorite, a brisk flight over fields of flowers that practically form a rainbow growing from the earth.


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Then we segue into the urban world of Man. Fun trivia: the instant we are shown signs of mankind, a siren started blaring outside my apartment. You can’t make this stuff up, my friends. The few close-ups of people aren't what you'd call glamorous, from an old man shaving in the middle of the street to women with hairdos that contain enough hairspray to obliterate the ozone once and for all.


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But the portions of Koyaanisqatsi focused on civilization aren’t preachy, or at least, don’t come off as such. It is refreshingly matter-of-fact, and whether it’s a display of man’s disgraceful corruption of nature or just a pragmatic look at how modern life is is left entirely up to the viewer. Still, it’s hard to argue with the former school of thought. We see dilapidated, abandoned buildings, complete with broken windows and, even over Philip Glass’s legendary score, a sense of eerie stillness. The buildings are ultimately knocked down, but what will go up in their place? Better homes? New places of employment? Will it be used for positive renewal? Or will it be wasted and forgotten as before? There is the familiar hustle and bustle of city life, but also scenes we take for granted (or prefer not to think about), such as factories packaging bologna and hot dogs, and grim-faced workers sewing the seams of pants. The most embarrassingly relevant scene involves mall shoppers listlessly eating hyper-processed food. I’ve been there, and so have you, admit it. Why is it so fun to eat junk food, but so depressing to watch strangers eat it?.


At least some beauty exists in the city: Red car lights leave blazing trails along the highway, lights rhythmically go on and off in an office building like an operator’s switchboard, and, most incredibly, the moon slowly rises above a skyscraper. Man may create wondrous architecture, but nature will find a way to eclipse it.


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Godfrey Reggio directed this with obvious passion (it apparently was six years in the making, according to IMDb), and, with Glass and Fricke’s collaboration, has created something truly remarkable, not to mention influential. I was not that surprised to find out that Madonna’s “Ray of Light” video was heavily inspired by Koyaanisqatsi, and Glass’s score from the film has popped up in several TV shows and movies, from Scrubs to Watchmen. The Hopi language sung in the choral sections in the score translates into "If we dig precious things from the land, we will invite disaster. Near the Day of Purification, there will be cobwebs spun back and forth in the sky. A container of ashes might one day be thrown from the sky, which could burn the land and boil the oceans."

We do see tractors digging up the land, sinister smoke stacks, debris flying at us from a demolished building, and remains from a rocket explosion plummeting to the earth. More than thirty years after Koyaanisqatsi’s release, we’re still standing, but with global warming and overpopulation posing very real threats. All we can do is hope that there is time to keep Koyaanisqatsi’s premonition from coming true.


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