Retrospective: Koyaanisqatsi

Koyaanisqatsi has no plot. Nor does it have any characters or dialogue. Apart from the credits and a translation of the Hopi prophecies from which the film takes its name, it includes no text nor attempts at explanation. By all accounts, it’s not a movie at all.

But it’s the most extraordinary movie I’ve ever seen.

My first experience with Koyaanisqatsi came when I was about 14. My art teacher in school – a lovely guy whose heart was in the right place, but just could not control a bunch of teenagers – spent an entire class raving about this movie, and eventually brought in a book of stills to ‘inspire’ us, but these didn’t do any justice to the movie so my imagination remained unsparked. But when I began to see its name used as an adjective, I knew it was something I had to check out.

I never did. In days before DVD, it was just too hard to get a hold of. I could have imported it with no small amount of trouble, but it was so costly and the quality of my VCR was so awful from years of abuse, it never seemed worth it. So when I got my first DVD player (first generation, baby!), this was the first thing I imported. When it arrived, I called up a friend of mine who was also interested in seeing it and we made an evening of it.

We giggled at the beginning. Uncomfortable giggles: Is this it? Pictures and music? What’s the big deal? But the film just starts off slow; fifteen minutes in, it started building up to an acceptable pace, and our jaws started inching towards the floor.

I’ve since noticed how much of Koyaanisqatsi’s images and visual techniques have been repeated by other movie makers, but none have managed to achieve such amazing results. The visuals are, at worst, stunning. At best, they are absolutely breathtaking. Filmed by some of the best cinematographers in the world, everything is in such a way to add extra gravitas or a new layer of meaning to the subject matter. For example, a long panning shot of a waterfall gives you an extremely effective sense of the scale involved - likewise, a time-lapse shot of people getting on and off an escalator demands that you view this everyday activity in a completely new way.

Likewise, Philip Glass’ score is equally incredible. It is easily the best and most accessible of all his works, and stands apart from the visuals as a beautiful piece of music in its own right. The story goes that director Godfrey Reggio presented the movie to Glass for scoring. Glass composed a score to fit the movie, and sent it back to Reggio. Then Reggio re-cut the movie to fit the score a little better. Then Glass changed his score slightly to fit this new cut of the movie. And so on. I can’t think of another movie where this has happened on such a grand scale

By the time the film finished, myself and my buddy looked at each other and realised our jaws were still on the floor. We’d experienced something completely new to us: a movie as art. Art as a movie, beyond the casual lip-service thrown thrown about for ‘experimental’ movies like Warhol’s 8-hour film about the outside of the Empire State Building.

I fell in love with Koyaanisqatsi that day. I think I watched it three times that week, never once getting bored and each time discovering something new. I still come back to it every few months, especially when I’m drunk - there’s something especially fascinating about this movie when my brain isn’t going at full speed. I remember saying that I don’t take hard drugs, but Koyaanisqatsi made me want to start, just so I could take advantage of a fucked-up view of the world to see this movie in a whole new light. Think 2001: A Space Odyssey’s “Stargate” sequence on a whole bunch of new drugs, and you’re in the right ballpark.

The comparison to 2001: A Space Odyssey is useful because besides both movies presenting a really strong case for recreational drug use, there is a message at the core of both movies. Both are, essentially, social allegories. Koyaanisqatsi has a very deep message telling us about our past, our present and our future. On one of the DVD extras, Reggio explains that he didn’t want to hit people over the head with his message - he dislikes movies that attempt to force a particular message or opinion on its viewers, so he doesn’t mind that, sometimes, people miss Koyaanisqatsi’s central message completely.

And that’s okay, because they’ll still have experienced one of the most beautiful films ever made.