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.

Retrospective: Stop Making Sense

Talking Heads were the first band I was can remember being ‘aware’ of.

I mean, I understood music in a general sense. I understood “songs”. I understood that there were songs that scared the crap out of me (I used to challenge myself to listen to Ray Parker Jnr’s theme from “Ghostbusters” in the dark, alone. I don’t think I’ve managed to do it yet) and I understood that there songs whose videos made me laugh (Dire Straits' “Walk of Life”). But I really didn’t understand the concept of “bands” until quite late.

When I was about four or five, my sister - ten years older than me and a die-hard Prince/Adam Ant fan - challenged me to name the bands I liked. So I named “Talking Heads”, the only band I was aware of.

“Arty wanker.”

(I was five)

It wasn’t until much, much later that I understood what she meant. Talking Heads did their best to skirt the line between art and commercialism, occasionally pushing one more than the other. Sometimes this produced something difficult and awkward (like the deliberate nonsense-language of “I Zimbra” on “Fear of Music”). But sometimes, it produced something beautiful. Like “Stop Making Sense”.

The few concert videos that stand out as something special do so because the artist and the director have a clear definition of what they want to achieve (and both have the talent to support it). Other examples, such as Prince’s Sign O' The Times and Scorsese’s The Last Waltz are both as entertaining to watch as movies as they are to listen to. Stop Making Sense represents a band at the peak of their abilities with enough of a vision to, if nothing else, produce something completely unique.

I’ve always been just a casual fan of Talking Heads. I’d never seen Stop Making Sense, but I thought I’d gotten everything I could out of their music. Until a few weeks ago. I was at a Skinny Wolves night in Bodkins. At these things, they usually accompany the music with movies projected on a big screen without the sound - things like the Clash’s Rude Boy and Devo Live. This particular week, they were showing Stop Making Sense.

Now, it may have been the copious amounts of booze sloshing around my system, but I was completely mesmerized. I must have come across as a rude sumbitch because I think I spent most of the night ignoring all attempts at conversation. I was completely transfixed by these bunch of complete… well, there’s no other way to put this… geeks doing the coolest things I’d ever seen on stage.

Throughout the entire thing, David Byrne moves his gangly body in strange, hypnotic ways. And the entire band puts out enough energy to power the show themselves. For example, the entire band jogs its way through Life During Wartime. During the guitar solo, David Byrne jogs around the entire stage, again and again and at the end, goes back to singing without being even slightly out of breath.

There are set changes, costume changes, instrument changes, but none of it seems forced. It seems progressive. It gradually, sensibly builds up. Rather than blowing its load right at the very start (like U2’s technically impressive Zooropa and Popmart tours), Stop Making Sense has a structure. It starts off with David Byrne coming out to a bare stage in a suit, with an acoustic guitar and boombox, and announcing to the crowd that he’d like to play a song. He launches into a version of Psycho Killer that is so different from the album version as to be almost unrecognisable.

For the next song, part of the band comes out. For the next, the backing singers come out. And so on. By the end of the show, there’s a small country on the stage.

And, like Psycho Killer, each song on Stop Making Sense is radically different from the album versions which makes them instantly compelling. And more significantly, they’re arguably better than the album version. When it came to producing a “Best of”, Talking Heads chose to present two songs from Stop Making Sense instead of their album versions, that’s the kind of quality we’re talking here.

It’s easy to understate just how amazing this movie is. Even if you’re only a casual fan of Talking Heads, I’d encourage you to hunt down this movie and be won over for yourself.

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Retrospective: THX-1138

There are, perhaps, a handful of ‘hard’ science fiction movies in the world. By this, I mean movies whose primary goal is to challenge the viewer rather than to entertain. Movies like Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” and Tarkovsky’s “Stalker” ask more questions than they answer, and this is part of their appeal. Strange, then, that one of the finest examples of a ‘hard’ science fiction movie should come from the same man who defined the family-friendly summer sci-fi blockbuster extravaganza - George Lucas.

The history of THX-1138 is a fascinating one, but one which I’m not going to go into detail about here (for a concise history, check out the THX-1138 DVD or Peter Biskind’s “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls"). But a quick summary: THX-1138 started life as a studen film, becomes the first finished piece of Francis Ford Coppola’s “American Zoetrope” hippy commune/production company - other films on their “to do” list included “The Conversation” and “Apocalypse Now”. Warners, the distributors took a look at it and balked, yanking all of American Zoetrope’s funding, re-editing THX-1138 to make it more audience-friendly ("Put the freaks up front” was their suggestion for improving this movie). Lucas bought the rights back and re-released it the way he wanted it.

Phew.

I first saw THX-1138 when I was a teenager on a dodgy VHS copy that got passed around my nerd friends like a holy relic. And to be honest, I didn’t know what to make of it. I could understand the dystopian themes, but couldn’t understand why there wasn’t an actual story - where was the needless exposition? The convenient explanations for viewers? To tell the truth, I wasn’t all that impressed. Things like “Brazil” and, of course, “Nineteen Eighty-Four”, were much much more my cup of tea. Dystopian world-views with bleak endings. THX-1138’s ending was so vague as to be unintelligible.

So I completely forgot about THX-1138, except for spotting the references in other Lucas movies. To me, the film itself was more a curio for fans of Star Wars than an enjoyable movie in its own right.

When it was released on DVD last year, I decided to check it out again. This time, it was the version Lucas originally wanted to see, and more. Lucas, master of revisionism, had decided to add more bits to this movie. After killing a lot of what made Star Wars enjoyable, I wasn’t hopeful. But still, one Saturday morning, I decided to watch it.

And it started to make sense.

First of all, 99% of Lucas' digital additions are worthwhile. They serve to enhance the movie, flawlessly working their way into the background, where you barely notice them, but help give the entire film a greater sense of scale. The major changes, for the most part, also work well. For example, they turn the completely underwhelming “corridor of people” into a truly terrifying “tsunami of people”. So, in terms of not completely ruining the film with his boner for extraneous CGI, I think Lucas deserves a little respect.

But as well as these cosmetic changes to the movie, something changed within me. I finally ‘got’ the movie. I remember a similar experience with ‘2001’; years of seeing it and thinking “What’s all the fuss about?” finally gave way to “Holy shit! This is amazing!” I could finally look at THX-1138 and see exactly why there’s no actual story. Why there is no needless exposition. I’m completely enamoured with this film. I love the look of the movie, the style of the movie. The sound design is incredible and unrelenting.

And now, the ending makes perfect sense to me. And it’s easily as sinister and bleak as Brazil or Nineteen Eighty-Four. Perhaps more so: he finally does escape, but to what?

It seems that THX-1138 will never really get out of Star Wars' enormous shadow but for me, I’m glad I finally found that it is an enjoyable movie in its own right.

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