Koyaanisqatsi (1982)

Directed by Godfrey Reggio


Koyaanisqatsi is a visual poem whose title is derived from a dying language and means “life out of balance.”  It’s a beautiful film but at times a sinister one.  The entire documentary is composed only of visuals and music, with no narration whatsoever.  There is no single protagonist, no single location, just a juxtaposition of images both manmade and natural with a musical score by Philip Glass.

Most of those images are of time-lapse footage, and the film is most aesthetically pleasing when we watch the busy footage of a world that you might say is too civilized.  In these sequences, crowds flow like rivers through urban city centers, markets, busy streets, etc.  From afar and sped up, humanity becomes just another large, somewhat naturally occurring phenomenon.  It both dehumanizes us and seems to prostrate in awe over what we’ve become.

The footage itself is mostly mesmerizing, but it’s the music that gives the film its tone.  After a brief opening that depicts canyons in Utah followed by a rocket launch, the film begins with images of nature.  These sequences are the calm before the storm as we soon progress into more and more images of a manmade culture and the music grows heavier and more pulsating.  It’s an intimidating effect, and suddenly the culture built up around us feels like a stain on the earth.  I imagine it’s the feeling anyone returning to a first world nation after years away might feel.  Maybe that person is Tom Hanks in Castaway.

Still, much of this footage is beautiful, even as the music seemingly undermines it.  I’m just a sucker for time-lapse footage, so all the shots large skyscrapers and the people beneath them felt awe-inspiring.  I could stare at this stuff all day, but I don’t think I felt the intended pessimism from Godfrey Reggio’s film.

Actually, maybe I’m over-analyzing Reggio’s tone.  Rewatching a couple clips now, a sequence of the film titled “The Grid” just feels like an extension of the movie Tron.  Headlights speed over freeways and kids flow through arcades in a way that highlights the futurism of our current world.  It’s quite hypnotic.

There’s not much else to say about the film or perhaps I’m not trying hard enough.  It’s a visual experience, and it does encourage you to look at the world in a different way.  In one shot, people scurry through a mall food court while a woman stays in one position, sipping a soda.  The time-lapse footage makes the repetitive motion of her soda-drinking feel that much more programmed, like she (and us) and are just unconscious beings carrying out behavior we don’t completely understand.  And maybe that’s the point.  Are we individuals with choice?  Or are we all just products of our environment, flowing like water in a river because that’s where the geography encourages we go?

It does make this all feel a little more frightening, but maybe it’s all kind of beautiful.  We fit into our world in the same way as a tree that can only grow in a certain terrain, or something like that.  We adapt to our circumstances, and it’s up to you to decide if this is a bad thing, something we need to rebel against, or if it’s all okay that this is how it is.

I mean, again, the title is “life out of balance,” so Reggio has his own opinion.  He must be saying that there is something wrong with the way we’re living, how we’ve strayed too far from our original path.

While I have you, I might as well link to a time-lapse video I made over the course of two years of San Francisco……

Up Next: Wings of Desire (1987), Sideways (2004), You Can Count on Me (2000)

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