For most people, movies are an escape from reality. They give you characters to live through. They capture your passive attention. For a brief time, they allow you to forget your worries. “Koyaanisqatsi” is not one of those movies.
Directed by Godfrey Reggio with cinematography by Ron Fricke and music composed by Philip Glass, the 1982 experimental film “Koyaanisqatsi,” meaning “life out of balance” in Hopi, absolutely shattered and enlightened my knowledge of what film is capable of. Viewing “Koyaaniqatsi” over five times last semester changed the way I experience the world.
After taking Dudley Andrews’s course “Film and the Arts,” I realized the potential for cinema to imitate and replicate reality. Film instills images with movement, space and time and combines them with the power of literary narrative and music. Without the standard narrative devices of character, plot and dialogue, “Koyaanisqatsi” relies fully on the interplay between sound and image, pushing both media to extremes in complexity and minimalism. Unlike most films, the scoring and filming of “Koyaanisqatsi” were simultaneous and reactive. First, Glass would see Fricke’s shots and compose for them. Then, Reggio would cut to Glass’ music. The result is an intensely subjective and visceral audio-visual event that conveys the sublimity of our world and how humans have grown apart from nature.
Glass’ gradual, subtle synthesis of artificial, electronic and acoustic sounds and instruments conveys the film’s core message that technology has seeped into and perverted every aspect of human existence to exploit the earth and enslave itself. The very essence of minimalism in adding slight changes and variations to a melody’s development suggests arithmetic and the hyperrational, technological world of today as depicted in the film. The resulting sonic mood encourages reflection on this loss of human nature and disunity with the natural world. On its own, the music tells a story.
The film begins with slow-moving pans of the natural landscapes of the Southwestern United States with the long, held notes of a low synthesizer. The camera eventually breaks from the calm to a majestic flight in the clouds and over a river. The music matches this ascent into the air; Glass’ score becomes highly patterned and repetitive with the high, windy timbres of flutes and clarinets arpeggiating at comfortable speeds for flying.
At first depicting the elements of nature in clouds, waves, fire and desert, the music then shifts from a majestic naturalness to a sinister artificial humanness. Not only does humanity exploit the earth’s resources with its factories, refineries, dams and power lines, but it creates forgeries of nature as highways mimic rivers, and skyscrapers resemble rock formations. All the while, the same musical motifs from earlier in the film are manipulated to appear jarringly fast and complex, accentuated by the artificial, tense colors of synthesizers joining the symphony orchestra.
Eventually, the film captures in both slow and fast motion the lives of humans on the street, binge-eating fast food, packing escalators and metros, allowing them to make eye contact with the camera. During these scenes, the music switches between speeds of monotony and hyperactivity. This section of the film then depicts humanity’s automation at hyper speed. We see the packaging of Twinkies and hot dogs, the screens of a video arcade and flashes of T.V. ads. The arpeggios flow at intense velocities until abruptly stopping for a subtle, synthesized echo as the camera passes over the details of microchips. The image suggests both the automation of human behavior and the potentiality of artificial intelligence.
“Koyaanisqatsi” subtly argues that humans have exploited the earth like parasites, but in doing so, have enslaved themselves to technology. Both Glass’s intense, mechanistic score and the film’s fast motion images suggest the chaos of this unsustainable way of life. We are shown that humans can coexist with nature, but we have gone too far. Reggio intended to convey this omen to change the course of human history. After viewing the film, this message deeply resonates with me. Walking between classes or just staring out the window, I can hear the music playing and meditate on its message. We must stop our dependence on technology and exploitation of the earth. We ought to truly become one with nature, not artificially replicate and imitate it. As a result of this film, I am extremely aware of the things pressing on and trying to penetrate the sovereignty of my consciousness. From mindless swiping through Instagram to the forced attention of billboard advertisements, we have been programmed to consume and perpetuate technology and capitalism at the expense of our wellbeing.
Ethan Dodd | firstname.lastname@example.org .