d. Godfrey Reggio / 1982 / USA / 86 mins
It’s been a while since I’ve written a review and perhaps this is an apt title to bridge the gap between the academic investigation of my PhD and this, my journalistic hobby. I’ve recently had the chance to read a lot of work by early theorists (Bazin, Deleuze and Eisenstein and the like) whose writings would go on to define how critics engage with film. What is consistent throughout all that I have read is the idea that film is a medium of stark contrast… Both temporal and spatial, sight and sound. Film communicates through movement and many have argued (although obvious counter-arguments exist) that film is defined within the spaces that lie between these sounds and images, that of its editing.
For those of you who don’t know the film, Koyaanisqatsi is a film with no dialogue, nor a traditional narrative. Instead, it consists entirely of a blend of evocative imagery and a sweeping score, the majesty of nature and the frenzy of human technology caught on camera whilst the minimalistic classicism of Philip Glass provides musical accompaniment. On a technical level, the film is a marvel; cinematographer Ron Fricke showcases his mastery of time-lapse photography and Godfrey Reggio manages to turn the mundane into the extraordinary under his guidance as director.
Although there is a simplicity to much of the imagery, the film’s images are juxtaposed with such force by Reggio that it is difficult to consider multiple readings of the film’s intentions as existing; other than to portray man’s influence as being as out of balance and chaotic as the film’s title (translated from the original Hopi) implies. Even though Reggio has refuted such a singular intention, the resultant film is at its weakest when its depiction of man’s technologically dependant nature becomes overly sentimental. There is a consistent poetry to how Reggio handles the ballet of lights on-screen, but the results are much more effective when the audience is allowed to consider the beauty of both the urban and natural landscapes for themselves. At its best, the more personal portraits of the “people on the streets” seem detached, omniscient and fascinatingly voyeuristic, but in contrast, whilst Reggio’s decision to depict nature as good and urbanisation as bad is perfectly understandable (perhaps even commendable), such intimate inspection of his subjects is often in danger of seeming condescending.
That said, I find it difficult to demean any sentiment that encourages an audience to step back and consider society’s developments; and in its intricate marriage of fabulous sights and sounds, Koyaanisqatsi is capable of the profound. It’s worth a viewing simply to retreat from the maelstrom of everyday life and enjoy what can only be considered a healthy dose of global perspective. The abilities of Reggio and his collaborators are truly impressive and are a reminder of how a mastery of tempo within film can be wonderfully evocative, encouraging an audience’s mind to wander, explore and anticipate; it is however, also a pleasure that decreases when one’s hand is held quite so tightly.