Movie Review: Koyaanisqatsi

Posted: February 18, 2010 in Movie Review, Reviews
Tags: , , , , ,

Koyaanisqatsi (1982 Dir. Godfrey Reggio)

If you pull back far enough, it’s actually a picture of Marilyn Monroe

I wouldn’t normally suggest this, but perhaps you should really click the title and read over the wiki article I linked. I might make some things a little bit easier, or perhaps not. This isn’t going to be an easy review. I think this is going to have to be more like what my earlier reviews were like rather than the explanation of what the movie is about and saying what scenes are good and bad and stuff. If you aren’t familiar with Koyaanisqatsi, it can be a little hard to explain without becoming amazingly condescending or pulling out the snark-bat. If we’re feeling unkind, there is a lot to snark at. I like this movie and three word review would be “Pretentious but interesting.” That’s not to say it’s bad, or even that it’s good. You might think it’s mind numbing garbage while another person thinks it’s a mind dazzling piece of brilliance. In a way, I’d agree with both of you. Each person needs to have their own reaction in a way.

My urban renewal project is not going as I’d hoped.

The name of the movie is a Hopi word meaning “life of moral corruption and turmoil” or “Life out of balance” and the concept is that technology has not improved our lives much. I get that from listening to an interview given by the director on the DVD, and it’s a good/bad thing he was there to explain. Actually, he does say that it’s up to the viewer to decide what the movie means to them. It’s a good thing he did explain that, because in some ways I don’t agree with his thesis. I do see him making the very solid distinctions between the organic and the inorganic, and I see how he shows the way that say high power lines sort of blight the natural landscape. The other things I see here though are how no matter how apart from nature we try to set ourselves, we keep falling back into it. No matter how many times they try to show me what we’ve changed I keep seeing how it looks remarkably like something natural. My view is that no matter what we do, we can’t escape nature, because we’re part of it.

Look kids the Microdata building! Yeah, I got nothing.

This can be a very hard movie for someone to watch, particularly the first 20 minutes or so. It can be frustrating at any time, but the opening would be very tough for someone to watch if they didn’t know what was going on or hadn’t been briefed as to what they should expect. There is no dialogue, no voice over, no words beyond a few people singing a few words of the Hopi language. The first ten minutes is just slow moving shots in a desert, looking at different kind of natural stone formations and things like that. Then there are clouds, shot in time lapse to make it show them swirling over mountains, and then there is the sea for a while. It strikes some people as a kind of bizarre nature documentary at first and with good cause. After a brief glimpse of some cave painting and a launching rocket done in very slow motion, you see nothing influenced by man for about 15 minutes, and that is a field of cultivated flowers that the camera is flying over. This could easily have the uninitiated climbing the walls and gnawing their own feet off.

This is the love interest for the movie, sadly she’s only on screen for about 15 seconds.

If you have the sort of patience required though, the movie is more than just a lot of disconnected images shot at different speeds. A lot of the time, if you watch carefully, you can see how the last shot actually segues into the current shot and how it relates to the next shot. There is a progression to what you’re seeing from one section to the next. The 747 gives way to the freeways, where we see cars driving past until that is forced give way to what looks like a dealers lot shot from the sky. The rows of cars then become rows of tanks, which moves into fight jets on the ground and then flying with the camera mounted to the tailfin so that everything else is flying by while the plane stays stationary in the shot. There are several visual callbacks as well the cars on the lot look much like the rows of flowers looked 10 minutes ago, the buildings in the city relate to the earlier cannons of the deserts, and so on. Sometimes the images of comparison are more direct and sometimes the images are more contrasting. It depends on where in the movie we are.

I wonder if it would have been such a hit if Aerosmith had called it “Love on an escalator”

It’s less like a full feature as it is a series of shorts that have been stitched together by virtue of having a similar idea and general visual style. The music helps separate the different sections. While some of the pieces of music are sometimes jarring, sometimes dull and other times come off as “hey, didn’t we hear this same little 4 second bit of tune about 800 times already?” they do actually work with the images for the most part. I often consider that the music is just what the movie needs to let your ears be part of the process but not distract you unduly from the images on the screen. Still, if you get near a tune, go ahead and play it.

This guy clearly thinks he looks good.

I think my favorite parts of this movie are all the bits of time lapse photography used in busy locals. I suppose if one wanted to show how cities were like an organic body instead of trying to show how disconnected technology made us, they could show the microscopes of the blood stream right after showing the time lapse of the freeways at night. It’s what comes to my mind anyway and reminds me that all this technology doesn’t really disconnect us. We just end up emulating it at different scales. The time laps stuff, which really gets going at about the 45 minute mark is my favorite stuff though, it’s what I remember from my first viewing this at the age of 15 or so when my uncle showed it to my father and I.

This rope lighting thing has gone too far!

In many ways this is an experimental film, it’s just also something of a popular success. Not a major mainstream success, but one that a lot of people who make mainstream successes have seen and know about. It’s just popular enough to be thought of as what artsy movies are. One of the pop culture references I remember that isn’t in the wiki article is that on MST3K Mike would sometimes mutter “Koyaanisqatsi” in a deep bass whenever shots of scenery were seen for too long of a shot.

The ghosts of walll street… sure are a lot of them.

In the end, I find the movie fascinating, but might be a little long for its own good. There are some genuinely cool shots in here though and it would be a shame to miss them. The music is cool, but could have been a little less repetitious. It becomes frustrating to hear the same four measures done over and over again. Since I’ve never really bought into the whole ‘technology is bad’ thing or the ‘everything was much better back when’ thing I don’t get into the filmmaker’s stated thesis for this movie. However, you don’t need to accept his interpretation of the movie anyway, make your own. Since you can buy a copy of this movie for $11 or get it and it’s sequel for $17 it’s not even that huge an expense if you buy it. You could also rent it, which would make it even cheaper.

Had you known this stuff in college, you could have totally scored with Suzy Jenkins.

If you want to be kind, you can agree with the filmmaker’s idea, or at least congratulate him on producing something that seems genuinely to be deserving of comment and conversation. I think there is a lot to talk about here, and you could have a lot of interesting discussions about what this shot means or what that segment represents. If you feel nasty, you could just accuse the movie of being overly pretentious, complaining about the music and making the filmmaker sound like a back to earth hippy by yelling the “Y’know what I mean maaAAAaan?” after everything he says in the interview and then mock him throughout the picture. In many ways it’s an open invitation to make comments, and despite how it may seem sometimes it really doesn’t tell you what to think about what’s being shown. It sort of tries to insinuate, but it doesn’t actually tell.

Um, yeah, what they said.

This is probably why the movie works, it let you come in and tell it what you think instead of telling you what to think. Minimalism at its best I suppose. Or, I could have just come up with a lot of nonsense after having watched this movie and had parts of my mind numbed. Either way, it’s an interesting thing to rent once or to buy and pull out for friends if they’ve never seen it.

Official Score:
8 Degrees on the Graffiti Bridge Scale.

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