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Koyaanisqatsi Reviews

As translated in a note at the end of the film, the Hopi word koyaanisqatsi means "crazy life, life in turmoil, life disintegrating, life out of balance, or a state of life that calls for another way of living." Godfrey Reggio's film, made over the course of seven years, is a wordless anti-travelogue in which Philip Glass's score works with the images of Reggio and cinematographer Ron Fricke to show us a world rapidly spinning out of control. KOYAANISQATSI opens with scenes of the American southwest, many of them filmed from the air and displaying the sheer hugeness of the area: deep chasms, enormous rocks on vast plains, all with little vegetable and no human life. Shots of Niagara Falls and other troubled waters and an increasingly ominous tone to the music set the viewer on edge, as one begins to see signs of human presence: machines, pipelines, power lines take a place in the landscape. Nuclear explosions produce mushroom clouds over the desert. People are eventually seen, sunbathing on a beach in the shadow of an enormous factory. The natural world soon disappears altogether, replaced long shots of packed highways. Sped up, they look like rivers of erratic light. The music becomes dominated by swirling arpeggios, simultaneously controlled and hectic. The central segment of the film, set to a Philip Glass piece called "The Grid," consists primarily of sped-up footage of people traveling to and working at their jobs, mostly assembly-line factory work. The music has a relentlessly steady pulse, and grows subtly more complicated as it proceeds. The footage also increases in intensity, giving the impression of motion that has reached the physical limits of velocity. Just as they seem about to explode in a frenzy, the images and the music stop, replaced by slow-motion footage of people who seem displaced, derelict; the music also grows much slower and simpler, largely a solo organ and chanting voices. After the previous section, this feels like a hangover. The movie ends with an astonishing, unbroken tracking shot of a rocket that explodes in mid-air shortly after liftoff. For several long minutes, the camera follows a piece of burning wreckage so steadily that it appears not to be falling at all, merely spinning in space. A former Christian brother who taught underprivileged children and worked with street gangs, Reggio turned to filmmaking out of frustration at the society that was producing such children. KOYAANISQATSI was produced by the Institute for Regional Education, a nonprofit organization that provides information and research on social issues regarding the southwest. But despite these high-minded credentials, this is a film that shouldn't really be thought about too much. On a conscious level, as the admittedly perfunctory synopsis above indicates, Reggio's film would seem to break down into a simple "nature is good, cities are bad" formula. Had that been his intention, though, he could have done it much more directly and effectively by showing the real ugliness produced by civilization--pollution, ozone depletion, deforestation, overpopulation, etc. Instead, KOYAANISQATSI asks the viewers to ponder their relationship to a social system that has come to dominate them rather than serve them. Much of the film is exhilarating and beautiful in a way that may seem counterproductive to that end. But the cumulative effect is more meditative than frightening. It's not a world-shaking film, but it is an affecting one. In 1987, Reggio produced a followup, POWAQQATSI.