Monday, January 9, 2012

I'd Love To Turn You On - At the Movies #30 - Koyaanisqatsi (1982, dir. Godfrey Reggio)

“…while I might have this or that intention in creating this film, I realize fully that any meaning or value Koyaanisqatsi might have comes exclusively from the beholder. The film's role is to provoke, to raise questions that only the audience can answer.”
And it’s pretty remarkable to see the diversity of opinions that the film has spawned – scan down its page(s) on IMDB and check out the many one and ten star reviews (rarely much in between; the film does tend to polarize its viewers) and the passionate opinions voiced in support or attack toward the film. But even if it’s taking its cue from minimalism and abstract art and presenting an object open to audience interpretation more than presenting a subject per se, Reggio knows well and good that he did indeed have “this or that intention” in creating the film by choosing the images that he chose to show. And what is it, after all, that is so provocative? Well, my notes about it start like this: “Cave paintings – rocket launch – southwest, all slow, open. Sand dunes – buttes with sped up motion and score speeding to match – shadows sped up to cover landscapes – cave interiors – fade instead of hard cut into clouds – new music theme, sped up, majestic – water, very similar movement to clouds – back to clouds, contrast water vs. clouds, cut to aerial traveling shots…” and so on.

The film consists of a succession of images, gorgeously photographed and connected by no dialogue - but certainly not juxtaposed together by accident - edited to the rhythms of Philip Glass’s hypnotically minimalist score. Buttressing one image against another forces a connection or comparison in the mind of the viewer, and Reggio’s editing is masterful, starting with open spaces and then populating them, or working an idea to a climax, then backing down and building again to a crescendo alongside the music, which certainly deserves a special mention as one of the best film scores ever written, tied intimately to the film. It’s nearly impossible to imagine these sounds alongside any other images after seeing the film.
Many reviews have found it to be anti-technology - or in the extreme cases even anti-human! - but my take on it is that it’s merely observing the phenomena of the natural world and how man has made his way in it; how you feel about that is the question Reggio is posing for you to consider. Certainly he’s tipping his hand a bit – for a film with no action, exactly, there are more explosions here than a dozen Hollywood action films and of course those are connected with the aggression of the military vehicles and weapons shown, or the industrial vehicles and factories early in the film, or the exploding banks of TVs later – not hard to draw some set of conclusions from those taken together. After its opening sequences, mostly of nature and natural phenomena, Reggio populates the film not with people, but with our artifacts – pipelines, electrical towers, etc. - in the environs we’ve already seen. When he starts to focus on people, it’s in urban settings; after his sequence of military hardware, we take an abrupt shift to cityscapes with sped up clouds roaming across the skylines and a moving camera that goes down rivers and up streets like the canyons he roamed with his camera before. He then starts to move around the city and get a feel for the people: showing slums with seemingly vacant buildings that turn out to be occupied, showing slowed down crowds walking the sidewalks of New York City amidst traffic and giant looming ads, showing Grand Central Station at rush hour (and at hyperspeed), showing people at work and at play in a variety of settings. And lest it be said that Reggio displays no humor in the film there’s the sequence that shows the manufacture of hot dogs in mechanized lanes leading to their packaging up against crowds filing through a row of escalator lanes to cars in rush hour traffic lanes to video game cars in video lanes to Ms. Pac Man in her channels and on down to bowling lanes. I mean, that’s funny! But there are those who’d read it as despairingly cynical, and that’s one of the things that makes the film so fascinating – that it can be interpreted so many ways by so many people. After taking us around more towns, land, and machinery, Reggio nears the end of the film with a sequence of people, mostly in close shots, sometimes pictured humorously, sometimes sad, usually poignant, before echoing the opening sequence of the film and completing the opening rocket’s takeoff and fading to the same cave paintings that opened the whole experience before rolling the credits.
For those who have no time for modern and abstract art, for those who find Philip Glass’s music nerve-jangling rather than intense, for those who feel like a semi-documentary about man and nature made by an admittedly lefty director, this film may be try your patience. For those who want a cinematic experience like none other, one that many viewers find breathtakingly gorgeous, with stunning cinematography and a remarkable score, check out Koyaanisqatsi. And maybe take a gander at the other two equally fascinating films in the “qatsi” trilogy – Powaqqatsi and Naqoyqatsi.
- Patrick Brown

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