Image. Movement. Juxtaposition. Music. All are just some of the elements required for cinema to inspire as well as impress audiences since the art-form first began. Only a small number of films actually manage to harness the awesome power that these elements have the potential to unleash, with fewer still leaving a lasting impact over the decades. But for many, ‘cinema’ is simply the grandiose title for the familiar Hollywood three-act structure, puckered with the comforting, recognisable faces of A-list celebrities. Cinema is to many just your typical 90-something minute yarn; either special effects laden or just the most recent, culturally relevant, melodrama. How surprised would some be to watch “Koyaanisqatsi” and find it either totally incomprehensible, mind-boggling, dull or awe-inspiring.
For the sake of the reader, Godfrey Reggio’s visual epic is pronounced: Koy-an-is-quat-see, but don’t be put off by what appears as a pompous, art for art’s sake, title. The actual word itself is taken from the Hopi Indian tribe of North America and literately means “Life out of Balance”. Indeed such a title does well to stay with the viewer as they begin to traverse through the visual playground Reggio and cinematographer Ron Fricke slowly constructed. The task I have in describing this entry’s narrative and cinematic importance in just four neatly justified paragraphs is beyond difficult to describe. Simply because the film itself is beyond difficult to describe in such a traditional, empirical format.
Reggio’s visual spectacle/odyssey/documentary/trippy adventure is more of an experience than it is any other kind of film. To put it simply, Reggio’s work is a collection of incredibly diverse shots of the Earth’s many marvelous landscapes. We first see the great expanses of the orange Horseshoe Canyon in Utah where the ancient peoples of past civilizations once roamed. But then suddenly we are treated to a hectic time-lapse of New York City in all its chaotic splendour. People, traffic, road lanes, buildings, lights, even the blackened sky hanging from above become a mishmash of bright objects and vivid colours. Then quickly back to more natural terrain as we sweep like a bird above the corn fields of Iowa, observing grazing gaggles of geese. But before we can become too comfortable the imposing face of a Boeing 747 screams out directly ahead, landing on a cement and tarmacked strip of an artificial, man-made landscape. Finally, towards the end of what surmounts as an inspiring, but also draining experience, is perhaps the most prophetic of visuals. Metropolitan cities shot from above slowly transforming in the ever-present green of a computer microchip.
But to mention the visuals alone and not what makes the film truly stand out would be an even greater crime than not placing this entry onto the list. Philip Glass’ original musical score is one of the most revolutionary for cinema. Many will have heard pieces of the soundtrack before in other mediums such as television commercials, film trailers and even in references to other films. The range of electronic instruments he combines so perfectly with the visuals on display is a marriage of pure harmony. At odds even with the titles meaning. Each new sequence has its own jarring yet welcoming musical introduction which sweeps the viewer into a different frame of mind. Each passing minute creates the emotional plain Reggio clearly wanted the audience to embrace. Power. Fear. Love. Comfort. Every track is layered in so much subtext that any academic would gleefully attempt to lecture about and pretend to understand. Glass’ musical career in its own right has taken on both the weird and more commercial formats. Other film directors have embraced what many consider to be his ground-breaking style of bizarre electronica and disturbingly natural vocal tones. Koyannisqatsi however works on both levels. As a visual art piece it offers a feast for the human eye to observe. As a piece of musical opera its varied melodies stay with you just as Glass’ other scores for the film’s sequels do also. What makes Reggio’s work stand apart so well is in how perfectly the relationship between image and sound became, with very few imitators being able to break the new mould that was shifted so very far here.