November 19, 2010

KOYAANISQATSI (1983) - a travelogue for the mind

(USA, 1983)

Want to see your life flash before your eyes?

A visionary journey that darts around America, presenting natural and man-made marvels, and the highs and lows of a technological, high-consumption society. Slow-motion and high-speed filming changes the way we look at the world; slowed-down scenes of passers-by give us time to catch fleeting emotions, sped-up activity transforms crowds of commuters into frantic insects.

Without a word of narrative or any captions, the images lead us around human achievements and mistakes. Starting with an ancient Hopi Indian mural, we next see an Apollo rocket launch on the way to the Moon. We float over some of the country's oldest landscapes, unchanged by human progress or technology. The clouds flow over mountains like a river.

After monuments of nature we see technology unleashed and man-made landscapes. Like row upon row of slab-like high-rise apartments. Horrific-looking places to live. How many people do they hold? As we study them more closely, we see they are damaged, due for demolition.

There's intercutting between different sprawling cities - from the futuristic night-time landscape of LA, with cars flowing in its veins, and densely-packed Manhattan, with its skies replaced by buildings.

The images accelerate as fast food production and consumption speeds by, endless commuters, an hour of TV images and video games in a few seconds, and as the pace keeps increasing it's almost exhausting. A relief when it calms down.

The climax is slowly-paced but poignant. Another rocket launch...

Watching it, I feel like I've seen a lifetime compressed into 80 minutes and think I know the world a little better.

It's good to watch Koyaanisqatsi before knowing too much about it. To start analysing it, or dissecting where it was all shot, is to skew its meaning. It suggests themes, regardless of specific places and events. I first saw it 'cold' and was hugely impressed. It continues to be beautiful, awe-inspiring, humbling and apt.

Ignore the glimpses of seventies fashions and the old arcade video games (like Robotron and Defender) - it's more important what it says about the people wearing them, and being distracted by video games (one of the players is holding and ignoring a small child). It gently makes a point that you can take or leave - doesn't matter what decade it is.

It's good to watch and let your mind wander, great at 3am in the morning, for a mixture of chill-out and freak-out. It makes you think, but doesn't tell you what to think.

The only article I've seen about the making of the film was an interview with Ron Fricke - 'Untold Tales of Koyaanisqatsi' by Ron Gold - in American Cinematographer, March 1984. It's adds an interesting balance to the filmed interview with director Godfrey Reggio on the DVD.

Fricke is credited as cinematographer, and as a writer and editor. But he designed and directed many of the shots. The production lasted 8 years in all and started filming on 16mm, with later 35mm footage shot to blend in.

Fricke used a variety of innovations to increase the impact of the speed changes, using motorised mounts to make the camera appear to perform conventional moves (panning, zooming, tracking) while filming up to 240x normal speed (one frame every 10 seconds). His imagery is also dynamically framed and angled, often using long telescopic lenses (even in low light). I was surprised to learn that the iconic 'Moon shot' (approximated on the DVD cover) was in fact an in-camera splitscreen double-exposure from two different locations! If you look closely, you'll see the two halves of the shot slightly overlap. I was fooled!

Fricke's close-ups are as devastating as his crowd scenes, demonstrated in the section of 'people portraits', shot on 16mm in Times Square. He had no intention to make political points or even thematic links with all of his footage, that was formed by the director and (at least three teams of) editors through the years of the production!

Without him, I feel the 'look' of Koyaanisqatsi is missing from the two sequels, Powaqqatsi (1988) and Naqoyqatsi (2002), where director Godfrey Reggio again worked with composer Philip Glass.

The film inspired a wave of homages and rip-offs, seen immediately in adverts, pop videos and Street Hawk! Ten years later, the impressive opening to Candyman (1992) has shots looking straight down, floating over Chicago at the Cabrini Green building project, all with a Philip Glass soundtrack! Bernard Rose's horror film could have been the backstory of one of the many thousands of people who'd appeared in Koyaanisqatsi.

Godfrey Reggio and Ron Fricke went on to direct more films in the same style. While Koyaanisqatsi is about life on Earth, it was skewed to American society. Reggio's sequel Powaqqatsi would open up the worldview and film all round the globe, with a heavier emphasis on people and culture. More recently Naqoyqatsi tackled the impact of computing. Ron Fricke went on to Chronos (1985), looking like the IMAX answer to Koyaanisqatsi. Better known and more widely seen is Baraka (1992), another spectacular world tour. He has a new film out next year, Samsara. They're all worth seeking out.

This time round, I thought that Koyaanisqatsi had been influenced by 2001: A Space Odyssey, especially the fascination with slab-like skyscrapers, towering into the sky like the black monolith. The buildings at night, covered in slit-like windows, resemble Hal 9000's backlit memory chips. Also Kubrick's similar use of long passages without dialogue, ruled by abstract and classical music. The early scenes of gliding over 'alien' landscapes also echo the climax of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Despite all the footage in and around Manhattan, the movie doesn't get date-stamped with any shots of the World Trade Center, unless you recognise it's subterranean escalators. However, there is a shot of a New York skyscraper being vertically demolished, viewed along a 'street canyon', a shot that looks scarily familiar. That and an exploding rocket which now remind us of different associations than were intended.

The film introduced many audiences to the music of Philip Glass. At the time he "didn't do film music" (he's since composed for Mishima, The Truman Show, Scorsese's Kundun and The Hours) but his fast cyclical style is perfect for the rhythms of motion. Even if you don't like his music, it's qualities totally work with the images. The soundtrack was remastered on CD in 1998 to include the whole score.

Koyaanisqatsi is still available on DVD in the US and UK. They include the trailers for the 'Qatsi trilogy' and a breathless 25-minute interview with Godfrey Reggio and Philip Glass from 2002.

This was one of the first films I thought would be a natural for blu-ray. But there's still no sign of that. The DVD includes film faults like scratches and the transfer looks like it's taken from a print (slightly soft), rather than remastered from the negative. The aspect ratio is 16:9 anamorphic but is tightly cropped at top and bottom (
see the DVD Beaver screenshots here which indicate the image should be taller). The blu-ray of Chronos had a nice feature which identified all the filming locations - that'd be a nice feature for repeat viewings of Koyaanisqatsi. The DVD doesn't even have 5.1 audio on it.

Here's a more thorough, analytical review with great images
on Genji Press.

An original trailer on YouTube...

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