“It’s not for lack of love of the language that these films have no words. It’s because, from my point of view, our language is in a state of vast humiliation. It no longer describes the world in which we live.” -Godfrey Reggio, director
Scored by Philip Glass and completely without narration, Koyaanisqatsi is an experimental documentary that explores the imbalance of the world: how humans have grown apart from nature and built a separate way of living. While it’s somewhat unorthodox (although still very accessible), I found it to be an insightful work of visual poetry that lands its message clearly and beautifully.
The first portion of the film glorifies the wonders of nature. Director Godgrey Reggio mostly uses landscapes or other wide-shots that he will employ for most of the film, giving it a very “macro” feeling. He’s mostly uninterested in the nuances of a person’s life or the wings of a particularly butterfly. His scope is the world, both natural and unnatural. The second portion of the film moves into the postmodern human condition: the hustle of city living and the machines we’ve built from nature. Towards the very end, we get the implications of this disconnect: a sad series of images documenting the despair that often goes along with our way of living.
I claimed that the movie is accessible because it still feels like a familiar work of poetry. The only thing strange about it as a documentary is that it doesn’t use narration (not completely uncommon) and it has a grander, more philosophical intent. Reggio builds his case using images, and he selects them wonderfully. His landscapes and cityscapes are so impressive that you won’t just ponder the imbalance of man and nature, you’ll be reminded how beautiful the world can be sometimes.
Philip Glass is invaluable to the film’s distinct mood. I found myself audbily laughing at the fun, zippy tunes of quick urban life and “hmm”-ing at the more somber moments of reflection. Reggio clearly worked closely with Glass to match image with music, because the movie seamlessly sways you from one reaction to the next without ever feeling heavy-handed. I imagined the movie would be sadder when I read the synopsis, and it is sad, but there are moments of joy, wonder, and impassioned observance of the world that really make it more dynamic than it seems. The music also has this beautiful symmetry, beginning with a deep, lulling chant of the film’s title and ending with the very same in a different context, suggesting a powerful unity between man and nature despite the disconnect.
It may take five or ten minutes to really get on board, but by the end of the film, you’ll be lulled into a wondrous appreciation for the world around us and Reggio’s measured talent as a documentarian. I felt more like I was reviewing fine literature than work of film, and that’s something I love about films like this: their poetic hold on the cinematic medium. For a thoughtful, meditative experience, I would certainly recommend Koyaanisqatsi.
Films Left to Watch: 838