In the Hopi Indian language, Koyaanisqatsi means ‘Life Out of Balance’. Godfrey Reggio’s visual-art spectacle is an invocation of the harmony and balance in Nature, until the developed technology of homo sapiens increasingly disturbs the equilibrium. Reggio’s theme is broadly environmental – a succession of emotional impressions of the natural world and what man’s technology has made of it. There is no narration telling us what to think, although it is quite clear what he would like us to think. Instead, the dramatic visuals of cinematographer Ron Fricke meld with Philip Glass’s rich, alternately mystical and frenetic, soundscape to create powerful structures of sights and sounds that encourage us, through the free association of impressions, to find our own personal interpretations.
Koyaanisqatsi’s first image of a mysterious Hopi cave painting is followed by clouds in fast motion “painting” the canyons, mountains and desert panoramas of Northern Arizona, home of the Navaho and Hopi Indians, and the majestic mesas of Monument Valley. But the Earth’s natural grandeur cannot last forever – landscapes will be ripped apart by bulldozers and factories, machinery and cities will rise to entrap humanity within its own technology, with millions of people travelling to and from their daily routines like ants on an anthill, housing estates built and dynamited just two decades later, highway interchanges encircling cities like serpents and speeded-up long shots of traffic resembling the endlessly circulating bloodstreams of a giant creature sprawling across the landscape, endlessly.
The final moving image, sad, symbolic and held for three dramatic minutes, builds to an emotional unanswerable question: “Is this how it must end?”
Thirty years later, the warning signs are even more ominous than those Reggio painted—except for climate deniers. A few critics have accused him of being simplistic and have interpreted his message as saying that the Earth would be an ideal place for humans to live as long as there were no humans around to ruin it. Perhaps had he chosen to contrast the simple and contented farming life of Hopi Indian communities with, say, the stress and crime in modern cities, he may have made a more compelling case for them. In fact, he has stated that we must make choices between “beauty and the beast,” and has pointed out that in Koyaanisqatsi he has also shown “the beauty of the beast.”
Born in 1940 in New Orleans, Reggio trained with the Christian Brothers Teaching Order, then became a monk and spent 14 years in fasting, silence and prayer until, at 28, he left that path to became a schoolteacher in New Mexico. Over the next few years he co-founded several community and educational organisations, then for six years travelled across North America with Fricke gathering material and raising funding for Koyaanisqatsi, their dream project revealing the impact of urban life and technology on the environment. Most of their footage had been shot in 4.3 academy ratio and Reggio had to be persuaded to allow it to be blown up to a widescreen format to enhance its visual impact in cinemas.
Koyaanisqatsi performed well enough on the arthouse circuit to justify two “qatsi” sequels: Powaqqatsi (Life in Transformation) (1988) and Nagoyqatsi (Life as War) (2002) that were less successful. Over the years Reggio has made several short films and continued to teach philosophy, technology and film. Recently he has been in post-production with his new film The Holy See, and is preparing his first narrative-based film exploring the negative impacts of consumerism and fundamentalism.
After Koyaanisqatsi Fricke broke away from Reggio and made Baraka (1992) in 70mm, another non-verbal but more spiritual meditation on life on earth.
Critical response to Koyaanisqatsi was mainly enthusiastic – although some superior scribes of major newspapers found it good to look at but ultimately naïve and idealistic:
“The film is an 87-minute essay in images and sound on the state of American civilization. A sometimes very beautiful movie that, if it were a book, would look great on a coffee table.”
– VINCENT CANBY, NY TIMES
“There is no overt message except the obvious one (the Grand Canyon is prettier than Manhattan).”
– ROGER EBERT, CHICAGO SUN-TIMES
but some of the commercial film trade papers were more supportive:
“It regales the senses, stimulates the mind and actually redefines the potentials of filmmaking.”
– THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER
“… a spellbinding film so rich in beauty and detail that with each viewing it becomes a new and different film.”
and generally most critics were impressed with its beauty, passion and serious intent:
“Through the use of music and image it manages to create a clear narrative that resonates with deeper meaning.”
– NOEL MEGAHAY, DVD TIMES
“Koyaanisqatsi offers an intense journey to each viewer.”
– MIKE PINSKY, DVD VERDICT
“Highly recommended if you have the brains for it. 5-5.”
– SLYDER, eFILMCRITIC
“Arguably the best stoner movie of all time.”
– REM UNCUT: THE ULTIMATE MUSIC GUIDE
“Whether or not the movie exposes a world that is manifestly out of balance, Reggio and Glass’s gorgeous liturgy is that rarest of art forms: an avant-garde work with purpose and substance that also succeeds as entertainment. What is inarguable is that it at least strives for a type of grandeur and is technically riveting.”
– MARK BOURNE, THE DVD JOURNAL
— Introduction to the film at the session ‘Music Power’, WEA Film Study Group, Sydney, Australia, 22 April 2012
USA | 1982 | 86 minutes | colour
Directed and produced by Godfrey Reggio
DVD source, NFSA; production companies, Santa Fe Institute for Regional Education, NM, IRE Productions; executive producer, Francis Ford Coppola; producer, Godfrey Reggio; cinematographer, Ron Fricke; film editors, Ron Fricke, Alton Walpole; original music, Philip Glass, played by The Philip Glass Ensemble, conductor, Michael Riesman; Dolby Digital 5.1; Aspect ratio 1.85:1 (16:9 enhanced).
- Berlin International Film Festival, 1983: nominated for Golden Bear Award
- Kansas City Film Critics Circle Awards, 1984: KCFCC Award for best documentary
- Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards, 1983: LAFCA Award for best music
- São Paulo International Film Festival, 1984: Audience Award for best feature
- Warsaw International Film Festival, 1988: Audience Award for best feature.
- Selected in 2000 by the National Film Preservation Board (USA) for inclusion in the National Film Registry.
Kostelanetz Richard. Writings on Glass. New York: Schimer Books, c1997