22 October 2011

Koyaanisqatsi

Koyaanisqatsi was just an absolutely incredible experience. It's brilliance relies on subtle implications delivered by visual comparisons. The film functions like a visual poem, all symbol and meaning, drawing beauty out of the everyday. Koyaanisqatsi is a film about our world. It has no narration, no direct, spoken agenda, and no characters or story. It is a collection of video footage that features a myriad of elements of our world, including but certainly not limited to: scenes of uninterrupted nature, bird's-eye and in-depth views of cities, and massive displays of technological innovations. I believe, like any poem, the meaning one may draw from it is subjective and personalized. I will be writing about what I took away from the experience, which is this: for me, Koyaanisqatsi is a film about the relationship between nature and technology. This relationship is often violent, cataclysmic and destructive, just as it is often harmonious and symbiotic, and all the while it remains breathtakingly beautiful. The purpose, I believe, of this film is to take a step back from human life in order to notice how incredible the world we live in is to behold. This message is entirely delivered through the art of editing. Given that this film is nothing but a massive collection of clips, for the sake of time I will limit myself to two significant examples to explain what I mean by this, but believe me when I tell you that you can find a lot more in here.
This movie was directed by Godfrey Reggio, a director of experimental documentaries. Just to give you an idea of his body of work, his other films are called Powaqqatsi, Noqoyqatsi, and Anima Mundi. This one is Koyaanisqatsi, which means "life out of balance." It was edited by Alton Walpole and Ron Fricke, two prevalent editors and (mostly) producers still present today. This trio of artists pull together a massive pool of footage and deliberately place each shot, accompanied by music evoking various swells or calms of emotion, in order to create visual comparisons. The film does follow a certain flow but it does not overtly present any particular message or agenda; instead, it presents all of these comparisons to the viewer for the to infer what they will.
As I stated, I believe the film seeks to show the interactions between nature (including humans) and technology (including, and especially, man-made systems). The film starts out with beautiful, wide shots of our Earth. Rock and cliff faces, looming mountains, rolling clouds and massive oceans. It then shatters this with the image of a bulldozer covered in black clouds of exhaust. From here it shows human systems, technologies that run bustling human life. The juxtaposition of these clips, placed side by side, emphasizes the abrupt introduction of human technology. With the magic of sped time, the film displays the magnificence of human efficiency in human systems. It also compares us to hotdogs in a factory. But the clips of cities, with the intricate webs of highways, show just how incredible and intricate the organism of civilization is. Another example of clever comparisons comes in the fifth chapter of the film (30 minutes in). The film first displays the destructive capability of human technology through weapons and machines of war, massive bombs (including WW2's Fat Boy), and a long series of explosions. It then cuts to clips of a ragged, decrepit city. The colors are all gray and brown, scenes of abandoned streets and rotting garbage show the dregs of human cities. Finally, after a few minutes of this, the film reintroduces that destructive ability with a series of building demolitions. It implies a sense of violent reformation. Finally, after all that should be abandoned is destroyed, the film cuts to clips of clean, sleek modern cities with glass skyscrapers and massive, intricate highways.
Koyaanisqatsi is absolutely worth your time. It is clever, subtle, and altogether breathtaking. With no actors or story involved, it is cinematography, mise en scene, and editing that create this artwork, and I remain surprised and impressed with the number and variety of emotions that this wordless compilation was able to instill in me. It is a beautiful visual poem whose clever cuts create violent visual comparisons that I would never have considered or put together on my own.

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