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Grade: AKoyaanisqatsi (1983)

Director: Godfrey Reggio

Stars: Mother Nature

Release Company: MGM

MPAA Rating: NR

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Reggio: Koyaanisquatsi


Sunrise, Grand Canyon
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koy.aa.nis.qat.si (Hopi) [n] 1. crazy life 2. life out of balance 3. life disintegrating 4. life in turmoil 5. a way of life that calls for another way of living.
Having lived among the Hopi and Navajo for over twenty years before moving to the urban megalopolis of Phoenix, Koyaanisqatsi seems like a comfortable trip "home." But its wordless splendor and provocative imagery will play like that to people who haven't even visited northern Arizona—its basic core values of Earth, Wind, Fire, and Water relate to all humanity, making Koyaanisqatsi among the most interactive cinematic experiences ever produced as it connects to wordless regions of the viewer's soul.

Although based on a Hopi word, the title was chosen more to avoid cultural baggage than reflect Hopi concepts. However, those familiar with the Hopi way of life will note thematic similarities with the visuals, since their closely-knit families appreciate the essentials of daily life that revolves around working the fields surrounding their isolated mesa tops. Although many Hopis find they must live in such crazy places as Phoenix or Los Angeles to make a living, they find that they must return to their homeland in northern Arizona—the center of the Universe—to gain perspective and put their lives back into balance.

Director Godfrey Reggio, inspired by Bunuel's Los Olvidados, seeks this same sense of balance, beginning with stunning rhythmic visuals of Nature that plunge into similar patterns of technology that have infused urban life as much as the very air we breathe.

Over a low rumbling chant, resembling that of Hopi mudhen kachinas or Buddhist monks, that simply repeats the film's title and Phillip Glasses enigmatic score, Koyaanisqatsi invokes the basic elements in its opening sequences that shift from petroglyphs, to fiery images, to aerial shots over the mesas and red sandstone canyons of the great Southwest. Before long, mesmerizing time-lapse photos of billowing clouds shadowing the Grand Canyon, then flowing over ancient Canyon de Chelly merge with Niagara Falls and the ocean—convincing evidence of the harmony between air and water to sustain life on Earth.

The breath taking natural beauty lasts for twelve minutes before the first man-made objects are introduced. And this begins just north of Hopi land on Black Mesa, where huge caterpillar trucks dredge coal. Wordlessly the film connects the coal with power lines that flow into the city, leading to striking images of urban life and technology, where modern canyons are created from skyscrapers. Just as the ocean has a natural flow and rhythm, so too do people in their daily routines—whether on the crowded freeways or loading into the subway from Grand Central Station. And what about computer chips, that look so much like aerial photographs of a megalopolis?

Although you may think that such a wordless film could only play the arthouse circuit, the powerful images that Reggio and writer/cinematographer Ron Fricke fashion should pack a potent punch with most humans. If only this could play on IMAX, it could breakthrough as a cinematic cure for drug addiction! Reggio describes the cinematic creation as �awesome beauty, terrible beauty, and beauty of the beast.� And that about describes it as best you can with mere words. It simply has to be seen to be experienced.

Without preaching, Koyaanisqatsi gets its point across through Phillip Glass' hypnotic and evocative score, cinematographer Ron Fricke's creative and provocative juxtapositions, and mystical forces that allow your brain to make its own connections. Through Fricke's creative camera, you'll see life differently than before and just may walk away a changed person. Only interactive media can obtain such results, and this film stands as a landmark for its genre. (What that genre is, I'm not exactly sure; if you ask whether Koyaanisqatsi is about nature or about technology, all I could say is "yes.")

The DVD presentation has an eighteen-minute featurette in which the director explains how the Institute for Regional Education project was made and what they had in mind. Also released is the second of the trilogy, Powaqqatsi (Life in Transformation), which doesn't measure up to the power of the first of the series�notably absent is cinematographer/writer Fricke, who went on to film the renown Baraka.

These two "quatsi" films have long been out of print and are a welcome addition to the home collection for multiple viewing—and God knows I've lost enough bids for a video copy at eBay before 2002. The DVD release coincides with the theatrical debut of the finale of the trilogy, Naqoyqatsi (Life as War) in mid October. Without Fricke behind the camera, I don't expect the latest chapter to compare with Koyaanisqatsi's pensive artistry, but the original is so powerful that the "sequels" require viewing. It's a balance thing—a compelling need for completeness.

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