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Koyaanisqatsi

(7/10)

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Current Rating 8/10 | 23 Votes

Almost every review of this film points out at some point that the word"Koyaanisqatsi" is from the Hopi Indians, and means "life out of balance." Few point out the pretentiousness of this, but that's just as well; the word is defined at the end of the film for the benefit of those who failed to do their research. Godfrey Reggio's cinematic manifesto has become a standard reference point for academics, environmentalists and public school teachers. But really, it's not that bad. I was first exposed to it in eigth grade by a very bad English teacher, on a crappy video copy of the film's first twenty-five minutes, while being forced to engage in stream-of-consciousness writing. Naturally, I disliked the film. Now, these many years later (all two of them), I got the chance to see the complete film in 35mm with Philip Glass accompanying the nearly soundless film live, with his ensemble blaring out the score (and shutting up and switching on the speakers for the film's rare moments of sound) and I like it a lot more. I still think it's every bit as infantile thematically, though.

Perhaps the world's most famous non-narrative semi-structuralist film, it starts out by photographing Nature, and then moves on to Man Destroying Nature, and, finally, The City, with all the horror and astonishment of Clark Kent confronting his first mugger. The nature footage, while excellent, has grown numbingly familiar in style thanks to the numerous people ripping off Reggio over the years - speeded-up clouds, etc. Well done, overall. Then come the oil drillers and the viewer instantly sense the crux of Reggio's thoughts: humanity is destroying nature. But then nothing new comes: Reggio moves to the big city, works out the second part of his statement (the artificial urban environment is dehumanizing us all) with some rather obvious shots (such as juxtaposing the making of Twinkies with busy subway crowds going up escalators), and beats it into the ground for the rest of the film. Conclusion: let's blow up all the buildings and go back out to the deserts. (Incidentally, there are some astonishing shots of buildings being demolished.)

Reggio doesn't really like people, I think: he tends to speed up crowds in motion to make them look stupid and rushed, maybe even on automatic pilot. His close-ups are of people he doesn't seem to feel a particular connection with, and by slowing down everything greatly he can make someone look lost or lonely even if they're just looking down while lighting a cigarette. His political thought is infantile and basic: "Industrial technology has spelt the end of spirit, it has practically eliminated the environment, it has inspired madness beyond anybody's ability to imagine." So Mr. Reggio has said, but the film fails to move beyond this worthy but simplistic thought.

That said, the movie is quite a feat technically. In particular, Reggio's eye for the city is unique and often quite beautiful, even if he thinks it's horrifying. The editing rhythms get faster and faster until the film finally explodes into an extreme slow-motion shot. It's an exhilarating technique workout which disguises the mundanity of thought behind it. Always absorbing for its brilliant cinematography and editing, the film lacks a real core, but Reggio manages to bluff his way through it anyway. I just hope that no one ever elects Reggio to political office. Oh yeah, you thought I was going to forget to mention it: Philip Glass's score is quite good and an integral part of the film, but Reggio's editing rhythms nearly make it unnecessary.

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