Koyaanisqatsi (1982)

No plot, no characters, no dialogue? No problem. The experimental documentary Koyaanisqatsi is devoid of any traditional narrative. From the beautiful views of clouds rolling into the mountains to the magnificent aerial shots of a major metropolitan, the camera is constantly forcing the audience into bizarre and odd perspectives on any number of things one has seen time and time again.

At first, the images seem to be self-indulgent, artistic filmmaking: lots of lingering, slow shots of pretty looking things. But as the film progresses, the tempo picks up, the editing tightens and the music crescendo, ideas and concepts begin to creep into the film, growing and progressing wordlessly as the film observes the current state of the planet earth, lofty, detached, almost like an god looking down upon his domain.

The most obvious conflict presented in the film is the juxtaposition of the natural world and growing industrialization. One shot starts lingering upon a female figure lounging on a beach. Slowly the shot pans upwards, pulls out, revealing that the idyllic resting spot is overshadowed by a massive industrial complex that lingers only yards away from the sunbathers.

Unease and imbalance are then demonstrated by nervous camera angles, distortions of time and rhythms in editing. Wordlessly the film conveys the incompatibility of the two worlds, places them at odds with each other. It also shows how industrialization has gradually grown more and more important. As the film opens, all the shots are of the natural world, no sign of human impact, but once the humans begin to come into the story, the film gradually shifts over into images of modern civilization.

Here, the open rolling hills are replaced with sharp corners and tight spaces. The vast emptiness of the natural world is contrasted with the dark confines of civilization. The film begins giving its most blatant commentary on the destructive nature of industrialization, whether it is through pollution or the constant demolition of its own inner cities.

The film flows through these ideas, strings them together into a flurry of momentum, balance and imbalance. It only seems proper that the film was scored by Phillip Glass. His repetitious, nervous style accentuates the film’s main tension of imbalance and flow. It helps carry the momentum created by the image as well as rattles the flow of the entire piece.

And yet as much ideology and flow carry the piece, it’s the images that provide the film substance. The fantastic photography demonstrates not only a bold vision, but also an unbridled creativity. From the slow, majestic shots that show a profound patience to the vast and exaggerated objects that fill the frame, every last image is captured with a thought in mind, and placed in a tapestry of magnificent vision.

With the lack of any kind of conventional guiding force, one expects the film to require a high level of attentiveness, but it’s actually one of the most rapturous and riveting film experiences, an absolute enthralling sensory overload of sights and sounds that melt back and forth into each other, building and flowing. Like a great piece of music or an excellent novel, time shatters once it takes hold, encasing its audience in a rhapsody of beauty.

© 2011 James Blake Ewing

  • This is definitely one of my favorite films ever. I just love the non-narrative approach along with Ron Fricke’s cinematography and Phillip Glass’ score. In fact, I think Ron Fricke is coming out with another film this year as a director. It could be exciting.

  • I wasn’t really a fan of this movie. What I thought it showed, more than anything, was just how easy it is for a documentarian to wield a heavy hand. They don’t need narration; they don’t even need dialogue. All they have to do is to overdetermine the scope and frame of the discussion, in order to present a bold, manipulative point of view. In fact it seems to be all the more effective without the distraction of words and the attempt at logic that they would imply.

    • I get where you are coming from. It’s a film that very clearly has an agenda and the sole use of images make that agenda all the more powerful.

      However, that’s what I liked about it. I think documentaries, by their nature, are problematic and yet I enjoyed that this one was crafted in such a way that it’s clearly fabricated with the manipulation of time, editing and positioning.