Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance
Cinema & New Media Arts | On May 14, 2013
Nate Marshall writes on Koyaanisqatsi (1982) over at The Examined Life:
It isn’t a narrative drama, it isn’t a fiction, and it’s only reluctantly categorized as a documentary (because it’s not at all a documentary, really). Koyaanisqatsi is something of an experimental film. It was directed by Godfrey Reggio, shot by cinematographer/director Ron Fricke (a master of time-lapse and nature photography), and scored by the ever transcendent minimalist composer Phillip Glass. It is the first in a trilogy of films including Powaqqatsi: Life in Transformation and Naqoyquatsi: Life as War. (The second two films are wonderful, but a little heavy-handed in their presentation.) It is a composition of juxtaposed images of nature and city, and a contemplation of the forces in both, all without spoken dialogue or a traditional narrative structure. Instead, the film creates a kind of dialogue and story arc by revealing conceptual patterns and relationships between its images, as well as between image and sound.
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This is not a interpretive free-for-all. Koyaanisqatsi begins and ends with images of a pictogram, an ancient communication which uses only images to convey meaning. Beginning this way sets us up with the responsibility to receive and “read” the communication in the images which will be presented to us. In between, the images convey the passage of time and a sense of history. For that reason, when the film ends with another pictogram, it pushes forward communication-through-image as a constant throughout human culture. Pictures are readable.
This is core to the entire film, since the bulk of it consists of images and time-lapse sequences. They are presented in twelve segments, beginning with pure nature and then progressing through images of society, technology, then ending with a microchip.
At the beginning of the film, time-lapse images of clouds are intercut with water and waves. The element of clouds and waves, water, moves in similar ways regardless of its material state. That different-but-same comparison reminds us that there is a cycle to these elements: though a cloud seems like a nearly intangible object, it crashes and rolls through the sky like a wave in a storm.
The film then transitions to views of the results of our use of the resources that the earth provides. Power lines march across the desert, and landscapes are dominated by power plants or pent up in dams. We have “tamed” the earth. The scenes speed up, and we see society flowing through the halls of buildings, sidewalks and streets. We see the flow of traffic at night pulse and pump through a city in a way that frighteningly reminds us of our own body’s veins and arteries. We surround and protect ourselves with the elements and resources of the earth, forcefully shaped into buildings and cities and society as a whole.
The symbolism here is hard to miss. It says that, while we have a responsibility to our body, we have not only our own body to care for, but two others as well. We have a responsibility toward our neighbors and the body of Christ, and we have a responsibility to the earth itself. The earth was provided for us, and it provides the raw material to do everything we have ever done and to create all the things we have ever made. Despite the fact that this relationship—of humans to the earth they rule—is an essential part of our relationship to God and our place in creation, we have pushed things to a state of unbalance. Reggio reminds us that we share a future and we have a common interest.