Koyaanisqatsi Review

Ko.yaa.nis.qatsi (from the Hopi language) n.1. crazy life. 2. life in turmoil. 3. life out of balance. 4. life disintegrating. 5. a state of life that calls for another way of living.

"Until now you have never really seen the world you live in" is the claim on the trailer for Koyaanisqatsi and for once the voice-over man is not hyperbolising. Koyaanisqatsi is indeed one of the most powerful, influential and affecting films ever made. Even though its iconic imagery has been much imitated, being appropriated for everything from television advertising to pop promotional videos (Madonna’s 'Ray of Light' and Big Country’s 'One Great Thing' come immediately to mind), it still has the power to genuinely move you to look differently at the world around you.

What is Koyaanisqatsi about? It is film without plot, dialogue or even any fixed message. It presents a montage of images of nature - landscapes, cloudscapes and waterfalls alongside various aspects of our modern life and forces us to consider the way we live and consider our reliance on technology as a way of life. Long slow time lapse sequences of canyons, waterfalls and mountain ranges measure out the powerful, enduring and imposing presence of nature. Alongside this the fleeting presence of humanity is shown through speeded-up sequences of modern-day life. Planes taxi through the heat-haze of a runway with balletic grace, skyscrapers are demolished like felled giants, cars and people cross road intersections with choreographed precision. At times you don’t know whether you are looking at a satellite photograph of a cityscape or a close-up of a circuit board or computer chip.

But the film doesn’t rely on wide sweeps. To tremendously powerful effect it slows down the pace to look at people caught up in their daily existence, picking out individuals in crowds or using portraiture, posing them in the environment of their professions. But it does more than merely photograph - Ron Fricke’s camera delves deep into their souls, exposing their humanity and forcing the viewer to reflect on their own mortality and way of living.

The word spiritual is often applied to this kind of film, but again, this is one film that is more than deserving of the description. It is not merely a series of stunning images, beautiful landscapes and innovative camera shots, but through the use of music and image it manages to create a clear narrative that resonates with deeper meaning. Obviously, the use of certain images and the context in which they are presented are meant to provoke a response, but that is the entire message of the film – it wants you to stop and think. And for the many attempts there have been at imitating or emulating this film, there is nothing that comes close to achieving that level of involvement with the viewer.

The picture quality on this MGM release is very good. Considering the film makes use of some stock footage and the age of the film itself the print is remarkably clear and pretty much free from all but the smallest of marks, artefacts or dust spots. Incredibly, there is very little grain visible, but colours are slightly faded and faintly dull with a slight green/grey tint. What matters here however is not true fidelity to the colours, but preserving the aspect 1.85:1 ratio of the original film – essential for Ron Fricke’s stunning photographic compositions and almost impressionistic cityscapes. The anamorphic transfer does this as well as can be expected.
Strangely subtitle options in French and Spanish are included for the main feature, which doesn’t have any dialogue, but not for the extras where they would be much more useful.

The only real sound on the film is Philip Glass’s symphonic score of string, woodwind instruments, chanted vocals and trademark rolling keyboard arpeggios. It is classic Glass, a soundtrack that even divorced from the powerful images, commands a tremendous emotional presence, piling crescendo upon crescendo. Although Glass has revisited the score recently making a new recording for DVD-Audio, the score that accompanies the film is the original remixed to 5.1. It is a good remix that remains faithful to the original Dolby stereo soundtrack. The presence of the music remains firmly focussed to the front, keeping it associated closely with the images but allowing an airier, atmospheric touch with discreet use of the rear channels. The bass organ is a little dull and muffled on occasions, but despite the lack of hi-fidelity sound, it is probably still preferable to retain the original performance to the slightly clinical quality of the new version. For the ultimate experience of this film however, I would recommend the live performance of the score to the film that Philip Glass still tours with his Ensemble.

Documentary – Essence of Life
As if a great print and well remixed Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack weren’t enough, the DVD also features a 16:9 enhanced 25 minute documentary, interviewing Godfrey Reggio and covering his career from a monk to his early unconventional and Buñuel influenced educational information films. Philip Glass also contributes and describes how he came to write the music for the film. The director is very appreciative of both Ron Fricke (who would go on to direct Baraka) and Philip Glass and very modest about his own achievements, preferring to see the film, as it undoubtedly is, as a collaboration between a group of true artists, which wouldn’t work without the input of each of those people. He describes his ideas for the film and his reasons for relying on images over words. Words carry too much baggage and he wanted this film to present a fresh look at the world. Having said that, Reggio manages very well with words here, describing clearly his aims for the film.

The DVD also contains 3 trailers for each of the films in what was always intended to be a trilogy. Koyaanisaqtsi - Life out of Balance, the hugely under-rated Powaqqatsi - Life in Transformation, and a thrilling preview of the long-awaited final chapter, the forthcoming Naqoyqatsi - Life as war.

This is a superb film and an essential DVD. Not only does it show you the world in a new and unique way, but each viewing brings fresh thoughts, discoveries and feelings. It is a remarkable film that touches profoundly and I believe honestly. Deeply humane, its gaze is comprehensive, uncompromising and unflinching – it is both dispassionate and impassioned at the same time. Because of licencing and funding difficulties, its release on DVD has been a long time coming. Thankfully this MGM release does the film justice and as it is available in a double-pack with Powaqqatsi at a ridiculously cheap price, you really ought to have it in your DVD collection.

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