Director: Godfrey Reggio
Quoth the IMDB description of the film: “A movie with no conventional plot: merely a collection of expertly photographed scenes. Subject matter has a highly environmental theme.” Well, that’s damning with faint praise if ever there was. The scenes are certainly expertly photographed; cinematographer Ron Fricke had a gift for capturing this sort of imagery (given the latter’s later work in IMAX and 65mm, it’s kind of amusing that he had to start out in 16mm here). Still, surely there’s more to it than just that. A bit like A Tale of the Wind from the other day, Koyaanisqatsi defies easy description: if it’s a documentary, what is it documenting? If it’s an essay film, what’s the thesis of the essay? Not until the credits roll at the end do we even get an explanation of the film’s title… and what on Earth would people have made of the film if Reggio had gone with his initial idea to release it without a title at all?
The first time I saw the film on VHS, I remember being impressed without being blown away. Later revisits on digital media have been a lot happier experiences, particularly this evening’s high-definition encounter. Technically, it relies on two of the oldest cinematic tricks there are, i.e. slow motion and time lapse (the latter seems to have been the key discovery for Reggio and Fricke in deciding what they were going to make). I found a review I did for my old radio show a number of years ago when I checked out the old MGM DVD, at which time I said the film’s combination of specially shot new footage and carefully deployed stock “it all adds up to an overriding sense of obliquely existential horror”. I’ll stand by those words, cos I got the same feeling tonight, and largely because of those same old techniques; the slow motion stuff is kind of exultant but also implacable, while the time lapse business is so frenetic at times it actually becomes kind of frightening. Especially when the film abruptly jumps from one to the other (you notice how little of it seems to have been filmed at normal speed). And the rocket-exploding climax isn’t the most uplifting end. Reggio has said he was fairly hands off during the production, trusting in Fricke to get the images and later editing the film around Philip Glass’ music, which is of course the other most notable thing about the film. The whole thing is quite stunning; as an attempt at taking avant-garde cinema “mainstream”, Koyaanisqatsi is remarkable.