Reviews of Koyaanisqatsi (1982) and related work

Koyaanisqatsi (1982Moving picture, 86 minutes) – previously

Modern US civilization and nature. It starts by zooming out from a cave painting to slow and sombre music. Fade to a slow-motion burst of fire from the base of a rocket taking off from Earth, and from there to the cracked landscape of a Utah desert, on through other shots of nature, including swift aerial journeys to more elated music. One such aerial shot depicts a flower farm, and soon thereafter more violent human activity takes the stage. Mining demolition segues to a giant truck suddenly enveloped in smoke. Mute steel towers carry cables over ancient landscapes. Mushroom clouds rise, followed by urban life and industry, including video games and ordinary individuals.

At the very end, the few words that have been sung on the soundtrack are translated: “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.”, and the last frame: “Translation of the Hopi Prophecies sung in the film: ‘If we dig precious things from the land, we will invite disaster.’ ‘Near the Day of Purification, there will be cobwebs spun back and forth in the sky.’ ‘A container of ashes might one day be thrown from the sky, which could burn the land and boil the oceans.’”

The Qatsi trilogy consists of montages examining the human condition, often in slow or fast motion, with some stock footage. The entire trilogy is scored by Philip Glass but otherwise silent. The films are postmodern syntagmata, never explaining what is being shown. Space travel is a minor recurring motif.

All of the titles in the trilogy are taken from the same language. The strongest form of authorial commentary is in these titles, and the choice of how they’re translated on screen. The Hopi are notable for their culture of matrilineage and their myth of creation where not just one but three old worlds were completely destroyed by a disappointed god, thus teaching the remaining people how to behave in the fourth (current) world, which remains at risk.

This is imperative viewing for any fan of cyberpunk or film itself. Beyond the title, the film’s intended meaning is quite clear, being made of a constant stream of choices and implications by framing and editing. Even so, as Kyle Kallgren noted in a 2018 video essay, very similar visual material is often used with very different tone and intent. Seemingly self-organized, high-energy collective life on the “grid” of our cities looks impressive whether you love it or not.

References here: Candyman (1992), Human (2015), “School of Seduction” (2019), Ascension (2021).

moving picture non-fiction

Powaqqatsi (1988Moving picture, 99 minutes)

The Third World. Heavy loads, manual labour, children in ramshackle housing, natural beauty and life close to it, First-World television exports, religion, urbanization and other points of interest in global economic and cultural imperialism and integration.

“po-waq-qa-tsi (from the Hopi language, powaq sorcerer + qatsi life) n., an entity, a way of life, that consumes the life forces of other beings in order to further its own life.”

Less variety, fewer powerful clashes; somewhat toothless by comparison.

moving picture sequel non-fiction

Naqoyqatsi (2002Moving picture, 89 minutes)

War, science, sports, commerce, celebrity, the use of icons: the objectification and hierarchies of humankind through modern history, back to stock footage as old as the praxinoscope and zoetrope. Crash test dummies and modern CGI models; a sequence of wax cabinet figures ends with the face of George W. Bush. Street fights alternate with first-person shooters and cartoon violence.

“na-qöy-qatsi (nah koy’ kahtsee), n. from the Hopi language, . 1. a life of killing eachother. 2. war as a way of life. 3. (interpretation) civilized violence.”

More abstract, featuring heavier image manipulation (particularly false colours and horizontal stretching), including a fluid sequence where a large number of images morph chaotically to replace pieces of one another in a cinematic stream of consciousness: A further improvement on the sequence in the middle of the previous film.

Certainly a new direction, eschewing the awe-inspiring natural scenes and architecture of the earlier entries, in favour of intellectualism. In fact, intuitive visual beauty is almost totally absent, mauled by imaginatively intrusive editing.

References here: “Open Your Mind” (2005).

moving picture sequel non-fiction