Newsday, September 25, 1983


A meditation on the high-tech life
By Joseph Gelmis

"Many of the film critics I’ve talked to see ‘Koyaanisqatsi’ as a cat that barks," Godfrey Regio was saying recently, over lunch. "They don’t know what to do with it."

Reggio, a 6-foot-6 ex-Christian Brother with the face of a Caravaggio saint, smiled wanly, remembering a couple of Buddhist monks who perfectly understood his spectacular nonverbal fusion of images and sounds.

"When I told the manager of a Manhattan screening facility that I was bringing some lamas to see the film, he said, ‘You can’t bring animals in here, Mr. Reggio.’"

The monks, said Reggio, confirmed his own impression that the film "induces meditation with your eyes open. Many people go into Alpha state while watching it, have a drugless high."

An original Philip Glass musical score composed for "Koyaanisqatsi" is a major component of the high. "Philip’s repetitive trance music – some people think of it as broken needle music – can open the mind," said Reggio.

The title, pronounced koy-ahn-i-skaht-see, is a Hopi noun meaning crazy life, life out of balance, a life that calls for another way of living.

"The lamas told me the word had not only vowel power but intrinsic power," said Reggio. "It’s appropriate that a film with no words should have a powerful title."

"Koyaanisqatsi" has no narrative, actors or conventional action. It is 87 minutes of awesome landscapes – natural and man-made, the Grand Canyon and the canyons of Manhattan –enhanced by speeded-up time-lapse photography.

It is a deliriously beautiful vision of America and a cautionary tale of what technology is doing to the earth and us. Its view of assembly-line packaging and consuming of fast food, and rush-hour crowds flowing in a torrent down escalators to catch subways and commuter trains, is funny and depressing.
The film premiered a year ago at Radio City Music Hall, as a special event in connection with the New York Film Festival. It went on to become a sensation of festivals in Havana, Berlin, Hong Kong, Vancouver and Moscow.

Its unconventional form made "Koyaanisqatsi’s" commercial potential dubious, until Reggio opened it himself in San Francisco. That first 10-day theatrical trial grossed $50,000, impressed theater owners and led to distribution by Island Alive, a newly-formed partnership of independents. "Koyaanisqatsi" has been running successfully for three months in Los Angeles. As part of a massive release in the United States and abroad, it opened a week ago at Manhattan’s 57th Street Playhouse.

The creator of this remarkable film has had an unusual career. Born in New Orleans, he entered the Christian Brothers Teaching Order at 14. Beginning as a grade school teacher, he graduated to living with and counseling Sante Fe street gangs. He was a founder of the Clinica de la Gente.

My irregular hours and association with unsavory companions was more than my superiors in the order could tolerate," said Reggio. "I was fully ordained. It was my life. But at 28, I left by mutual agreement. They were preparing to expell me."

In the early 1970s, Reggio was doing film and video shorts for television. "I had done a nonverbal short film about government surveillance and control of the inmates of federal institutions," he called. "It was instrumental in Congress eliminating...

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