Koyaanisqatsi - Life out of Balance

Merrill Shindler Los Angeles Magazine

I can remember as a young child going to the Bell Telephone exhibit in Disneyland, where I was amazed and astounded by a 36-degree movie that took me on a breathtaking journey across America. More than 25 years and a great deal of cynical conditioning later, I found myself every bit as amazed and astounded watching a landmark film whose barely pronounceable name is a Hopi Indian word meaning "a life out of balance." Created by director Godfrey Reggio, cinematographer Ron Fricke and musician Philip Glass under the auspices of the Institute for Regional Education and presented by Francis Ford Coppola, Koyaanisqatsi grabs you almost instantly and holds you tight for a fast 87 minutes. Afterward, images flood your mind for days, for weeks, powerful as any of the marvelous visuals high-tech filmmaking has given us in recent years.

Yet the film doesn’t contain one narrative line in the classic sense. Instead, it flows like a torrent across the American landscape. It begins in Monument Valley and Four Corners, quietly exploring the environment, then, in great bounds, it ascends into the atmosphere, where we see the first of the magnificent time-lapse photography that is one of the film’s visual hallmarks. I think that in my whole life I will never forget the sight of those thick billowy clouds rampaging through the sky like an angry ocean beating against an invisible coast.

But Koyaanisqatsi is not about the limitless beauty of the American landscape. It’s about worlds in diametrical opposition, and it’s not long before man makes his first appearance – on a cluttered, ugly beach, picking his way among the flotsam and jetsam of society, with the nasty-looking mass of a gray concrete nuclear power plant rising in the distance behind them. Quickly, the scene shifts to life in the Big City – both in New York and Los Angeles – where traffic moves in time-lapse bursts around the curves of the freeways and through the glass canyons of the city streets. People flow like an impossible rivulet up the escalators in Grand Central Station, and desolation is found in the abandoned buildings of the South Bronx. People, when seen individually, are alienated, alone, removed from the millions around them (like the strange old man who stands in the middle of a crowded midtown street casually shaving his face with a throwaway razor).

But this film is not so simplistic as to present the country as good and the city as bad. There is glory in the might of the Big City, in the towering buildings, as timeless as the mesas that dot Monument Valley. The visuals amaze us, but the staggering score by Glass guides us, giving the film a Wagnerian sense of apocalypse here and now, while at the same time affirming and reaffirming the life force so strong on our city streets.

Reggio has said, "I’m not a filmmaker, and I don’t intend to make other films. I didn’t want to have to learn things a filmmaker knows. I just wanted to express an idea that has been in my mind, to show that we are in a society that is becoming overwhelmed by spectacle and to show how this has distanced us. I wanted to make the point that we have to make choices between beauty and the beast." Or to further define the meaning of koyaanisqatsi, the Hopi also use the word to express the concept of "a way of life that calls for another way of living."

(return to review list)

IRE All Rights Reserved, 1972-2023 Terms & Conditions