What makes a documentary a classic? It can be a combination of things, as in the case of Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi, which turns 30 on Saturday. This poetic landmark of cinema — literally, as recognized by the National Film Registry — was even a relative box office success, which would be a feat for any nonfiction work at the time but is especially notable considering it’s also basically a feature-length experimental film.
I presume that actually helped in its appeal to the counterculture audiences of San Francisco, where it first opened in limited release to huge numbers on April 27, 1983 (almost precisely one year since its Santa Fe Film Festival premiere on April 28, 1982). There is definitely a psychedelic quality to the temporally altered imagery that Koyaanisqatsi is well known for, and there’s no wonder some have labeled it a “drug movie.” But while that makes for an easy “cult classic,” it does not cement the film’s status as a documentary masterpiece.
Given that there are so many kinds of nonfiction films and so many kinds of nonfiction film fans, Koyaanisqatsi might not be for everyone and could even be excluded from some people’s definition of documentary. It lacks explicit narration, featuring no voice-over and almost no onscreen text. According to Reggio, the movie isn’t intrinsically about anything and doesn’t have an official meaning — he originally didn’t even want a title stamped on it — which may seem frustrating to viewers expecting a documentary to educate, advocate or argue something.
“The encounter is my interest, not the meaning,” he writes on the film’s website. “If meaning is the point, then propaganda and advertising is the form. So in the sense of art, the meaning of Koyaanisqatsi is whatever you wish to make of it. This is its power.”
Koyaanisqatsi, the title of which translates from the Hopi language to provide the occasionally attached subtitle of “Life Out of Balance,” may be open to interpretations, yet many viewers agree there is an environmentalism angle at play in the Eisensteinian montage (I recently named it one of the most influential environmentalism documentaries of all time). And it’s not just in the juxtaposition of images, which allow us to see familiar patterns in footage of geological wonders and man-made urban structures. One memorable shot features people in the foreground laying on a beach while a gigantic power plant towers above and dominates the frame behind them.
Reggio does share some insight and intended ideas within the same statement. He clearly has a silent narrative going on, through the editing, with which he wishes to explore modern man’s relationship to the the earth. But this doesn’t dictate a political environmentalist interpretation, because he also seems to accept the progress and find great beauty in the world, whether the landscape be the untouched Southwestern desert or the busy highways of New York and Los Angeles. He calls it the “beauty of the beast.”
“We have encased ourselves in an artificial environment that has remarkably replaced the original, nature itself,” he writes. “We do not live with nature any longer; we live above it, off of it as it were. Nature has become the resource to keep this artificial or new nature alive.”
I have thought about the beauty of the beast idea a lot recently thanks to all the doom and gloom documentaries that feature gorgeous cinematography in spite of dealing with ugly issues. Jennifer Baichwal’s new film, Payback, includes shots of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which I found so mesmerizing that, with full admission of guilt, I am almost glad the disaster occurred in order to provide such beautiful images. There’s a similar response to be had with the oil field fires of Werner Herzog’s Lessons of Darkness, which New York Times critic Janet Maslin called “obscenely beautiful.”
The influential legacy of Koyaanisqatsi is as enormous as any monuments of rock or metal seen in the film. Initially it was music videos that very heavily borrowed from the iconic visual techniques of cinematographers Ron Fricke and time-lapse pioneer Hilary Harris. And of course the film spawned two more Qatsi installments, 1988’s Powaqqatsi and 2002’s Naqoyqatsi, as well as the solo career of Fricke, who went on to direct similar non-narrative spectacles including 1992’s Baraka and now Samsara, which comes out this summer.
Of course, we can’t talk about this film and its descendents without addressing the famous soundtrack by Philip Glass, the minimalist composer’s first major motion picture score, a gig he apparently refused at first. He told Reggio he didn’t do film music, which is pretty amusing in retrospect. This particular material may not be his most aped, whether by himself or other composers, but it’s one of his most important. The music has found a life of its own through special performances and albums of re-recorded versions, to the extent that Koyaanisqatsi isn’t just a film score for Glass anymore.
For its original purpose, though, I love how Reggio’s and Glass’s contributions reportedly informed one another. First came a rough cut of the images, then a composition inspired by that footage, followed by more editing shaping the visual content to the music and then continued back and forth tweaking. Koyaanisqatsi wouldn’t be the same without that score, and aside from its other incarnations, Glass’ original score wouldn’t be the same without the visuals. Considering Reggio’s desire for the film’s meaning to be vague, I assume the inclusion of Hopi prophecies in both the score and end credits was all Glass’s idea (much has been written about Glass’s score, but I recommend Mitchell Morris’s chapter on the film in the book Beyond the Soundtrack: Representing Music in Cinema).
Unlike Fricke, Glass would continue to collaborate with Reggio on the rest of the Qatsi trilogy, no other part of which I’d label as a classic on its own, as well as the somewhat related short film, Anima Mundi, and another short documentary, Evidence. And they are currently working together again on a new film titled The Holy See, a sneak peek of which was shown at the Cinema Arts Festival Houston last November. It’s unknown when that will be released.
Also shown at the same fest, though, was a special anniversary print of Koyaanisqatsi. Why we haven’t heard anything more on this new 35mm print let alone seen it get a 30th birthday release completely baffles me. I’ve always wanted to see this on the big screen. I’d even have settled on a Blu-ray, but unfortunately the film is unavailable in this format in the U.S., probably thanks to the unknown state of much of MGMs catalog. To celebrate the occasion, I settled on an Amazon Instant Video rental, which didn’t really look that amazing.
I’m used to documentary classics being unrecognized and unappreciated by distributors, but Koyaanisqatsi should be an exception. Not only did the Library of Congress deem it worth preserving and Francis Ford Coppola find it worth presenting, I believe it may have even been heaven sent. It’s a film that had to be made, this only being possible with the director’s departure from a religious order, where he’d been training to be a monk.
Reggio also founded nonprofits for gang youths and medical care before venturing into public media and outreach, through which he hooked up with Fricke for some ad campaigns that then led to a film project that was never expected to be this big (for the full, convoluted history of Koyaanisqatsi, seek out and read the March 1984 issue of American Cinematographer). In the end, it was a long and complicated collaboration between cinematographers, editors, composers and Reggio, at the center of it all.
In fact, while this Saturday is the 30th anniversary of the Santa Fe premiere, the version that screened at that event was not the finished product we see today. The shots of arcades and discos are among those added after a criticism that there was too much car footage. Regardless, I’m celebrating now rather than this fall, which would mark thirty years since its Radio City Music Hall premiere, or a year from now to commemorate the actual release date. So, happy birthday, Koyaanisqatsi. I’m extremely glad that you were made.
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