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Film / Koyaanisqatsi

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"You've never really seen the world you live in."

Koyaanisqatsi is a 1983 documentary/art/experimental film directed Godfrey Reggio. There is no obvious plot or story, no actors, and no dialogue. The whole film is just time-lapse footage of nature, people, and machines with music composed by Philip Glass.

While the premise may sound dull the film is anything but, as it is an utterly mesmerizing and captivating look at the juxtaposition of natural and man-made worlds. It starts with beautiful footage of the desert and natural rock formations. From there, human work is more and more evident. The middle section of the film is about the hustle and bustle of modern life. Towards the end, the film focuses on people of different walks of life. The last sequence is a failed rocket launch in slow motion.

It is the first part of a "qatsi" trilogy, it is followed by Powaqqatsi and Naqoyqatsi.

If the name sounds familiar, the title song is used whenever the Janitor delivers a Death Glare. The pieces "Pruitt-Igoe" and "Prophecies" that were written for this film are probably better known to the current flock of 20-to-30-somethings as the accompaniment to Jon Osterman's transformation into Dr. Manhattan in the Watchmen film adaptation, or from the first Grand Theft Auto IV trailer. "The Grid", however, is the best-known piece, both visually and aurally. Fans of The Truman Show will instantly recognize The Anthem from Powaqqatsi.

Reggio's cinematographer Ron Fricke went on to make Chronos (in IMAX), Baraka, and Samsara, all of which have obvious similarities to the "qatsi" films.

"Tropes out of balance":

  • Blipvert:
    • There is a section where a television screen shows various adverts and programmes but shown in time-lapse. Blink and you'll miss a couple of frames of Thomas Dolby in his famous "She Blinded Me With Science" video.
    • The end credits sequence is made up of audio-blipverts that sounds like TVs, radios and telephones all playing at the same time.
  • Bookends: At the very beginning of the movie we see a rocket take off, and at the end of the movie, it explodes.note 
  • Broken Record: Glass's scores show the influence of minimalism with musical figures that loop and repeat constantly, evolving slowly over time. Perhaps most notably, the title track features a solo bass voice chanting the word "Koyaanisqatsi...." in an endless loop.
  • Busby Berkeley Number: The multiple shots of women fanning grain to dry it out becomes one in Powaqqatsi.
  • The Cameo: Ted Koppel on the TV sequence to the point of being credited.
  • Creator Cameo: Producer Francis Ford Coppola makes an appearance in "Prophecies" as an extra entering an elevator, although this is downplayed by his nominal contribution to the movie.
  • Death Glare:
    • One scene has people pass the camera in slow motion. Some people give the camera a nasty look.
    • The Tranquil Fury stare from the close-up of the pilot at the end of 'Pruitt-Igoe' also qualifies.
  • Documentary: The film is not a documentary, in that it sets out to tell a crafted story, albeit purely with visuals and music and no dialog.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: Watch the opening "Serra Pelada" sequence of Powaqqatsi and try not to see the people at the gold mine as ants.
    • Koyaanisqatsi has a few similar shots during "The Grid" sequence.
  • Drone of Dread: The Title Track, which opens the film, is built around droning organ tones with a male choir chanting the film's title over it. Other compositions that use similar techniques include "Pruitt Igoe Coda" and "Microchip".
  • Epic Rocking: Glass composed some very long pieces for the film, the longest of which is "The Grid", which clocks in at an imposing 18:05 (21:29 if the introduction is included). Other examples include "Resource" (6:36), "Vessels" (8:13), "Pruitt Igoe" (7:51, or 9:08 with coda included), and "Prophecies" (10:34). Really though, the whole film can be viewed as a single 86 minute musical suite.
  • Le Film Artistique: One of the best examples and one of the few to influence mainstream cinema.
  • Foreign Language Title: "Koyaanisqatsi" is a Hopi word meaning life out of balance. Powaqqatsi means life in transformation and Naqoyqatsi means life of killing each other (sometimes translated as life as war).
  • Green Aesop: Though the film itself doesn't make it explicit as it is open for interpretations, the translation of the title gives it away.
  • Homage: The Serra Pelada sequence in Powaqqatsi were an homage to the famous photos taken by Sebastião Salgado two years earlier of the same gold mine.
  • Leave the Camera Running: While most of the film has interesting shots, though many find that the scene with the taxiing jets stretches on too long (two and a half minutes, all one shot—the longest shot in the whole picture).
  • No Plot? No Problem!: No narrative. No characters. Just 1 hour and 26 minutes of time-lapse footage of nature and everyday life on the planet Earth.
  • Spiritual Successor: Cinematographer Ron Fricke's Baraka series is his take on the Koyannisqatsi series.
  • Stock Footage: Used for the demolition scenes; also nuclear tests, The Vietnam War, and and the rocket launch(es). The film also had a influence on the look of stock footage as seen in TV documentaries and commercials. This video recreated the film's trailer using nothing but watermarked stock footage!
  • Surreal Music Video: The case has been made that the trilogy is best understood as feature-length examples of the form.
  • Undercrank: The factory assembly lines and masses of people are sped up, as are clouds in most of the nature shots.
  • Vow of Celibacy: Reggio was a monk for fourteen years, meaning not only did he take a vow of celibacy, but a vow of silence and fasted as well over that time. He states that he did Koyaanisqatsi as part of his Fish out of Water experience returning from monkdom.
  • Wham Shot: After the jaw-dropping twenty-minute high-speed sequence that is "The Grid," the music cuts out, and we see a helicopter shot of Los Angeles. That dissolves into a satellite photograph... which then dissolves into a close-up of a microchip. Even after seeing this film several times, this is bone-chilling, and for first-time viewers, it's a kick to the gut.

Alternative Title(s): Powaqqatsi, Naqoyqatsi