Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Koyaanisqatsi: Cinema In Balance

Meaning "life out of balance/life of moral corruption or turmoil" in Hopi, Koyaanisqatsi is film director Godfrey Reggio's non-narrative 1983 cinematic indictment of Western society's destruction of the environment, as well as a mesmerizing movie masterpiece.

What unfolds upon the screen is an 87-minute vision of urban blight juxtaposed with resplendent images of nature. Utilizing the earth as its canvas, cinematographer Ron Fricke might lead an unsuspecting viewer to erroneously conclude that the film's intent is to solely contrast creation with metropolitan artifice.Skyscrapers, as replicants of western U.S canyons, reach imploringly to the heavens, seeking answers from God. The frozen expressions of scurrying city-dwellers, captured as the camera momentarily stops, suggest the spiritual impoverishment of deadening technological dominance.

The incisive musical score by avant-garde composer Philip Glass provides Koyaanisqatsi transcendent strength. Dirge-like organ music gradually becomes repetitive musical incantation. Dark bass vocals suggestive of Gregorian chant are punctuated by church-like arpeggios as the word "koyaanisqatsi" repeats hypnotically.

Visually Koyaanisqatsi is sumptuous and staggering. Clouds whisk across New Mexican deserts, sunbathers recline against the backdrop of a foreboding nuclear plant, and the majesty of Arizona's Grand Canyon prevails over New York City high-rises. An aura of mystery evolves. The music courts and compliments each turn, never faltering.

Travelers rushing in and out of Grand Central Station, interwoven with choked traffic on the Los Angeles freeway and stock footage of an exploding rocket evolve into a kaleidoscopic ballet of filmic frenzy.A particularly humorous yet unnerving scene shows a row of sausages canned on a rapid-fire production line juxtaposed against humans racing down escalators. In contrast, lingering shots of rocks, clouds, and desert terrain, generally serene, convey a sense of isolation and mystic presence.

Military aircraft no longer in use, an outdated United Airlines logo, obsolete computers, and even Pac Man, date the film. However, the power of the movie's warnings about human destruction of the earth has not faded with its 1980s pop culture imagery.It is remarkable that a film as abstract as Koyaanisqatsi succeeded commercially. Grossing $50,000 in its first 10-day trial run, the filmmakers managed to land distribution with the independent company Island Alive. Koyaanisqatsi was followed by the sequels Powaqqatsi and Naqoyqatsi and the shorts Anima Mundi and Evidence. The United States Library of Congress deemed Koyaanisqatsi "culturally significant" and in 2000 selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry.

Director Reggio himself is an anomaly. The 6' 6" native of New Orleans entered the Christian Brothers Teaching Order at age 14 and later became interested in Buddhism. Reggio also was employed as a grade school teacher, worked with Santa Fe street gangs, and eventually founded the Clinica de la Gente.

Filmmakers would do well to follow Reggio's storytelling style and to heed the warning stated in the Hopi prophecy, which translates as:

"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."

A paraphrase of the Hopi prophecy is in order: "If directors continue to produce commercial junk they will invite disaster."

Perhaps if Hollywood stops polluting the silver screen, we can avert nuclear annihilation. At the very least, we might achieve some artistic balance and wipe out the stifling influences of movie monstrosities starring the likes of Britney Spears.

(Film director Godfrey Reggio prepares for a sequel to the Katsi trilogy)