Koyaanisqatsi (1982) “Tarkovsky on a Roller-coaster”


Directed by:- Godfrey Reggio

Some movies are endowed with the most magical of skills – to entrap the audience into a world of their making, with menial methods, transforming art into something bamboozling. Koyaanisqatsi belongs to that rare category as it manages to do the aforementioned things, except it remains as an absolute piece of art. Like a house of mirrors, it mesmerizes us with every kaleidoscopic second of its runtime, leaving us audience at crossroads – either to revel in the cloaked murkiness of the world in which we live, or to transform into a cog in the glamorous yet urbane machinery, which is dubiously termed as ‘life’.

Rarely does a film manage to evoke a myriad of unmentionable emotions through mere images, and Koyaanisqatsi seems to reign over such kind of movies. I remember approaching the Qatsi Trilogy with caution, because I didn’t like Philip Glass’ score for Martin Scorsese’s Kundun (’97) and the notion of absence of plot or actors dreaded me. Little did I know that the trilogy will bowl me over to such an extent that I will (and still do) consider it as the greatest trilogy of all time, with Koyaanisqatsi becoming one of my all-time favorite movies.

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In the eyes of Godfrey Reggio, a forerunner among experimental filmmakers, we humans are ants, scurrying around anthills of varying sizes, with various predicaments flowing beneath it. We move around, we sit around and maintain a monotonous perspective towards life for eternity, constructing the world as we know it to merely serve as an amphitheater for our shenanigans. Our footfalls predict the decay taking place in the gaps in between of those sidewalk tiles, portrayed by nature, scavenging over the minuscule places in the world for salvation.

Reggio and cinematographer Fricke strive to document those ferns from a distance, showing how they used to live in the arid canyons, and now how they find themselves crushed by shoes of varying sizes, from a respectable distance and a much more respectable speed. The magic of Koyaanisqatsi lies in its ability to propagate it’s profound views through juxtaposing images, adorned with minimalist music, in time lapse. Reggio and Fricke lead us into our world in such manner that we might feel alien to this land. The lampshades, escalators, trains, highways, everything is transformed into something so mystical, so ethereal that one might find himself as one of the children seated on Willy Wonka’s humongous boat gushing down the chocolate river, the surroundings familiar yet distant.

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Koyaanisqatsi, behind all its time-lapse footage and breathtaking camera movements, resembles in one way or another, the scuffle between Salieri and Mozart, as immortalized in Amadeus. We try to enthrall ourselves by our busy lifestyle and the methodical melody of our footfalls. The trinity of Reggio-Fricke-Glass look at us from the other end of the room, from a ‘respectable’ distance as mentioned before, and shout at us through the camera, “The rest is just the same, isn’t it?”, wrecking our conscience in an instant, with Glass’ “The Grid” playing in the background with full regalia. Much like Synecdoche New York, Koyaanisqatsi serves as a precise and spiritual mirror, but it explores the stage for most of the time, right from the strobe-lights to the muslin-like threads of the curtain, settling on the actors at the end.

Some of you might be put off by the inclusion of Tarkovsky as a comparative measure in the title, considering it as one of the most infamous accounts of cinematic blasphemy. I don’t know how, but the first image which came to my mind when Koyaanisqatsi was trundling down to its final shots was that of the burning barn from Zerkalo (’75). The transience which flows serenely in the veins of Zerkalo finds its zenith in Koyaanisqatsi, amidst the people, the cars, the clouds moving around speedily, creating a moment of isolation amidst chaos. The frailty of human life in such a cosmopolitan and penal environment of our own making is magnified to a glamorous extent, with all the epileptic imagery contributing to the vision, perfectly juxtaposed with the clean and tender portrayal seen in Zerkalo. Even though Tarkovsky’s movies tend to be more “environments than entertainments”, Koyaanisqatsi trundles through the same path, only to explore the decaying foundations of such environments, serving as a visceral countdown to its inevitable downfall.

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Koyaanisqatsi explores the aforementioned notion in the form of the demolition of Pruitt-Igoe apartments in 1972 and juxtaposition of human movement near places of significant danger. Reggio and Glass expertly use music and images to present such treacherous interactions, the most vivid one being the one with a woman sunbathing on a beach, the camera moving up and changing focus to a power plant in close proximity. It is clear that the filmmakers have succeeded in their cause of berating the audience, of searching for entertainment and coziness in times of uncertainty. It is pretty much understandable when we shift our perspective to the early 1980s, with a boom in technological advances which soon transformed into a vanguard for people’s lifestyle. Chernobyl and other disasters throughout the years has enlightened us enough to peel through the meticulous layers guarded by zany escalators and conveyor belts to realize the true meaning of the movie, which might be different for each viewer, especially when it comes to explore subjective reasons given for existence and perceiving one’s world.

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To pinpoint on one specific scene as a favorite in a movie as labyrinthine as Koyaanisqatsi is a work of utmost perplexity, at least when it comes to a disorganized and equally procrastinating schmuck like me. I will be cheating with myself if I undermine the effect which ‘The Grid’ sequence had on me. The 20-minute long sequence, which is literally the backbone of the movie in its entirety, had me glued to the screen, mesmerized to the extent of paralysis. It has a similar physique like that of an earlier track and sequence called ‘Vessels’, but The Grid is comparatively much larger and more virtuous in its approach than the former, much because for its perfect marriage with the events unfolding on the screen. An ethereal drawl conquers the background, with the night life shown – cars reduced to streak lights, cruising on the snake-like bridges and causeways.

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The movie and the track break into life when dawn is near, with background vocals and orchestral music breaking into the foray in their typical repetitive fashion. I mean seriously, like the guy at Brows Held High says, how could anyone make the moon do that? We then see people almost thrown to the higher floors by cosmic-speed escalators, look at them eat and play games, follow cars through tunnels and bridges, get transported on conveyor belts and speed through roads in such fashion that the streetlights are reduced to long flashy lines flanking the frame. This sequence has literally one of the greatest shots ever put on film, one of them being a direct tribute to Tarkovsky’s Solyaris.

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However my favorite from the lot is a simple one – the camera pushes forward with a herd of commuters to the gates of a metro station or something. The utmost simplicity of the shot, matched with the music and the feeling it brings about in a person who has been there, who has trundled along the herd and revel in the melody produced by the countless footfalls surrounding him is literally unparalleled, something which spells magic covered in modernity. Some seconds later, we rush through a supermarket in Mach 3 speed, stumbling across aisles, following a shopping cart and a customer, then flying across the payment counters, presenting a newer entity to us, something much more than packaged food and uniform aisles.

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‘The Grid’ is literally the only physical or to be much more precise, the only cinematic manifestation of a symphony, a symphony so obscure and strewn into the lives of countless human beings that it transforms itself as an universal symbol – it is the symphony of humans, for humans, by humans. I’d like to paraphrase a You Tube comment to conclude my overlong appreciation or love for this particular sequence by saying “Bach mastered, Mozart perfected, Beethoven revolutionized and Glass humanized music.”

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Koyaanisqatsi then trundles down to untrodden grounds, with the onset of “Prophecies”, where it at last explores the actors on stage. According to me, it is comparatively the most disturbing segment of the movie, yet the most enriching of the lot.  Camera stays or zooms into people lost in the race, or taking a breather to look around at their surroundings, albeit for a second. The shock, the surprise, the boredom, the nonchalance is painted across their faces in broad strokes, with the ominous prophecy being chanted in the background. The prospect of looking at them and feeling their emotions is a terrifying prospect, the grief so overt that it might engulf and decimate us like a black hole. It is because of the presence of such danger that Koyaanisqatsi emerges as a winner in the cinematic world, as it manages to present a menagerie of dishes on a small platter, without spilling anything onto the fiery grounds of cinematic perdition.

With a languid production process of 6 years and released under the aegis of Francis Ford Coppola, Koyaanisqatsi joins the ranks of movies like Mirror and Synecdoche – movies which breath and emulate life in the most clandestine manner possible – only through an environmentalist filter. Koyaanisqatsi is a Hopi word which translates into “Life out of Balance”, although its existence with comparatively sub-par entrants such an Naqoyqaatsi and Powaqqatsi manages to throw the substance of the trilogy out of balance. A movie which should be screened on billboards across the world, in every lane and street and runways, to prove that its overlying presence won’t manage to even scratch the surface, but it will have the satisfaction of an honorable attempt, which translates its existence into a gargantuan milestone in the history of cinema. A masterpiece of the highest order.

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Pro:- Everything.

Con:- Nothing.

Ratings:- 5/5








2 thoughts on “Koyaanisqatsi (1982) “Tarkovsky on a Roller-coaster”

  1. I am not a big fan of this work to be honest, mainly because even though it tries to show how beautiful nature is and the destruction we are wrecking upon it, it ends up making even the macabre beautiful. However, excellent piece of writing mate, and you justify the use of God’s name which would have been a blasphemy in the hands of most writers

    Liked by 1 person

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