My favorite film: Koyaanisqatsi, appeared in “The Guardian” decades after the great movie’s release in 1982. ”Too old” — you may say. “Great movies are ageless,” is my reply. For instance, 80-year-old “Citizen Kane” is among the two best films ever (refer to Box 1).
What makes a movie great?
“It depends,” may be a safe answer because movies have different purposes and there are many genres. Above all criteria though, a movie’s greatness depends on the emotions that the succession of still images triggers in your brain. These emotions are further magnified by soundtrack and editing. Yet, all-time greats are not box-office champions, as Box 1 proves.
“Koyaanistqatsi” was directed by visionary Godfrey Reggio, with creative Ron Fricke as cinematographer and Philip Glass as soundtrack composer. For six years, the director and cinematographer traveled the U.S. filming landscapes, cities and people. Fricke was savvy at utilizing myriad tricks to keep cost to a minimum, without forgoing quality. It cost $40,000, about $200,000 in today’s money.
The movie is a journey. Although confined to the U.S., it’s representative of a planetary scale. Reggio takes viewers on an exciting trip, so you see things differently. That’s all he does. He drives you. No explanation. No background information. No words.
About “Koyaanisqatsi,” “The Guardian’s” Leo Hickman wrote: “It’s a film without any characters, plot or narrative structure. And its title is notoriously hard to pronounce.”
The uncommon title, in Hopi language, means unbalanced life (Koyaa: unbalance, turmoil, chaos; qatsi: life). The Hopi and other Pueblo tribes occupy northeast Arizona, where they farm, respecting the land and its resources: for them, Mother Earth is alive.
Speaking of the title, a movie with no name was the director’s original proposal. With all these oddities, how is it that this movie reached the mainstream? By serendipity. Francis Ford Coppola saw it, loved it and was compelled to share the movie, for it was “important for people to see.” So, the great Coppola’s approval and promotion, was a good start.
Coppola is one of the many who praise the movie’s cinematography. Reggio’s visuals expertly show that things are out of balance. The “show don’t tell” technique was also used by director Dziga Vertov, whose masterpiece “Man with a Movie Camera” we had analyzed elsewhere (“The Commuter,” February 2021).
Vertov’s film captured the effervescence of a Russian city – mildly seasoned with propagandistic enthusiasm highlighting the incipient technological advances of 1920’s communist Russia. Innovative camera – and editing – did the work. It displayed mass transportation, mass production, hundreds of people in and out of work daily. The film was visual only, and great.
Half a century later comes Reggio. Technology has advanced beyond belief in 50 years. “The shiny beast” – technology – is everywhere, at all times. Progress and development have been achieved through exploding, transforming and contaminating nature. What started as a light scratch on Earth’s surface, is now a laceration.
Reggio makes you aware of this as well. People’s business is now magnified; foot and car traffic are so intense – masterfully expressed by time-lapse footage; individuals get lost in the crowd with a distant look at nothing, enduring unexciting lives, sometimes confined to lifeless rectangular brick housing projects.
The thing about great movies is that they make you think. They even seem to anticipate events.
“Koyaanisqatsi” starts with a prime example of technological achievement: the launch of the heavy-lift rocket Saturn V carrying the spaceship Apollo 11 that brought Armstrong and Aldrin to walk on the moon.
Intriguingly, the movie ends with a spectacular explosion (the 1962 explosion of launch vehicle Atlas-Centaur), a reminder that technology is not failure-free. As it happens, shortly after “Koyaanisqatsi’s” release, the explosion of the Challenger killed seven astronauts in 1986.
Another compelling scene shows parents and their baby indolently sunbathing at San Onofre beach, California, adjacent to the nuclear generating power plant (just three years before, Pennsylvania had experienced the Three Mile Island tragedy). It seemed to be a reminder that nuclear power is also not failure free.
In fact, the catastrophe of Chernobyl occurred four years later, and the Fukushima 29 years later. California ended up closing the San Onofre nuclear plant 1992.
Today, 40 years after “Koyaanisqatsi’s” release, the wounds on 4.5-billion-year-old Mother Earth, are reaching a ceiling. It’s too much. Wise old Earth is no longer able to heal herself. The damage is not only on the land, but also in the surrounding air and waters – oceans and rivers; animals are extinct, quality of human life is further degraded. These issues are what Reggio’s movie makes viewers reflect on.
While some regard “Koyaanistqatsi” as a cult film, it garnered many awards and spawned two sequels: “Powaqqatsi” (parasitic way of life, assessing modern life in industrial countries) and “Naqoyqatsi” (life as war, rich in computer-generated spectacular imagery).
“Koyaanisqatsi” won prizes in Los Angeles, Kansas City and Berlin (1983), Sao Paulo (1984) and Warsaw (1988). In 2000, “Koyaanisqatsi” entered the category of classic American films, becoming part of the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress – which nominates “culturally, historically and aesthetically significant films” for preservation.
“For some people, it’s an environmental movie. For some, it’s an ode to technology. For some people it’s a piece of sh*t,” Reggio said in a YouTube video (May 28, 2017).
Coppola saluted “Koyaanisqatsi” as a great movie. What about you?