The Force behind "Koyaanisqatsi"

Mark Wegley
Contributing Writer

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   When former monk Godfrey Reggio decided in the late 1970s to become a film director, no one would have guessed that, like George Lucas, he would become the mastermind behind one of the most highly acclaimed experimental film trilogies of all time: the QATSI trilogy.

   Released in 1983, Reggio’s debut feature, “Koyaanisqatsi,” not only lacked the popular galactic melodrama of "Star Wars,” it lacked words altogether! Also unlike “Star Wars,” “Koyaanisqatsi” is not about far-flung galaxies; it is about our earth emphatically. The similarity between these two films lies in their ability to move audiences profoundly by using essentially human themes that border on the spiritual. One could say that “Koyaanisqatsi” has its own powerful “force.”

   A compound of the Hopi Indian words Koyaanis (crazy) and Qatsi (life), “Koyaanisqatsi” (pronounced koy-on-iss-cot-see) as a title suggests several possible intentions, some possibly summoned by the use of the Hopi language itself. Far from being a simple endorsement of Indian spirituality however, the film succeeds because it gains the sympathies of audiences regardless of race, color or creed. “Koyaanisqatsi" is, very purposefully, an unfamiliar word that becomes familiar as the film progresses.

   The plot of Reggio’s film (if that term may be used loosely) follows this transition from the unfamiliar to the familiar with breathtaking footage of both nature and human construction juxtaposed. Although idyllic scenes of mountain and sky are typical on film, seen through Reggio’s camera they achieve a kind of sublime “otherness.” The film then proceeds to de-familiarize its audience with human construction also, and the resulting effects of the film are neither expected nor are they easily explained in words. And this is only the first ten minutes.

   Not only is Reggio’s film a stunning visual experience, the total effect of it is heightened considerably by the music of Academy-Award-winning composer Philip Glass. In a commentary on his film, Reggio has explained that Glass’ music is not simply an added soundtrack; Glass first watched the footage and wrote the score as a response to the visuals he was writing it for. The result is a marriage of image and music that may perhaps be equaled, but will most likely never be artistically bested.

   The experience of viewing “Koyaanisqatsi” has been compared to meditation, and I freely admit that it entranced me. Like meditation, “Koyaanisqatsi” is an art capable of focusing our attention toward that which is most important to us, yet which most of us seldom concentrate on in our everyday lives. “Koyaanisqatsi” is a film whose message the audience must complete for themselves, and the contemplation of that message leaves one with a sense of having achieved a higher state of awareness and, consequently, a better understanding of this age.

   “Koyaanisqatsi” is also only the beginning of Reggio’s groundbreaking QATSI trilogy; “Powaqqatsi” (1988) and “Naqoyqatsi” (2002) have since followed it, garnering the support of Hollywood heavyweights such as Francis Ford Coppola and, ironically, George Lucas! Just as Lucas’ own “Star Wars” deserves critical attention as a product of, and comment on, our culture, “Koyaanisqatsi” is perhaps the comment on our culture, and if Reggio decides to follow in Lucas’ footsteps and produce yet another trilogy of QATSI films, we would be extremely fortunate.

Grade: A

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