“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”

Hopi propechies sung during the film

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It is 1972. Godfrey Reggio, an experimental film director who founded the Institute for Regional Education in Santa Fe, New Mexico, is working on an advertising campaign for the American Civil Liberties Union involving invasions of privacy and the use of technology to control behaviour. Reggio works with cinematographer Ron Fricke to create advertising spots for radio, newspapers, billboards, and most importantly television. The campaign was popular enough to remove Ritalin from being used in New Mexico schools, but the ACLU withdrew sponsorship for IRE, leaving the Institute with $40,000 in their budget. Fricke suggests to Reggio that this be used to produce a film called Koyaanisqatsi, taken from the Hopi language meaning “life out of balance”.

It is 1975. Reggio and Fricke begin shooting unscripted footage in hopes of editing it together and finding a film within the edit. They shoot on 16mm film due to budget constraints. They shoot “whatever would look good on film”, including the demolition of the Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St. Louis, Missouri. The footage during this time exhausts the $40,000 budget with two cases of film, is screened in Santa Fe, but disregarded as being “boring” and not looking very good. IRE closes the production.

It is 1976. IRE continues the project, now using 35mm film due to additional funding received as they are a non-profit organisation. Ron Fricke travels with a camera crew to the Four Corners, the joint border of Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico, and shoots footage on 35mm film using a 16mm zoom lens fitted with a 2x extender, allowing for clearer capture ultimately. Shots from this period of filming include aerial footage with a camera mounted to an airplane, shots of the streets and people of New York City during the 1977 blackout, and time-lapse photography. For these time-lapse shots, Fricke shoots with a Mitchell camera mounted on an intervalometer motor powered by a gel cel battery lasting 12 hours at a frame rate of 1½ frames per second. 5 years is spent on production photography. It is some of the most ambitious and most adventurous photography ever taken for an experimental film.

It is 1981. Reggio works on post-production for the film. He meets Francis Ford Coppola at the Samuel Goldwyn Studio, and Coppola asks to view Koyaanisqatsi. Reggio organises a private screening after its completion. Coppola tells Reggio that this was a film he has been waiting to see and is important for others in the world to also witness, adding his name into the credits and helps present and distribute the film. It is Coppola’s idea to start and end the film with footage of pictographs from the Great Gallery in Horseshoe Canyon, Utah. They become symbols of man’s existence far beyond our modern fascination with consumerism and technology.

It is April, 1982. Koyaanisqatsi, complete with a score from bold minimalist composer Philip Glass, premieres at the Santa Fe Film Festival. Triumph Films offers to distribute, but Reggio turns this offer down, wanting to work with a smaller company so he can be more involved. Island Alive, from Chris Blackwell of Island Records, is chosen. Select theatres distribute pamphlets defining the title and the Hopi prophecies sung in the film. More film festival screenings afterwards confirm it to be a film unlike any other.

It is April, 1983. Koyaanisqatsi premieres in San Francisco at the Castro Theatre, and it grosses $46,000 throughout its one-week run, and was the highest-grossing film in the San Francisco Bay Area that week. Its rollout is small and gradual across the United States, becoming a surprise arthouse hit and a popular presentation at colleges and universities. After the initial theatrical run and VHS and laserdisc release by Pacific Arts Video, the rights to the film were passed through various multinational entertainment companies, preventing a DVD release for years. The film has since been included in the Criterion Collection, and distributed by Umbrella Entertainment in Australia.

It is 2014. I am 18 years old and am sitting in the library for Edith Cowan University. I spend most of my days in between studying or completing projects watching as many movies as possible. One that I keep going back to as comfort but also total fascination is Zack Snyder’s 2009 adaptation of Watchmen. The film features Glass’ score for Koyaanisqatsi scoring Doctor Manhattan’s sequence acknowledging his life up until his self-imposed exile to Mars. The music is epic and immensely satisfying to my ears in ways I have yet to understand.

It is 2019. I have begun a wide and comprehensive voyage through film scores, part of many musical adventures I have taken through vast genres and artists. In my travels, I come across Glass’ Koyaanisqatsi score. I rediscover an unconscious love. I listen to all 76 complete minutes of it over and over again, the music underscoring my creative efforts for 2 more years. I am editing videos on Akira Kurosawa and Star Wars to this music.

It is October, 2020. I am finishing reading Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen for the first time. My early fascination and enjoyment with the Zack Snyder adaptation passes with every page of this magnum opus. As I read, I play the Koyaanisqatsi music. The connection is made deeper as I read the original words for Doctor Manhattan’s character. The choice of a minimalist score links to the origin of John Osterman from downtown Manhattan in the 1960s, the same as minimal music. Inspiration, origin, adaptation, re-interpretation, and emotional connectivity are all flowing through my brain as I read. I am getting closer to a more profound experience.

It is August, 2021. I am spending a weekend alone with nothing much to do. I sit down at 4pm on a Sunday afternoon. I turn off the lights, close the blinds, and sign into the Australian streaming service STAN. I prepare to watch, for the very first time, the film that corresponds to the incredible music that I have had playing in my mind for years. For 1 hour and 26 minutes, I am completely still. I barely blink and I do not move at all. I have never been this transfixed by a film before. The music I had been obsessed with, a score that instantly conjures vast images of colour, shapes, speed and stillness, is now fitting with some of the most incredible imagery I have ever witnessed put on celluloid. For the first time in years, I have fallen completely in love with a piece of cinema in an instant. I watch it two more times over the next day. I spend $121 dollars on a rare Blu-ray of the film.

The ease of movement between each phase of the film is mesmerising, starting with that direct connection between prehistoric Native American art painted onto a rockface in Utah with the might and majesty of the Apollo 11 launch. It is a match cut between where we have begun and where we have yet to go. As Glass’ score moves between each phase of repeating rhythms and instrumentation, we thus move to a new set of imagery. Rock faces, canyons, valleys, and caves as far as the eye can see, an almost alien terrain that reminds one of the slow yet precise opening to 2001: A Space Odyssey and the “Dawn of Man”. Clouds grow endlessly and bodies of water slowly move across the frame, until the aerial footage sends us soaring over more incredible terrains, a spectacular sight from a vast perspective. But the natural beauty of Earth is disrupted by the restless nature of industry, mining trucks and giant structures cut through our world without care, interrupting the perfect stillness. We see atomic bomb tests, industrial plants built next to public places, buildings reflecting clouds in the air but not the clouds themselves, a Boeing 747 slowly emerging from the thick of a “highway mirage”, and the constant progress of the war machine seeking only destruction on this planet, and it doesn’t stop there. More clouds disintegrate and reveal the vastness of a city, the shadow of those clouds only barely covering small parts of the giant towers seeking to scrape above. Time passes and the cities we build for shelter die in spectacular implosions, only to make way for more of the same.

And then we enter “The Grid”, a sequence lasting a quarter of the film’s runtime where people themselves become the focus. A giant Moon becoming eclipsed and overshadowed by an even larger building before cars speed across the surface, resembling blood vessels and flowing veins. People in motion, shown in slow at first but now moving at lightspeed across the streets and through Grand Central Station, these shots flowing into factory footage of meat packing, accountants, clothing fabrication, car manufacturing, TV programming, and food processing. Consumption has never looked so overwhelming. The cars on the streets get match cut with arcade games, and soon bowling alleys, movie theatres, a shopping mall, grocery stores, eating, drinking, consumption, crafting more cars, printing money, building microchips to build more machines to build more things, people moving back and forth between work and play, through train stations and factories. We see the point-of-view of a car moving in time-lapse through streets, bridges, and highways, towered over by more giant buildings. People are still consuming, buying, watching TV, absorbing everything but never knowing, oblivious to the insanity of life around them and the constant progress of consumption itself. Believe in God. Take a Tylenol. Buy a new car. Watch the news. Eat sugar. Drink more. Smoke well. Be afraid. Fear the red. Speed is a constant as lights streak across the planet and we become part of sound and fury, until…

Quiet.

When taken out of the ground-level acceleration of life, we see these buildings and cities constructed the same way we would build microchips themselves, all part of processing and power. We are small, unsure, and afraid. We see people front and centre here, looking into the camera lens, with Reggio and Fricke composing old with young, desperate with confident, depressed with elated, dying and living, living and dying. Life continues anyway, whether it is out of balance or not. In darkness or stepping out into the sun, people are still here, oblivious but not blind. We are still consuming and trying to reach for the stars only to find our world below still in need. We have been here a long time and should go on for even longer, if we understand what it is we have had here this whole time. A rocket ship launches only to burn up and explode in a spectacular fire ball, descending into a slow-motion dance of debris, composed finally with the same shot of the prehistoric pictographs.

To watch Koyaanisqatsi is to feel as if one is moving through all of time and space without ever going out the door.

I find myself coming back to Koyaanisqatsi every year. It is a simple work, made entirely of music and images without the complication of characters or dialogue. It is also profound with the inspiration of Hopi prophecies and connections from the microchip to ancient pictographs, how our beautiful natural world has also bred destruction, chaos and a disconnection from its inhabitants. The intense hypnotic quality that every single element has on my mind and body is immeasurable.

See also

40 years ago, Koyaanisqatsi was released to the world and since then it has captivated cinephiles and those open-minded enough to watch a movie where nothing actually “happens”. It isn’t a documentary with narration or clear guidance, but its purpose is direct and exacting. It could be similar in aspects to other experimental work like H2O, La Jetée or Blue, but is entirely unique. It was the beginning of Philip Glass’ work scoring motion pictures, the beginning of filmmakers Godfrey Reggio and Ron Fricke, and has been parodied and referenced in dozens of films and TV shows, most recently with the fourth season of Stranger Things.

It has also never been replicated. Reggio followed up this film with Powaqqatsi and Naqoyqatsi to diminishing effect, despite support from Golan-Globus and Steven Soderbergh, respectively. These thematic sequels are more remembered for their scores, in much the same way as Koyaanisqatsi, but as films they lack the more ambitious photography and instantly inspired direction that defined the original piece. Cinematographer Ron Fricke was not involved with the subsequent films, now more known for his own non-narrative trilogy of Chronos, Baraka and Samsara, all brilliantly photographed but do pale to the perfect equation of elements that make Koyaanisqatsi what it is.

This is cinematic hypnotism, commanding your attention at first withawe, majesty, then terror, disapproval, ponderance, questioning why we are seeing such mudane things, and then an understanding that though our modern life can be overwhelming, it is truly spectacular. We cannot look away when everything is happening all at once. Finally, one feels inspired to do good in the world, to seek knowledge with a keen awareness of where you might be right now. The world has changed in 40 years, and it hasn’t. Koyaanisqatsi has lasted this long and endures because of its universal qualities. It could be any city, any group of people, any landscape. It is a uniquely and brilliantly human picture, a masterwork of cinematography and editing, and one of my all-time favourites. So here’s to another 40 years!

Koyaanisqatsi

Director: Godfrey Reggio

Cinematographer: Ron Fricke

Editors: Alton Walpole, Ron Fricke

Producers: Ron Fricke, Michael Hoenig, Godfrey Reggio, Alton Walpole

Music: Philip Glass

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