Echoes of Koyaanisqatsi

Ransom Riggs

Koyaanisqatsi is one of those movies -- one of the few -- that Changed Everything for me in terms of how I look at movies, and what they could do, and how they could communicate. Most people have caught at least snippets of it (PBS still shows it frequently) and they either love it or hate it. One thing that neither camp can deny, however, is the impact the film has had. Lacking characters, a story or spoken dialogue of any kind, the film is a visual feast that, with the aid of unconventional camera angles, super-fast and super-slow motion, tries to visualize nature, and man's place within it, in a new way. Labeled "pure cinema," its release in 1982 hearkened back to actorless silent film-era masterpieces like Vertov's Man with a Movie Camera and Berlin: Symphony of a City, but created something entirely new, as well.

It also started a cottage industry of eye-popping films like Baraka, Chronos and two sequels, Powaqquatsi and Naqoyqatsi, but none of them, I think, match the grace or deep meaning of the original. I had to watch it two or three times before I really started to understand that there was a carefully-constructed (if subtle) visual argument at work in Koyaanisqatsi, one which echoes the translation of the Hopi word that is the film's title: "life out of balance." The soundtrack, too, made a deep impact -- it thrust composer Philip Glass onto the national scene in a new way, and jump-started his career doing music for movies (which he had previously said he wanted nothing to do with).

I want to look at the ways Koyaanisqatsi's style is echoed all over the place these days, but first we have to take a look at the movie itself. If you can rent it -- or better yet, see it in a theater -- by all means do, but you could do worse than watching it on Hulu with the lights down and the sound cranked. In case you don't have 90 minutes to do that right now, here's a clip:

As the ultimate bit of contrast -- and to see how far Koyaanisqatsi's tentacles reach, check out this trailer for Grand Theft Auto IV. Recognize anything?

If that doesn't look familiar, perhaps the video for Madonna's "Ray of Light" will ring a bell.

Still not convinced? Try the opening to 1992's creepy horror film Candyman.

There are plenty of other references out there -- including four or five in The Simpsons but you get the idea. Now quit reading this blog and watch the movie already!