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The Beauty of the Mundane in Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi

Koyaanisqatsi builds up to a visual and audible crescendo. Making it one of, if not the best marvels of film I’ve ever seen. Godfrey Reggio’s visuals speak for themself well enough to formulate a clear thesis without any dialogue other than the word “koyaanisqatsi” chanted a few times. Reggio’s film opens with sweeping shots of the natural beauty of Horseshoe Canyon in Utah. As it progresses, however, it becomes less and less about nature and more about the human impact on this planet. High-speed time-lapses full of vibrant color and thousands of people are impressive in scope and scale, however, it is still troubling to watch. This all comes from the perspective that is chosen to display these images. The birds-eye-view reminds me of the factory scene in Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936) showing people as cogs in a machine but as a current and genuine aspect of the rhythm of the world.

The word koyaanisqatsi means “life out of balance”. A term coming from the Hopi people of Northeastern Arizona. This dictionary definition at the end is really all there is given on an explanation to what the film really is about. Reggio has gone on to say “Koyaanisqatsi is not so much about something, nor does it have a specific meaning or value…Art has no intrinsic meaning. This is its power, its mystery and hence, its attraction.” I think this quote encapsulates a lot about why this film is so impactful to me. Because it allows us to look within ourselves and process what exactly the editing and Philip Glass’ music could mean. Reggio, taking inspiration from Soviet montage cinema and the avant-garde popularized the poetic documentary sub-genre. Where emotion is felt in the most animalistic way. To me, the scintillating allure of consumerism is a large part of the movie, people all living and rushing around in a country with all different problems and different lives inhibiting a “peaceful chaos” in this world. Most faces are seen as a blur or are even too small to see. One of the few times where we see a clear shot of the faces of people (that is not archival footage of television personalities like Lou Dobbs or Ted Koppel) is the blank stares of six women working a casino. This fourth-wall breaking scene almost feels frozen in time compared to the erratic goings on of the rest of the footage used, isolated in their own personal bubbles, like all of us.

On top of these visuals, the music in Koyaanisqatsi is just as important. Philip Glass scores the movie with a measured and minimalist cadence to what is shown on the screen. Making the movie, at least on first viewing quite enthralling just for the beautiful melodies. The usage of traditional instruments, as well as electric ones, is much in line with what the film is about with its commentary on industrialization. 

While Koyaanisqatsi may represent many things to many people, as was Reggio’s intention, to me it represents an analysis of the aesthetic beauty of the mundane and the underlying horror of it all.     

Koyaanisqatsi is available to stream on Youtube for free.

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