Movie Review – Koyaanisqatsi

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I’ve never watched an “art” film before. I’ve watched films with artistic intent. I’ve watch films that used artistic imagery, and I’ve watched films which made me think (which is one of the things I consider important with films that are “artistic”). However, I’ve never really seen a film that I’d call an out-and-out “art film.”

Until now.

The Premise: The film is a non-verbal one. The film depicts a series of images, in their original speed, sped up, or slowed down, depicting the world, and the flow of modern life, set to a score by Phillip Glass. I’m really understating this, as there’s more to it than that, but I can’t quite explain without getting into the stuff that I’d normally do in the Good, Bad, and Ugly segments

My Thoughts: This film is stunning. It is visually amazing. It is audibly amazing. I hadn’t seen a movie that was deliberately without a story (I’d seen ones that were unintentionally without a story, but that’s another matter), but this was the first I’d seen where the film itself was intentionally without a narrative as we normally think of it. However, it still works.

Normally, my big thing is (particularly with film), going with the director’s and writer’s original vision, but because of the nature of this film, I feel better putting it up for interpretation, and with the exception of one point – the Hopi prophesies at the end of the film (which I’ll get to later), the film works for that. You can, basically, come away from the film with any of multiple messages, or no messages at all.

In general, the message that most people get from the films, and you particularly get from critical reviews of the movies is one of nihilistic doom. Of humanity being a blight upon the earth, a cancerous sore that needs to be removed. You can certainly get that from this.The longest sequence of the film, The Grid, and before that, Resource, would certainly set that up, as does Prophecies at the end of the film. However, I got other bits out of that as well. I got that humanity organizes things organically – or at least tries to. Often the term “organic” is misunderstood as being confused, chaotic. However, if you look at the human body, or watch documentaries about it (or didn’t sleep through Biology class), you see that the human body is, itself, a machine, and our understanding of how we work, and how other living being work is taken to other portions of our life and society. Everything from the movement of the pistons in your car’s engine (the movement of human muscles), to the flow of traffic in our cities (the flow of blood in the human bloodstream) is informed by what we see in ourselves and how we, and other living things, work. As our understanding of how living things works changes, the way we build our cities and our machines changes. It’s not a grim interpretation.

Ultimately, though, that’s not the interpretation the director intended, as Prophecies, the last chapter of the film, shows. The chapter has (among other things), sung on the soundtrack, a series of Hopi Prophecies which as used in this film basically can be summarized as “UR DOIN IT WRONG.” There’s a prophecy about spilt ashes from the sky burning the earth and boiling the sea which in context of the film is meant to refer to nuclear destruction (we have film of atomic bomb tests earlier in the film). There’s an explicit prohibition against mining (we see strip-mining earlier in the film). The third prophecy refers to a spiderweb being formed in the sky on the day of purification which in the context of the film is meant to refer to airplanes (we get a lot of footage of airplanes, including footage on an Air Force fighter jet).

Firstly, I’ve generally not been one to let ancient prophecies control my life, and having been raised by an archeologist, I’ve learned that while some prophecies make sense in the time they were written (some of the ancient prohibitions against shellfish being due to shellfish in their geographic areas, with their ability to predict toxic algae blooms, and their cooking methods, being hazardous to eat), but don’t hold up later (nowadays not only do we have farm raised shellfish, but we can cook them enough that we can make damn sure that the bacteria is dead, without overcooking the shellfish). I feel that a lot of this “The noble savages were better than us, they lived life sustainably, if we lived life as they did the world would be a better place” are bulldrek (putting aside the catastrophic death toll needed to return to that state.  Further, the prophecies feel, well, cherry-picked. Several Hopi Prophecy Experts are credited in the film, and I can’t help but feel the director went to these experts and said, “I’m doing an art film about how our current way of life is not sustainable, and I need some Hopi prophecies or tidbits of wisdom that could be applicable to some of the images in my film” and then he gives them a list of the major images he uses. Finally, with all the 2012 bullshit going around right now (and the 2000 bullshit going around on the turn of the century), I must admit that as soon as the prophecies came up, I head-desked. Repeatedly. So, with all that said, what is…

The Verdict: Despite the semi-newagey clap-trap, I enjoyed the film, and I’d say it is a gorgeously shot film. The score is great, and, probably everyone should see it once. Particularly since the film has become part of pop culture. I don’t know if I’d buy it… on DVD. I’d be dramatically more inclined to buy it once it comes out on Blu-Ray (and it needs to come out on Blu-Ray).