Xeni's Movie reviews on Fancast, ct'd: KOYAANISQATSI

As blogged here previously, I'm contributing reviews and "appreciations" to Fancast.com of various TV and movies you can watch there, in entirety, for free (after sitting through some ads). As disclosed previously, I'm being paid to write the posts, but no one's telling me what to write about, or editing my content.

With that out of the way, here's a snip from my latest contribution to the project -- a post about one of my favorite movies ever, Koyaanisqatsi, directed by Godfrey Reggio and scored by Philip Glass. Snip:

Power plants, Nevada nuke detonations in the desert, and a spiderweb of powerlines follow, drawing us in to the awareness of human presence, and showing just how broken our own design of human experience has become. People do eventually appear in the movie, but they’re not so much thinking beings. They’re blurry, busy, insect-like clusters; humming and buzzing through life in a timelapse haze.

The "Microchips" chapter juxtaposes images of tiny computer chips (remember when those images were new to us?) with satellite photos of big cities (and these too, before Google Maps?). The microchips and the aerial city layouts are reflections of each other, and we are shown as captives of a chaotic, conflicted realm we have constructed for ourselves.

The film ends as it began, a long arc that reveals itself to be a circle. We return to the same melancholy prophecy with which the film began: a life out of balance is a life destined to disintegrate. The film, its score, and its message, were intended to be timeless – and they are.

An audio note: That Glass soundtrack was re-recorded and re-released in 1998, fifteen years after the film came out. It’s really wonderful music, and worth picking up on Amazon. Snip from the original New York Times review:

The range of instrumental colors is astonishing. If one particular timbre has come to characterize "Koyaanisqatsi," it is the dark, subterranean growl that opens and closes the score.

Read the whole thing, and do comment over there, would you please? Koyaanisqatsi (1983): Xeni's review on Fancast.You can watch the entire movie here with a few brief commercial interruptions. Here's a link to all of my contributions to Fancast's review blog so far.


  1. First time I saw this movie was the first day of an Environmental Science class in College, 1991. The teacher didn’t tell us what we were watching, just said “I just want you to take this in. We’ll talk about it afterward.” Turned of the lights and away we went. A couple people made some comments about how “boring” they thought it was, but most of us sat transfixed the entire time. Left most of us speechless. The other two films Powaqqatsi and Naqoyqatsi are also very good, but neither approaches the impact of the first.

  2. During the early 90s, I had the unique opportunity to see a screening of Koyaanisqatsi with the score performed live by the Philip Glass Ensemble. One of the best artistic experiences of my life.

  3. I saw Naqoyqatsi in the theater and it was very disturbing because of all the footage of riots and violence. There’s alot of clips on Youtube, but these films really need to be seen in their entirety, not just clip by clip out of context.

  4. Worth noting that when people are introduced in small groups or alone, as the primary focus, it’s a different experience entirely: there’s a mix of emotions accompanying the footage of the woman who looks at the camera, smiling, her smile fading, her chin raising, turning away disdainfully, pretending to ignore the camera; and it’s always quietly devastating to watch the man in the chair smoking a cigarette, who does nothing more than put his hand to his forehead.

  5. This series, and Baraka, are mind-rendingly great films.

    People definitely tend to have issues with watching something as long as this without an obvious narrative (of course there is a narrative) or plot, but those who hang-on almost certainly are rewarded with a new vision of Earth and their place in it – for better or worse.

  6. #2 – Ditto, though only a couple of years back for me, in Vancouver.

    It was an intense experience to see a film with a live orchestra. And such a rare experience to be able to applaud someone both as a composer AND a performer after a musical performance.

    Definitely on my short list of life-changing films and music.

  7. I watched this for the first time with some friends and they let me borrow the vhs about a month ago. I kept trying to explain the film to people and they didn’t seem very interested. But the footage with everyone on their commute, like ants in a hill is enough to make them reconsider. The hypnotizing cloud scenes that almost look like the oceans, mesmerizing… Thanks for posting this, it is a timeless movie,and now is probably as good of time as ever to get people interested in it.

  8. I remember seeing a late night CBC movie years ago that sounded similar…

    It was a series of documentary clips filmed in the US with one amazing scene of a model lying on a bed with a cello back tattoo looking out a window while an old Las Vegas casino is imploded.

    Anyone know what it was? It’s been bugging me for years!

    Going to have to give this one a watch too, I’m a big fan of the “go nowhere, but everywhere” style.

  9. Has anyone checked out the new Phillip Glass box? It is superbly remastered, and the Koyaanisqatsi pieces sound fantastic.

  10. My father took me to see this when I was in fifth grade at the art house theater in Boulder, Colorado, on the Pearl Street Mall (if you know Boulder, it’s now an alpaca stuff store). It was 1987 and I’d never seen anything like this before. It’s still one of the most important aesthetic moments of my life.

    Decades later, I was hiking in Canyonlands National Park and saw the petroglyphs from the beginning of the movie. It’s odd to see them and think, “I’ve seen these before in a movie.”

  11. If you liked this film, you probably would like ‘Chronos’, which was done in IMAX in 1985 by the same cinematographer, Ron Fricke, who did ‘KOYAANISQATSI’, using the same time lapse technique, only bigger.

  12. I have a special place in my heart for Ron Fricke.

    My family was shattered the day my grandmother died. Even though we knew her final day was coming months ago when she decided not to treat her cancer we were still emotionally devastated and walked through her house like zombies. We needed something to distract us from our grief, if only for a few hours, so I popped in Fricke’s Baraka. I couldn’t think of a more perfect thing to do on the day of my grandmother’s death. Baraka, in it’s wordless and plotless way, seemed to be celebration of the life and death of someone we loved dearly and touched on the mysteries of religion and the human spirit.

    Koyaanisqatsi is equally moving and I used the theme of life out of balance for one of my shows.

  13. I saw Baraka on my birthday a few years back at the Paramount theater in 70MM. The gentleman who spoke prior to the viewing informed us that the tape was one of Ron Fricke’s personal reels.

    Words cannot describe how awesome it was.

  14. I too was transfixed for the whole film, while my friends were bored silly. I recall early in the film a long shot of flying over canyons, and my frame of reference got lost– are these huge canyons, or tiny cracks in a dry lake bed?

  15. Amazing movie, which I haven’t seen in years. I’ll have to see it again.

    For those interested, the image shown on the right above is from the Great Gallery in Horseshoe Canyon, Utah, and well worth the hike in to see it.

  16. I kind of dread seeing Koyaanisqatsi again. Honestly, I’m not sure I could take the escalator scenes, which were shot on the Concourse level of the World Trade Center.

  17. Forget being out of “balance”, we’re out of “place”. How could an evolutionary experiment in the heights of consciousness have gone so wrong?

  18. The first time I saw Koyaanisqatsi was a Saturday evening at the Salle Wilfrid Pelletier in Montreal in the early 90’s. I’d heard it was a good and good-for-you film but I could never manage to catch it at the repertory cinemas around town. Time and opportunity presented themselves and I dragged a girlfriend off to Place des Arts.

    Phillip Glass walked on stage and faced the audience – the musicians were already in position, if I recall. The audience applauded politely and warmly.

    He then climbed onto the podium and waited. I remember that his baton had an self-illuminated lucite rod. The film started, projected onto a smallish screen hung above the Ensemble. He lifted his arms and the basso profundo incantations “Koyaanisqatsi” began.

    An hour and a quarter later, by the end of ‘The Grid’, my grinning cheeks’ muscles were in pain from the elation this beautiful film elicited.

    If you’ve never seen it and if you know someone who was smart enough to get the TV-screen-format signed-by-Reggio limited-release IRE DVD, invite yourself over to their place to watch it.

    Bring a bottle of good single malt whiskey, say some 12-year old The Macallan. You’ll want to thank your friend.

    ps.: All of those who’ve mentioned Baraka: I’ve also seen in 70MM. It’s just jaw-droppingly awesome. I’m a technical guy, and it took me half a dozen viewings to figure out how some of the stuff was done – maybe it took so many viewing to stop being overwhelmed by the cinematography. Just awesome.

    pps: These films just make you glad people like Reggio, Fricke, and Glass walk this Earth. Maybe there is hope for us after all.

  19. I remember I *wanted* to like this film. And the photography combined with the score was stunning, unlike anything I’d ever seen before. I was entirely happy to sit through a film that had no narrative! Such a treat. But… it felt like being hit over the head with the same one-note message over and over again. Kind of like being backed into a corner at a party by some environmental bore who goes on and on about the destruction of the earth and fails to recognise all the good things that humans have achieved. I’d like to see it again though, it would be interesting to see if my reaction was different twenty years later! :)

  20. One of the greatest motion pictures (I deliberately use the term “motion picture” rather than “movie”) of all time.

    First time I saw it was in december 1984 – almost exactly 24 years ago – from a broadcast quality U-matic copy. A guy who worked in video editing got his hands on the tape and invited a few close friends – me among them – over to his editing suite for a private screening. Wow.

    All of us were left pretty well speechless. The quantity of “ceremonial chemicals” consumed probably contributed somewhat.

    I did not get to see it on the silver screen until a few years later, when a local cinema did a single extraordinary screening. Having already seen it, I knew what to expect but the entire audience was quite impressed. When the last notes of the soundtrack had faded out, you could’ve heard a pin drop.

    All told Kooyanisqatsi is still my favourite of the Qatsi-trilogy. Mainly because there’s no freakin’ digital FX: just kickass photography.

    The Philip Glass soundtrack is one of my all-time favourites as well. I often use the last part (“Prophecies”) as “exit music” in my DJ set – on the club’s sound system the growl of the bass pedal makes a nice substitute for an earthquake…

  21. I adore this film, and can’t help but lose a little respect people who immediately find it dull and pointless.

    Funny that the stairway scenes were shot at the WTC – on the day of 9/11 I did what I’d been intending to for ages and picked up a copy of the CD, and put it on repeat on my PC at work. No-one complained.

  22. @ FNC:

    Forget being out of “balance”, we’re out of “place”. How could an evolutionary experiment in the heights of consciousness have gone so wrong?

    The experiment is not over yet. The mainstream hasn’t hit the heights of consciousness yet. It will have to. Either that or we land ourselves in the world of Wall·E.
    Which, by the way, was this year’s most important movie imho. A children’s movie on much the same theme matter as Koyaanisqatsi: the choice we have between rising in consciousness and choking in our own filth. The most touching irony of Wall·E was that the flame of consciousness was preserved by a garbage compressor on caterpillars, for crying out loud.

  23. What a lot of people younger than, oh, perhaps 30, don’t fully grasp about Koyannisqatsi is that when it first came out the kind of imagery it used was really new to most of us. It was appropriated by movies, advertising and TV so that by the time I came to watch it again (with my young daughter) 10 years ago, I could not believe how hackneyed and cliched many of the scenes had become. This seems like a very sad twist in the story of these films … creativity originally aimed at heightening our awareness of a disaster had now become cliche thanks to its use to sell perfume and cars.

    Probably if I had a PhD in filmology, I would know that Reggio was the thief, using techniques first developed by experimental film makers from Guam in 1962, but for now, with my meagre knowledge of such things, this is a story of commercial appropriation of whole set of creative ideas to the point where their original impact is significantly muted.

  24. #24, Yeah I know, I agree that it felt more disruptive with this particular film than with others on the site. Maybe they should adapt the ad presentation model so that you can opt to view ads before, and not be interrupted at all, with certain content. With this one film, out of like a dozen I’m reviewing, I felt like that was a problem — but could be solved with that tweak.

  25. I’m applying to screen films for a documentary film festival, and we have to provide a list of our ten favorite films with a focus on documentary work. Coming in at no. 1 is Koyaanisqatsi! Naqoyqatsi made it on the list as well (which, in response to comment #1, I believe approaches but does not quite match the first film. I don’t think Powaqqatsi quite approaches…)

    Apparently one of the teachers at the college I graduated from showed this film in some such class that I guess I took at a different school before I transferred. As a result most of my friends had seen it and thought I was ridiculous for owning it. You know, on account of how boring and all that nonsense…

    Awesome read, Xeni!

  26. I’ll never forget taking up an entire class at VCU arguing with my film teacher about this movie. I loved it she hated it and thought it derivative. She was weird, I was right.

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