The fall release of Koyaanisqatsi and its first sequel, Powaqqatsi, is a wonderful boost to the medium of DVD (and timed to help promote the third film in the trilogy, Naqoyqatsi, coming to theaters later this month). For years, videotapes of both films were out of print, available only via auction on Ebay, or through the sheer blind luck of seeing a used rental version on a shelf somewhere. And only Koyaanisqatsi was released on laser disc, DVD's predecessor format.
The Message is the Medium--And the Medium Dazzles.
Running 87 minutes without a stitch of dialogue, Koyaanisqatsi nonetheless carries a powerful emotional message. Of course, what that message is depends on what the viewer wants to take away from the film. I think it's a safe bet that Godfrey Reggio, the director of Koyaanisqatsi and Powaqqatsi believes, more or less, in most of the standard shibboleths of the environmental left: man is bad, technology is bad, nature is best left pristine, etc. Kill 'em all: let Gaia sort it out.
But as Roger Ebert once noted, it's possible to come out of Koyaanisqatsi with an entirely different message, one much more positive and uplifting:
"The first shots of smokestacks are no doubt supposed to make us recoil in horror, but actually I thought they looked rather noble. The shots of the expressways are also two-edged. Given the clue in the title, we can consider them as an example of life out of control. OR --and here's the catch — we can marvel at the fast-action photography and reflect about all those people moving so quickly to their thousands of individual destinations. What a piece of work is a man! And what expressways he builds!"
And what movies and music he makes as well. The "Qatsi" films turn Marshall McLuhan's old aphorism on its head--The Message is the Medium--and the medium dazzles.
Protesting Too Much
The Koyaanisqatsi DVD comes with a fairly comprehensive video interview of Reggio and his soundtrack composer, Philip Glass. At one point, Reggio refers to technology as "the beast", and an oppressive one at that. And yet, Reggio, his cinematographer, the brilliant Ron Fricke, and Glass each push technology to the limit while simultaneously attacking it. At one point in Koyaanisqatsi, during a rapidly speeded-up night cityscape, the camera pans, in a perfectly fluid motion past a huge Miesian office building and thousands of cars whirring past underneath. Think of the technology involved in that camera movement: Selecting a camera designed to shoot a frame or two a second to get that speeded-up look. And loading it with the right film stock to shoot at night, the right filter on the lens to shoot in nothing but city lights, the right motorized head to allow the camera to pan at an ultra-low speed, etc. And then have the lab properly develop the film and time the prints, etc. And then add Glass's music, largely performed on synthesizers in a recording studio.