Dir. Godfrey Reggio
(1983, Not Rated, 87 min)

Director Godfrey Reggio is a groundbreaking artist. His 1983 film Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance, which consists only of scenic views, slow motion shots, and time-lapse photography set to music, may have been the world’s first screen saver.

What is the film about? Nothing really. Reggio explains in the DVD featurette Essence of Life that his film has no single inherent meaning: “it is up [to] the viewer to take for himself/herself what it is that [the film] means.” But the title is a word from the Hopi language that translates to “a state of life that calls for another way of living,” suggesting a clear perspective on technology, modernization, and progress. The problem is that very little of the film actually communicates that theme, or any theme. Most of the film’s very long 87 minutes of running time – my eyes were on the clock nearly as much as they were on the screen – merely observes the action of life, not in chaos, not out of balance, not in a state that calls for another way of living. Stuff happens. Some of it is very fast, and some of it is very slow. That is all. Though that seems to be more or less as Reggio intended, the film feels like camerawork in search of a subject.

Composer Philip Glass

But we might expect the camerawork to at least be impressive. Some of it is; there are a few terrific time-lapse shots from the point of view of cars as they weave through traffic, which give the film a jolt of kinetic energy. Otherwise, much of the cinematography by Ron Fricke is underwhelming, showing oceans and deserts without much visual flair; we see them, but they do not inspire any feelings. The later images of cities and technology are many of them quite drab, and my attention strayed to passers-by who frequently look annoyed, as if wondering who the wise guy is behind the camera; I imagine scenes from their point of view, taking a Banksy-esque approach by turning the camera on the director. It might be more interesting that way.

The score by Philip Glass is all we have by means of artistic interpretation of the imagery. When the film segues from unspoiled natural landscapes to man-made technology, the musical change is a bit on the nose, like Glass is scoring the arrival of the Death Star. I’m generally a fan of Glass’s musical scores, which in films like The Hours and Notes on a Scandal often divide audiences between the impressed and the annoyed. Here I was annoyed, both with the dated quality of the music – the ’80s come through loud and clear during some overly synthesized passages – and the hammering repetitiveness of it, a far cry from the delicate piano work of his more recent efforts.

Another film came to mind: 2007’s Silent Light by Carlos Reygadas, which opens with one of the most beautiful shots I’ve seen in a film, a sunrise shown uninterrupted from darkness to perfect light; unfortunately, that film keeps going in an interminable slog long after that shot, but that’s another story. Koyaanisqatsi doesn’t have a shot like that. I thought also of all the stunning, patiently captured footage from the Discovery Channel’s Planet Earth and Life miniseries’, which had the benefit of modern, high-definition technology, but I don’t think that’s the main problem. There’s simply not enough of interest on-screen in this film, little to please the eyes or ears, or to stimulate the mind. Reggio says the film is whatever we make of it, but there’s not much to make anything of.