This film was selected to watch at the beginning of the course. It has no narration only music and imagery and thus was to get us thinking on how one might communicate geomorphic change to the landscape visually.

IMDB: A collection of expertly photographed phenomena with no conventional plot. The footage focuses on nature, humanity and the relationship between them.

Koyaanisqatsi (24 August 1983 (France)) —Koyaanisqatsi on IMDB Official Website


10 thoughts on “Koyaanisqatsi”

  1. Life out of balance is a perfect phrase to describe the dichotomy between the natural and the man made worlds shown in the film Koyannisqatsi. From tranquil canyons with winding rivers to explosive industrial and urban scenes, the stark contrasts draw attention to the division of the two worlds.

    While some characteristics remain constant in both worlds, like movement, demonstrations of destructive and constructive capabilities, and repetitiveness, the energy is entirely different. The scenes of nature are soft and quiet, very low energy. The urban scenes are loud, sprawling, and fast paced, very high energy, almost uncomfortably so and slightly headache inducing. The soundtrack plays into this effect as well, building up during urban scenes to reach the peak for an explosion only to cut out immediately afterward for a panoramic shot of a canyon. The parallels are equally as interesting. The clouds and water constantly flowing, falling and changing shape are mirrored by the steady movements of cars on city streets and highways. Great structures like canyons and mountains are reconstructed as skyscrapers and cities. Frame after frame of these locations gives way to a sense that these motions, billowing clouds and speeding cars, will continue over and over again. Each reiteration slightly different, whether it be a different color car or a more wispy cloud, but also the same.

    The ability for both nature and man to create incredible things is central to the movie as well. Beautiful landscapes and advancements in industry are awe inspiring, but the problem arises because one feels peaceful and the other violent.

  2. This documentary is composed of images of human society and special background music. It has no narration because people may have different reflections after watching it.

    It begins with beautiful views of nature, and then it introduces us to every aspects of human society. The film is using the technique of compare and contrast to convince us that humanity is living an unbalanced life. For example, pictures of prosperous cities, such as New York, were compared with ghost towns and cities in undeveloped countries; enormous vehicles running on highways and busy airlines were compared with fields of tanks and warplanes. Also, the film utilizes analogy in an ironic way. For example, it draws analogy between the bird views of cities and electronic components. When I was watching the film, I also discovered an analogy between workers rushing to get on escalators and flow line of sausage production, which left me with a feeling of anxiety.

    The relationship of this film and this class is obvious: a portion of geomorphology is to study the influence of humanity on nature surroundings. In addition, after reading chapter 1 of Key Concepts in Geomorphology, I learned how colossal the impact of human activities is. Coal and mineral mining operations, farmers’ plows, urbanization, constructions of water conservancy projects and sea reclamation, these are merely some examples of human activities that bring considerable changes to the environment. In fact, “geologists have proposed that we are entering a new period of geologic time that they call Anthropocene Epoch (the human era) (pp20, Key Concepts in Geomorphology)”.

    To conclude, this documentary is a great kick starter for this class. It aroused my interest to learn more about the beneficial and detrimental impacts of human activities on our environment.

  3. Time lapse, montage and other cinematic techniques condense space, time and information. Director Reggio himself commented that time lapse created “an experience of acceleration”. One of the film’s cinematographers, Hillary Harris filmed time-lapse footage of NYC streets (Organism 1975) before joining Reggio to film Koyannisqatsi. Harris illuminated on the connection and parallel of urban and biology organism in Organism. Similar connection and parallel are apparent in Koyannisqatsi.

    The film Koyannisqatsi has no narration. Its visual audio tone is hypnotic and its message open to the interpretation of the audiences. The film’s composer, Philip Glass’s music plays a big part in building atmosphere and dynamic of the visuals. The overall experience was very immersive. I was drawn from the beginning when the sequence started with the curious iconography of cave painting. First half of the primitive pristine landscape was spectacular: shadows moving on canyon, wide horizon, valleys and mountains, erosion of landscape, water going through hydrologic cycle, mystic smoke, wind shaping sand dunes in deserts, lights streaming through clouds, bird colony quickly flapping their wings, close look at changing clouds, foam of waterfall and other shots. These views distance viewers from their immediate realities and make them step out of themselves to adopt different viewpoints when the human world is screened subsequently. The music then changes quality. Energy and matter move to a different beat. Images breathe fast and intense. Machinery systems are everywhere and the activities seemed systematic, streamlined, and automatic. Standardized highways seem like cybernetic superstructures that caged human in repetitive automobile motion. Hotdog lines and human labor unit flow involuntarily with production. Energy appeared explosively in nuclear mushroom cloud, scientifically in an equation written on aircraft carrier, destructively in blowing up modernism public housing buildings, and tamed in electricity factory. The diversity of human life is well portrayed in the theater of cities as beach vacations, slum daily life, public space dense crowd, market food, fashion, facial expressions and others.

    The threshold and connection between the two parts of the film, natural landscape and urban life are the most interesting. The similarity in forms and processes and the difference suggested by the name “Life out of balance” juxtaposed. The name seemed to advance the belief that nature was in balance and human actions were the craze of expansion and disruption that use technology both in wars and in launching rockets. Geomorphology concept of the steady state is actually a dynamic one and force balances change with exceeded thresholds. In the film, we see children started to flex their sense of control in virtual world by playing video games. We see cities planned in blocks and patterns. Skyscrapers’ curtain walls reflect clouds. Chanting music tells the layering and circulation of worlds of nature and human. The message I derived from Koyannisqatsi is the calling for another way of living with a better understanding and awareness of the connection between nature and human. It is a digital imprint of the two worlds and the dynamic sequences capture the essences of both worlds, as bright as fire or as dark as cave.

  4. Repetitive and strange work to Koyaanisqatsi’s advantage in producing a silent narrative that somehow manages to invoke in the viewer the feelings of stress, monotony, and boredom so common in our over-stimulated yet, at times, underwhelming world. Beginning with stunning scenes of natural spaces, the film does not go through the traditional American narrative of man’s conquest over the land through the innovation and fortitude of our forefathers. Instead disintegrating hillsides going up in great clouds of black dust-choked smoke show the viewer how those mountain vistas are becoming scarcer thanks to destructive mining practices. There is no one protagonist, no victorious man triumphing over the land, but instead masses upon masses of people going about seemingly busy lives. The same story is told that has always been told, but from the side of habitat loss, overpopulation, and stress rather than progress.

    Simultaneously a visually stunning and monotonous movie with a wonderfully minimalist score by Phillip Glass, Koyaanisqatsi represents a highly successful visual experiment that succeeds in showing the world in a way that allows for the viewer to project their own assumptions on to it. The morality is intentionally ambiguous; leaving out any narration whatsoever combined with the presence of truly beautiful scenes reflecting apparently happy people and spectacular structures leads to a conflict of message. In this way the film shatters expectations of wholeheartedly condemning the entire human existence as it is progressing, instead showing life as it currently stands through simple and stunning images.

    Authored by Julie Fowler

  5. Although abstract, I believe that the documentary’s eccentricities allowed it the opportunity to fully dive into the stark contrasts between the motion and progression of the natural and anthropogenic worlds. Although inherently connected, the natural world and the anthropogenic impacts thrust upon it differ in that the natural progression is recycled, beautiful, and articulate. Human development, as portrayed in the film, is loud, violent, destructive, fragmented, and wasteful.
    A personal favorite moment in the documentary was the portrayal of geographic erosion through the formation of canyons. While slowly guiding the eye through the canyon’s river, one can sense its timelessness, its integrity, and its sheer force. In navigating the canyon, the camera then focuses on what seems to be the canyon’s “source” of development, water itself. A montage of crashing waves embodies the purity of the entire cycle.
    In juxtaposition, the camera then zooms out from a close-up of industrial machinery to the tune of a louder cacophony. Images of seemingly pristine buildings reflecting the same clouds as those mirrored by water precede imagery of detonation, waste, and poverty. Through these distinctions, along with purposeful repetition and warped speed, the audience is able to comprehend a clear message demonstrating the necessity for us to change our way of life and thinking.

  6. Koyaanisqatsi, an American experimental film released in 1982, was produced and directed by Godfrey Reggio. Originally part of a trilogy of films, Koyaanisqatsi is by far the most known and is considered a cult film. The film itself consists of a myriad of slow motion and time-lapsed footage of a variety of places across the United States, with the purpose of illustrating the relationship between humanity, technology, and nature, and how all those things tie together.
    By far some of the most captivating and moving scenes in the film were during the beginning, when clips of the environment and human influence of it were displayed. I thought seeing nature in all its beauty and splendor juxtaposed with the chaotic, sometimes destructive quality of man’s pursuit of progress truly spoke volumes without having to say or show much. The environmental impact humans exude is seen as worsening in severity in the film as well – scenes of mining and oil operations turns to stock footage of atomic bomb detonations and Soviet tanks. In a sense, with the way the film develops and with what we are shown, the film touches upon technology in the modern world, and how it has become sort of our environment, or at least has integrated into the encompassing environment. We live amongst technology how man used to live amongst the forests and great landscapes, and I think that is indubitably evident as evidenced in the film and even our everyday lives.

    The entire time I was watching this film, I was thinking about what Prof. Page said about this film being representative of what we will be covering in class, and the film established an anthropocentric approach to landscape that I assume we will generally use this semester.
    I questioned Reggio and Fricke’s attitude towards the relationship between the natural world and spheres of modernity: clearly the film understands modernity as a destructive and exploitative force on the natural world but it was not clear whether the film understood the natural as a primordial force, as the scenes of modernity took precedent to scenes of wilderness (i.e., the ratio of screen time given to scenes of modernity vs. scenes of the natural world). I expected Reggio and Fricke to use a framing device and end the film with footage of undisturbed wilderness, so their choice to end the movie with cave paintings was unexpected and further placed the film’s focus virtually exclusively within the Quaternary. Considering the focus on this timescale with the film’s title, which translates from the Hopi to “life out of balance,” I see the establishing footage of Canyonlands, sandstone formations, and the rain-shadow affect functioning within the film as the “balance” with which modernity is juxtaposed. This interpretation was further solidified by the film’s implication of Hopi prophecies and cave paintings at the end of the movie; the “return” to indigenous culture in response to the wreckage of modernity was a popular move made in twentieth century art.
    One way in which I saw Reggio and Fricke attributing intrinsic, primordial value to wild landscapes despite the visual emphasis on modernized landscapes was in the lack of vocalized narration. I once read that using human words to quantify the natural was an act of anthropocentric chauvinism, and I like the idea that the earth itself will tell its own story via the rock record.

  8. Film Review of Koyaanisqatsi: Life out of Balance

    Released in 1983 and directed by Godfrey Reggio, Koyaanisqatsi is the first in the Qatsi trilogy of films, followed by Powaqqatsi (1988) and Naqoyqatsi (2002). The film consists primarily of slow motion and time-lapse photography of both the natural and manmade world.
    The title Koyaanisqatsi (noun from the Hopi language) translates to; 1. Crazy life. 2. Life in turmoil. 3. Life out of balance. 4. Life disintegrating. 5. A state of life that calls for another way of living. Important to note, the director of Photography for this film is Ron Fricke. Fricke sites his favorite artistic theme, “humanity’s relationship to the eternal,” evolved both technically and philosophically through his work on the trilogy.

    The film starts out with clips of nature seemingly uninterrupted by mankind. These clips provide the viewer with a sense of scale both physical and temporal. The speed-up clips of nature help to visually establish a sense of geological temporality. However, these clips do not last long, and before the movie’s 20 minute mark the viewer is introduced to a world inescapably altered by man. At this point of transition, the film uses music to heighten the iconographic juxtaposition, in particular lyrical Hopi Prophecies. These prophecies are rich in content and dramatic in tone, providing the audio for the entire film.

    There are a couple of clips in the film that really struck me. Of these, the first clip that caught me off guard was the blowing up of a bridge, and its subsequent collapse into the river below. I do not see how committing this kind of act can be legal. Literally, this is littering on a massive scale. The bridge was so easily taken down but will be nearly impossible to clean up. This kind of careless disregard for our environment is at the core of this films message. Following this clip, there are several clips interspersed throughout the film that showed people smoking. These clips stuck with me because they seemed to symbolise how our drawn-out suicidal behaviors are emblematic of our disregard for the environment. If we can only see short term solutions for our own mental well-being how are we to feel sympathetic towards the natural world and its future. Finally, the film featured several clips depicting cloud reflections on mid-century modern glass skyscraper facades. These clips seem to blur the lines of reality, entangling the viewer in a special realm where the architectural lines seem to move more than the clouds themselves. The viewer is prompted to consider the power of something seemingly harmless and transient, clouds, and compare them to what we associate with economic prosperity and artistic innovation.

    The film does a good job looking at patterns in human behavior and contrasting them visually with those of the natural world. For example, the opening of the film shows a clip filmed from the top of a waterfall (possibly Niagara). This clip compliments a later section in the film where a time lapse camera captures mass transit users ascending escalators side by side, in effect providing a complete iconographic reversal of the falling water, ascending humans. In closing, while I thoroughly enjoyed the film, I think it is worth noting that this film would not be possible without the very things it is criticizing. And with that where does this leave us?

  9. With breathtaking footage and creative manipulation of everyday phenomena on Earth, the film Koyaanisqatsi: Life out of Balance certainly lives up to its tagline: “Until now, you’ve never really seen the world you live in.” The intriguing film title itself is a Hopi term defined as “crazy life” or “life in turmoil”. Koyaanisqatsi is an experimental film released in 1982 by director Godfrey Reggio. This film features a sequence of adroitly shot focuses on natural and manmade phenomena, starting with scenic landscapes in western United States and progressing into scenes of how man interacts with nature, to ending with urban and manmade technologies and environments. Remarkably, there is a lack of narration in this film, leaving audiences to interpret the scenes to their discretion. The scenes in the film are given tone by a captivating and dominating musical track, which was composed by Philip Glass.

    The entire film is commenced by footage of the Apollo 11 launch, slowed down. The soundtrack during the beginning features low, solemn, repeated chanting of the term “koyaanisqatsi” over ominous, almost mournful music. Emphasis on this footage was on the launching pad of the Apollo 11, with shrapnel and debris flying down all around the rocket from the destructive power of the launch flying down, like snow. A similarly toned musical track follows through all the Western landscapes. Once traces of mankind are acknowledged through a scene that depicts a factory built on top of the dry Western rocket terrain, the musical track changes to a faster pace. The rest of the film uses methods of slowing and speeding up certain footage of urban phenomena, with an emphasis on destruction (such as building demolitions or nuclear launches) contrasted with everyday life (such as busy subway stations or shoppers at a mall). Patterns and visual contrasts in color are prominent through the film, such as building lights turning on and off in a city nightscene showing stark contrasts in the dark black night with the greenish-yellow city lights and traffic patterns shown through car lights from an aerial view of highways.

    Because of the lack of narration in this film, I focused on interpreting the music as a personal narrative, given its notable shifts in tone and atmosphere with certain scene changes. For instance, I found the music foreboding in many of the natural scenes at the beginning. Since the musical tone clashed with my personal values and expectations of a sense of reverence and wonder with nature, when I noticed more a more harmonic, hopeful musical tone in many of the urban scenes, I thought to interpret the music as mankind’s approach to the usage of our earth, and what mankind saw as progress. Perhaps the low, mournful chanting during the Apollo 11 and natural scenes were meant to represent the dire prophecies shown at the end of the film of the Hopis on mankind.

    As the film progressed, there was a sense of further detachment from the origins of nature as urban scenes made up a large bulk of the latter part of the film. It was made clear to me how urban life, while capable of supporting flourishing and healthy communities, could create environments in which its societies could live in complete isolation away from nature. Reggio’s choice of human portrait scenes emphasized emotions of mistrust, unhappiness and pensiveness as the subjects made eye contact with the camera. Reggios’ aerial shots of everyday life, sped up with an emphasis on urban crowds, suggested a sense of uniformity or conformity everyone adhered to. Although technology was depicted, the side of technology of its benefits and innovations were not shown. Even industry was depicted with sped-up scenes of repetitive factory jobs while the music buzzed along energetically to such activity.

    While all these scenes were shot with breathtaking perspective and admirable effort in terms of obtaining access to certain scenes, I did not find that the film convinced or captivated me to feel any differently about the relationship between mankind and nature than how I have felt all along. While I expected to emerge out of the film with a heightened sense of contempt for how mankind has created a “life in turmoil”, I view urban scenes of population density and efficiency as positives in an increasingly city-dominated world. I find city life to be beautiful, while being the inevitable. Furthermore, given an uncertain national political climate, I have more hope in the power of cities and urban life to improve its citizens’ lives on its own—many of the issues depicted in city life are no surprises to me; issues such as poverty, vacancy rates, and pollution are simply truths associated with cities we must simply overcome. I felt that the film suggested that with the rise in innovation or advances in mankind, there is inevitably major detachment or destruction of nature.

    Perhaps as an aspiring city planner, I am biased in my outlook and hopes for what society can achieve together and for the earth for the positive. Therefore, most of the impact of this film lies on the innovative eye of the scenes taken by the filmmakers, and their achievements in depicting remarkable scenes of nature and daily life. More than anything else, the need for a reconciliation of humans being in touch and conscious of nature is the main call of this film as we increasingly create built environments that elevate the degrees of separation from nature.

  10. Koyaanisqatsi is a film directed by Godfrey Reggio in 1982. Despite being an old film, composition of music with cinematography made the film very unique. First, the film started by showing different landscapes and movements that could be found in nature. Most of the natural landscapes appeared in the film were made throughout a long duration of time, mostly without touch of men. Background music during those sceneries was deep and slow. When scene changed to natural movement, such as movements of wind, cloud, river, sound became more light and fast which well demonstrated the liveliness of the mother nature.

    Then, the scenery change to an urban setting with building and people moving one place from another. It was interesting to see the parallel between the natural and manufactured environment. For example, mass of people riding escalator was very much like movement of cloud or sand wave created by the wind. Also, aerial view of the buildings reminded me of the tall rocks shown at the beginning which are created by river and/or wind. The background music was heavy, fast and almost overwhelming when urban scenes were showing. I think music helped us to make comparison between nature and artificiality that even though some of the patterns are similar, there are much differences.

    Another unique characteristic of this film was that there was no narrative. The film for me was sometimes very uncomfortable because I wasn’t sure what was going on, for example, when it suddenly showed us the images of computer chips. I have realized through this film how much I have relied on others’ explanation rather than questioning and trying to find out answer. Without the narratives, however, I could concentrate more on the images, videos and music and encouraging myself to think what this film is trying to get through us.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *