Blu-ray Review: Koyaanisqatsi and Powaqqatsi

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Director: Godfrey Reggio
Koyaanisqatsi – 9/10
Powaqqatsi – 6/10
Overall – 7/10

This deluxe box set gathers together what must be two of the most idiosyncratic films of the 1980s, a pair of cinematic essays which, without words, characters or plot, attempt to offer a portrait of the world in which we live.

Sounds heavy? Actually, that’s the last word you would apply to the first of the two films, Koyaanisqatsi – Life out of Balance (1982), which concerns itself with the natural beauty and technological achievements of America. Despite being a labour of love that took six years to make, it’s a film that feels lighter than air, lifting off like a kite on a sustained flight of the imagination. Admittedly, for a British viewer, the early scenes of crashing waves and swirling clouds might seem to be just begging for a David Attenborough voice over, but the films finds its own powerful identity once it shifts to the urban landscape, making the familiar concrete sprawl magically unfamiliar.

With its use of what were then revelatory time-lapse and slow motion techniques, Ron Fricke’s cinematography has been enormously influential on the way that cityscapes have been shot ever since. Even so, many of the images here have never been bettered and still seem startlingly modern and fresh: the emerald-encrusted monolith of a skyscraper at night taking a bite out of a full moon, the synapse-like spark and tangle of car headlights speeded up a hundred times, a collection of reservoirs gleaming like an enamel brooch.

Apart from a moment when he wittily segues from wieners shuffling about in a sausage factory to shoppers crammed on escalators in a busy mall, director Godfrey Reggio avoids anything that resembles an overt message about the price mankind has paid for progress. Instead, the expected polarities (peace/war, luxury/deprivation, city/countryside) are folded into a more complex picture of endless difference, of decay and renewal, bound together by a score by Philip Glass that exults as much in the majesty of a WWII atomic bomb as in the tapestried hues of a field of flowers. As for the people who wander in and out of frame, they are all the more poignantly real and present because the way they dress and the cars they drive are the only things that date what otherwise feels like an ageless piece of filmmaking.

Koyaanisqatsi is the sort of the movie you could imagine a bunch of visiting aliens making if they could get their tentacles on a decent budget and a 35mm camera. If, in the end, it has a message, it’s a pensive and melancholy one: how beautiful the world and everything in it would seem if only we could be free from the limitations of time and space – free, in fact, from ourselves.Nonetheless, it’s very uplifting and cleansing and it leaves you eager to engage with the world around you, and how many films can you say that about?

Powaqqatsi – Life in Transformation (1988) shifts its attention to the Southern hemisphere. It begins very strikingly with Dante-esque scenes of mud-drenched workers hauling dirt from the infamous Serra Pelada gold mine in Brazil, but from there it falls into a number of traps that Koyaanisqatsi avoids. This time, there’s a clear and not very original theme to do with the destruction of ancient ways of life by the encroachment of modern technology. The imagery of brightly garbed folk tilling fields, milling bread by hand and casting fishing nets is picture postcard, Sunday supplement stuff, and composer Philip Glass’ take on world music teeters into easy listening. And whereas Koyaanisqatsi‘s intricate editing and dizzying changes of tempo make it feel spare and astringent as well as gloriously lyrical, here the gorgeousness is of a lush, cloying and travelogue-ish kind. It’s certainly very beautiful, but it’s rather more predictable and less mysterious than its predecessor, and it has its longueurs. That said, it’s certainly worth seeing, if only to reinforce just how uniquely successful Koyaaniqatsi is.

Turning to the HD transfers, Koyaanisqatsi has a slightly busy-looking graininess to some of its panoramic shots, but there are no other blemishes, colours are vibrant and subtle, details are crisp and the medium shots of milling crowds have great presence and immediacy. Philip Glass’ heady, almost liturgical score sounds beautifully open-textured on the 5.1 surround sound audio. Despite retaining a few blemishes and scratches from the negative, the transfer of Powaqqatsi is top drawer, vivid and full of depth and body.

Koyaanisqatsi comes with a 25-minute featurette (presumably shot circa 2003) containing interview footage with Reggio and Glass. Having said that it’s up to the viewer to interpret the film for himself, Reggio then proceeds to explain what it’s all about. He also talks about how entering a religious order at an early age gave him a unique perspective on things, and discusses his start in filmmaking courtesy of the Institute for Regional Education, a curious left-field public information body that sounds like something out of a David Cronenberg thriller. He also reveals that he originality wanted the film to have no title at all other than an untranslatable visual symbol (rather like the artist formerly known as Prince).

Reggio and Glass are back again in a 20-minute featurette accompanying Powaqqatsi. Reggio mounts a spirited defence of the film against criticisms that it’s sentimental and condescending, while Glass talks about his close collaboration with the director (often accompanying him to scout for and shoot locations), and goes on to mention his extensive researches into world music (which resulted in his very unGlass-like score). Powaqqatsi also comes with Anima Mundi (1992), a half hour short of wildlife footage sponsored by jewellers Bulgari and energetically scored by Glass.


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