There are only a few films that I can say that I've enjoyed watching more than once and fewer that I'd watch again. This is one of them. Maybe the only one.
Yes, the music is nice and all- that's what most people focus on when discussing it. But there's a lot more than that. It's remarkably current in it's illustration of the situation that we, as a species have put ourselves in, despite the fact it was released 31 years ago.
As a matter of fact, it's quite an indictment that a young filmmaker was able to- wordlessly- lay out the case against the dysfunctional modern American way of life, in 1982, and since then we've done nothing to improve the situation. I'd say we've probably made it worse.
This isn't a movie to watch on the small screen, but I'm attaching the first of nine 10-minute YouTube segments above. If you haven't seen it before, I'd recommend watching it here, then renting it (or streaming it or whatever people do now) and then seeing it at a theater with a really good sound system.
I saw this first when I was in college in the 90's and was blown away. Yes, by the Philip Glass soundtrack and the chanting, but also by what was being said- without being said.
Apparently Godfrey Reggio- the director -has never really said explicitly what he meant to say with the wordless film, so there have been plenty of attempts to interpret it. In one interview he said:
"I wanted to show that which we're most proud of: our shining beast, our way of life. So [the film] is about the beauty of this beast." ... What I tried to show is that the main event today is not seen by those who live in it. We see the surface of the newspapers and the obviousness of conflict, social injustice, the market, the welling up of culture. But for me, the greatest and most important event of perhaps our entire history has fundamentally gone unnoticed: the transiting from old nature – or the natural environment as our host of life for human habitation – into a technological milieu, into mass technology, as the environment of life." (italics mine)
The later two movies in the trilogy aren't anywhere near as good. As far as I can tell the filmmaker tried to remake the original with higher technology and a bigger budget each time and did a pretty mediocre job of it. I can't recommend them.
What makes Koyannisqatsi special- what I love about it- is the storytelling- the story of that transition from life in harmony with nature- to life within "mass technology". There are three parts, so far as I see:
First there is unspoiled nature. The first 15 minutes consist solely of gorgeous, sweeping scenes of the desert southwest US.
Then the despoilation of nature by people. Power lines, mines, freeways, nuclear blasts, traffic jams, pollution.
Last is the despoilation of people by our corruption of nature. The faces of people- normal people- living in the world that has been created by and for them. The city grid juxtaposed with the patterns on a computer chip.
It's both beautiful and horrible and an entirely appropriate commentary on who we have become as a culture.
There are no solutions proposed, no next steps given. But that's entirely appropriate. The transition that's not addressed in the movie is what comes after the life out of balance- or the life within mass technology- to use the director's words.
Responding to, and adapting to climate change and peak resources are what I try to think through here, as do many others (usually better) in their writing. It's an ongoing project. I don't think there is a simple answer to the question of "How then shall we now live?"
At least it's not something to resolve, or be resolved at the end of a 90 minute movie. It's something we'll all be living with and through in our lifetimes as will our offspring.
To read what I think is the best interpretation of it, see: http://facultyfiles.frostburg.edu/phil/forum/Koyaanisqatsi.htm
Better yet-- just watch it if you haven't already and form your own opinion.
This is a weighty thing to watch, but what better time than mid-winter?