Koyaanisqatsi ★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

Koyaanisqatsi, I'm told, is some kind of unique commentary on the artificial construct of society and the unnaturalness of mankind's post-industrial ways, blah, blah, blah. We open with some footage of natural landscapes before moving onto the urban environment of southern California. There, we see how orderly everything is from factory conveyor belts to traffic (lots and lots of traffic) in about an hour's worth of footage that makes one long for the opening of Joe versus the Volcano, which made the same point in a whole lot less time (and with a whole lot more Tom Hanks).

Koyaanisqatsi is the most bothersome of documentaries, presenting us with blatantly cherry-picked evidence and leading up to not a conclusion, but a recitation of the beginning thesis (i.e., "man is destructive"). For instance, in the opening footage of the natural landscape, we see natural rocky formations that present uniform designs that were clearly not the doing of man. Nor do we see any critters whatsoever, which would instantly deflate the sanctimonious lecturing of the film because, you know, flocks of birds and schools of fish all move in formations. Oh, noes! Maybe organizational movement isn't something that man invented as his own manacle.

And what of it, anyway? If Godfrey Reggio wanted to chastise us as a species for committing ourselves to making an endless array of right turns at all hours, what does he put forth as an alternative? He stays the hell away from nature, leaving us with perhaps the path to enlightenment lies in what we do with our technology. We blow up a lot of buildings and a bridge, and we go into space. But Reggio only shows us these things without any context whatsoever. Are the leveled skyscrapers to be replaced by something indicating wiser choices? Or is he merely smugly rubbing it in our faces that all we do is destroy what we've built? And even if we do...so what?

Koyaanisqatsi made its way onto Christopher Nolan's Top 10 Criterion Collection titles. Of the film, he said:

"An incredible document of how man’s greatest endeavors have unsettling consequences. Art, not propaganda, emotional, not didactic; it doesn’t tell you what to think—it tells you what to think about."

It surprises me that Nolan would call Koyaanisqatsi "emotional", for two reasons. Firstly, I didn't find it emotional at all, outside of rolling my eyes at its pretentious condemnation of the organization of society. Secondly, though, there's the fact that I have yet to see a Christopher Nolan film that I found emotional. His storytelling sensibilities lie in the cold, cerebral areas.

The clearest microcosm is the scene in Inception in which we watch Leonardo DiCaprio - one of the finest actors of his generation/our time - given little more than the prompt "Tell the audience you're feeling upset by watching your wife commit suicide". It's the hollowest performance I've yet seen from DiCaprio, and since I know his normal work is much more affecting, fault must lie with Nolan. (I have a halfhearted supposition that Nolan is a psychopath who has to get by on mimicking human emotion because he doesn't experience it for himself.)

The one aspect of Koyaanisqatsi that I found interesting is actually in its aesthetic similarity to some of Nolan's work. I envision his pre-production notes for The Dark Knight to Wally Pfister (director of photography), Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard (composers), and Lee Smith (editor) consisted of Koyaaisqatsi on DVD with a sticky note that read, "Watch this." There was something about the aerial footage in this film that instantly reminded me of the shots in The Dark Knight surveying the Hong Kong cityscape. The aforementioned montage of blown-up buildings and the bridge called to mind the destruction of the hospital, as well as Bane's attack on Gotham City in The Dark Knight Rises. La pièce de résistance is the first person footage of an unseen vehicle navigating a California roadway, which seemed to be the paradigm for strikingly similar footage of the Batpod.

It isn't just what happens in those scenes that evoked The Dark Knight, but the precision of how the action is staged, blocked and framed for us. Even some of the scored music feels "related", with Philip Glass's work in Koyaanisqatsi relying heavily on string instruments for sounds in both the high and low registers to heighten our attention. (I don't speak "music" so I'm afraid I can't really articulate it any more clearly than that.)

Perhaps if Godfrey Reggio had presented Koyaanisqatsi as a short film, reducing the redundant factory/traffic pattern footage (seriously, dude, we get it), I might have responded more favorably. As it is, though, I mostly just found myself wanting to ask, "So what?" If Reggio anticipated that question, he put nothing into the film to indicate he, in turn, cared.

Lastly, using a Hopi word for the title and a few captioned remarks warning us against the destructive power of man doesn't make the film "enlightened". It's nothing more than a feeble effort to tap into the myth of "the noble savage".

How Koyaanisqatsi Entered My Flickchart

Koyaanisqatsi < Moneyball --> #1562
I enjoyed the narrative of Moneyball, even though I find the cult of sabermetrics off-putting. Worse than that, though, is the smug pretentiousness of Koyaanisqatsi. Baseball FTW!

Koyaanisqatsi < Napoleon Dynamite --> #1562
In the case of trying-too-hard (Napoleon Dynamite) vs. smug pretentiousness (Koyaanisqatsi), trying-too-hard gets the nod.

Koyaanisqatsi > Hell Is for Heroes --> #1374
Koyaanisqatsi got on my nerves with its redundant footage and sanctimonious attitude, but Hell Is for Heroes is more forgettable and that costs it here.

Koyaanisqatsi < Memento --> #1374
A Christopher Nolan film vs. one of Nolan's top 10 Criterion titles. I was roundly underwhelmed by both, but Memento has Joe Pantoliano and he's always fun to watch...even in a movie that doesn't do much for me.

Koyaanisqatsi > The Patriot (2000) --> #1325
I appreciate that The Patriot makes clear that the colonists were not unanimous in rebellion, but otherwise it's generic. Conversely, I didn't care about Koyaanisqatsi, which means I was less disappointed by default.

Koyaanisqatsi < So I Married an Axe Murderer --> #1325
There's some genuinely terrific footage in Koyaanisqatsi, but it's squandered by the film's self-importance. So I Married an Axe Murderer was disappointing, but I'd be more inclined to give it a second viewing.

Koyaanisqatsi < Cheaper by the Dozen (2003) --> #1325
Steve Martin is so likable that he can elevate even a generic comedy like Cheaper by the Dozen from dismal to bearable. Steve Martin wasn't part of Koyaanisqatsi.

Koyaanisqatsi < Analyze This --> #1325
This comes down to the montage of destroyed buildings vs. DeNiro frustrated by a doctor telling him he's fine. I've had that argument with a doctor after my own anxiety attacks. Analyze This gets the nod.

Koyaanisqatsi < Johann Mouse --> #1325
I'm pretty "meh" on Tom and Jerry in general, but I did like Johann Mouse. If nothing else, I liked it more than I enjoyed the self-righteous Koyaanisqatsi.

Koyaanisqatsi > The Two Mouseketeers --> #1325
I didn't care for either of these, but Koyaanisqatsi has some nice footage whereas The Two Mouseketeers is mostly just offensive.

Koyaanisqatsi > X-Men --> #1324
I found Koyaanisqatsi pretentious, but the truth is that I found X-Men dull and generic.

Koyaanisqatsi entered my Flickchart at #1324/1570