Fusing dramatic imagery and a powerful soundtrack, Geoffrey Reggio”s “Koyaanisqatsi” has set the standard of interaction between music and film.
Taken from the Hopi language, “Koyaanisqatsi” indicates a “crazy life” or “life out of balance.” Since its release in 1983, this 85-minute film has gained a cult following through its numerous live performances at arts festivals and performing arts centers around the world. Composer Philip Glass, who worked with Reggio on the film”s music, has said that “Koyaanisqatsi” is “a collaboration of film and music that is unprecedented in its intensity.”
Inspiration for “Koyaanisqatsi” and the other films in the “qatsi” trilogy take root in Reggio”s intriguing past. Born in New Orleans, he entered the Roman Catholic order of the Christian Brothers at the age of 14. His experiences there encouraged him to get involved with urban youth and teaching.
In the 1960s he taught grade school, secondary school and college in New Mexico and in 1963, he co-founded the Young Citizens for Action, a community organization project that aided street gangs. It was in Mexico City, however, that Reggio first became interested in film. “I was moved by the effect that film had on me and other people,” he said. “It moved me to pursue film myself.”
Each film in the “qatsi” series explores a different theme that connects with one another to suggest a broader theme of “globalization.” “Koyaaniqatsi,” featured in Ann Arbor this weekend, focuses on the collision between technology and urban life in the Northern hemisphere. Reggio describes the natural environment in this film to be automobile traffic, rather than what the audience would consider to be “nature.”
The second film, “Powaqqatsi,” focuses on the Southern hemisphere. There, Reggio says, the handmade cultures are being taken over by industrialization in the North. Finally, “Naquoyqatsi,” which is still in development, ties the first two films together. “It envisions a horizonless world a world which is held together by diversity,” said Reggio.
Aside from broad themes of mechanization, urbanization and technology, each film also contains no language, plot or actors. According to Reggio, this technique gives the films the character of a non-traditional documentary. Instead of putting an emphasis on dialogue or words, the films in the “qatsi” trilogy use images to reveal words. “It”s like using the old saying that a picture speaks a thousand words,” Reggio said. “Now a thousand pictures speak one word.”
Reggio also likens the experience of his films to an IMAX film. He says you can walk into it at any time and feel absorbed by the imagery. “The screen is psychologically much bigger than its actual size,” he said.
As the heart of Reggio”s films is Philip Glass”s music, which has become part and parcel of the entire viewing experience. Without words, the music comes to the foreground of the film and becomes part of the action. “The music to “Koyaaniqatsi” is quite beautiful,” said John Gibson, one of the Philip Glass ensemble members. “It does a very good job in presenting this work.”