Koyaanisqatsi (1982)

Dir. Godfrey Reggio.

If there is one thing that I didn’t expect Koyaanisqatsi to make me do, it’s laugh. But it did. There’s that sequence in which we see how they make the hot dogs, or at least how the hot dogs come out of the machinery. They come down little ramps, cased together. Two men stand on either side of the belt. Then there’s a closer look at them shooting through these little holes, sped up so much that they are blurry, blurry enough that it’s almost difficult to keep track of what they are. It’s chrome and that funny brown-orange of the hot dog and the jittery, techy Philip Glass score. And then another cut, and instead of watching wieners shoot towards you, the wieners are flying away. A bunch of people, riding escalators to whatever the next step is for their destination. There aren’t quite as many escalator lanes for people as there are lanes for the hot dogs, but it’s the same image, down to the colors. Reader, I chortled. Reggio doesn’t spend a lot of time making us believe that we’re being processed like we’re all just another wiener in the end, but in that moment of transition it is hilariously and wonderfully apparent that there is something awfully industrialized about the way we live. The next cut after the escalators is another sped-up sequence in which we see the whites of headlights coming toward us and the reds of taillights going away from us. It is so fast that the lights have elongated into little Mike & Ikes, brightly and singularly colored, in tandem with another, rushing sinuously over this part of the highway. It’s beautiful. And the lines the cars go in are the lines the people on escalators go in are the lines the hot dogs go in. Reggio translates “koyaanisqatsi” as “life out of balance.” It’s incredible that anything could be out of balance when it comes from something which is so regimented.

Watching Koyaanisqatsi made me think about something which is so obvious that it’s become forgettable, and that is the reliance of the grid. The world that humans have made is an aggressively rectangular one, and the variations in our lives are in the kinds of rectangles that we inhabit. Slick, long, thin ones for driving,lit in the same terrible ghost green that Hitchcock borrowed two and a half decades before Koyaanisqatsi when Judy walks out of the bathroom into her Madeleine drag. Small, squat, bright ones for working in, only seen from such a distance that you cannot know which people are in there, or what exactly they’re up to. Little squares to watch, or to play on. But always another rectangle.


There’s something preordained in the geometry. The barriers are the limits of the rectangles themselves, their sides and vertices, and over and over again in Koyaanisqatsi there is such movement within them. It is safe movement. The lights flicker on and off in an office building. The images on the television change rapidly, although if you focus enough you can make out a toll-free number, Burt Reynolds, a swastika, fifty other things. A focused kid stares deeply into the face of his video game at the arcade. The cars always stop at the lights, always turn from certain lanes, do not swerve wildly. The life out of balance that we have created is one that has, presumably as a false corrective, created order. It has prescribed literal ways to go, whether they are on the escalator or on the freeway. The natural world that Reggio finds in the first leg of his documentary has is not destined by rectangles.

There are rules in this nature, and reason as well. A canyon is made due to the erosion of a river, and is shaped due to weathering. The processes of millions of years built these landscapes the way they were for Reggio to see them in much the same way that unseen construction crews must have built the skyscrapers and the off-ramps that Reggio saw as well. But there was no fate in nature. Perhaps this is a slightly romantic view, and I suppose Koyaanisqatsi is a little romantic about nature as well, depicting it as beautiful and a little static as opposed to being as rough and treacherous as anything people might have come up with on their own. Yet the point is certainly made: the shapes that people have made for themselves are not like the shapes that nature has self-discovered. Yet the world that people have made does try to co-opt the shapes of nature as well. There’s a section about clouds in Koyaanisqatsi in which we can see them roll and roil, burble and pitch. They are as ethereal and impossible as we might have ever dreamed. And then later on, there are clouds reflected in the glass and steel facade of the Microdata building, as if the hard polygons of that building could know anything about the clouds besides how they look. It’s the most frustrated I’ve ever been looking at a building. And then there’s the explosion (boy, Reggio sure seems to have a lot of space for those) that mimics the shape of this desert plant, blooming in black smoke what the plant presents in its green spines.


This is the same idea as the hot dog conveyor belt and the human conveyor belt, but I didn’t laugh at this image at all.

Koyaanisqatsi has more people in it than its reputation would have you believe, and I don’t mean that just in the sense that there are people in the cities or whatever. I mean there are plenty of faces in this movie, almost all of them buried under hairstyles that seem almost like hopeless Oscarbait now. It’s rare to see someone who looks really happy. Reggio either holds the camera too long on people until the smiles hold like they’re propped up by popsicle sticks, or he catches people unaware and they panic in the sight of the camera. They don’t like to be seen, really, and I don’t know that it has as much to do with some need for privacy as it does with the idea that someone catching them with the camera almost automatically puts them on guard. It’s not a particularly rectangular experience to look up and see someone with a camera filming you. And so there are multiple men with mullets who give the camera sort of a hard look. But this woman below, with hair that makes new languages when it comes down, is different.

At first she has the same kind of hard look for the camera that most of the other people do, but then she looks up again after a moment and the camera is still there, and she almost smiles. She comes very close, and I think it must be from some kind of embarrassment. Maybe it’s amusement, the feeling of having been chosen and not really knowing why and thinking that it’s quaint, but I lean embarrassment. She doesn’t know what to do. She and the man she’s with, whose features could not be more the opposite of hers, keep walking on that sidewalk (you know what I’m thinking already) and in the camera’s path. And so there’s that incredible little half-smile, the kind of expression that actors cannot coax out of themselves but that people still get, and by the time she and her fellow pass the camera she has reset herself. It’s a stunningly personal moment. I felt connected to her like I rarely feel connected to other people in the course of a day.

The ten seconds or so where the moon passes behind a skyscraper are probably the most recognizable ten seconds of the movie, and in the same way that the bareness of that woman’s emotions across her face touches me, I find this almost unbearably sad. Reggio has a gift for finding mismatches in form and juxtaposing them; this is the most ardent of those juxtapositions, but it’s hardly the only one. What’s sad about it is the fact that the moon is ultimately obscured. Who wants to belong to the same larger group that figured out how to hide the moon from sight?

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