Ain't it awful. Overpopulation, pollution, traffic, decay, strip mining, the atomic bomb, fast food, life in the fast lane, video games, television news, information sickness, assembly-line Twinkies. Tell us about it.
"Koyaanisqatsi"--the word is Hopi for life out of balance -- is a film without dialogue or subtitles, full of abstract, time- altered images set to the music of Philip Glass, an American composer whose electronically enhanced tantric sounds can give you an Excedrin headache quicker than you can say a-one and a-two and a-. . . .
Glass' kinetic sounds sometimes soothe like Greogrian chants, for instance in the film's opening scenic visions of the rhythms of sand in canyonscapes. There's a "2001" aerial-photo run down an inlet to a pointillist sea, and shots of clouds boiling in the sky. Had it gone on like this, "Koyaanisqatsi" might have been a mantra for the modern man.
But the word also means life in turmoil, life disintegrating, a state of life that calls for another way of living. Producer-director Godfrey Reggio, in his first and, he says, only film, goes after that turmoil. We've barely established balance and serenity when Glass blasts through it, rapidly assaulting us with triplets of sound, subtly repeating but loud and disharmonic.
The cinematography by Ron Fricke is extraordinary, but at times it's the visual equivalent of purple prose. It depends on the very technology that the director holds in contempt. There's slo-mo, time-lapse, zoom, boom and doom photography. Wide- angle, up-close and personal, revved up, microscopic, panascopic, every kind of scopic you can think of.
The filmmakers are pro-organic, anti- industrial, a belated stance in a country that seems to be moving into a computer age. Some of the images seem to glorify what they would vilify. A shot of a mushroom- shaped cloud, with a Joshua tree in the foreground, seems in praise of atomic fungus. Time-lapse footage of New York City makes the Big Apple look juicy.
But mostly, it gets to be too much of a good thing -- miles and miles of traffic at night, assembly-line workers (probably unemployed now) and high-speed crowd scenes shot at the off-track betting parlor. People are made to look utterly and totally miserable as they walk down Broadway alienated in the haze.
An agoraphobic's nightmare, it's a condescending view, and maybe one that's totally off base. Some people like living within touch of one another, near shops and modern conveniences, close to their local Twinkie factory, where unhappy women wrap the cute little spongecakes to the sound of shattering Glass. KOYAANISQATSI -- At the Uptown.