The trickiest movie title to spell in living memory, "Koyaanisqatsi," also loses something in translation. I suppose filmmaker Godfrey Reggio owes the audience a definition for this exotic term, but it's curious how such a grandiose conception can be cut down to size by explicit definition.
Now at the Uptown, "Koyaanisqatsi" is a scenically imposing, pseudo-profound curiosity, an abstract documentary feature designed to juxtapose natural environments, manmade environments and industrial processes. There is no dialogue or narration.
The images, a deliberately orchestrated procession of stunning landscapes and cityscapes, frequently enhanced with eerie surrealistic wonder by time-lapse photography and wedded to one of Philip Glass' relentlessly repetitive, geometrical scores, are meant to speak for themselves. As a rule, they certainly do, sometimes with a pictorial beauty and grandeur that communicates considerable, though scarcely unprecedented, esthetic delight.
The images may also suggest certain well-worn platitudes about the superiority of nature to technology. While watching the imagery roll by, it's relatively easy to brush off the implications of human inadequacy and folly that seem to creep into the visual text. Nature in the mighty, awesome raw may look pretty splendid, especially when you're gliding over Monument Valley and waterfalls and cloud formations, but technology in the mighty, awesome artificial is no slouch either.
Clearly, the movie has "tendencies," but it's not obligatory to endorse them. After a while, images that lend themselves to knee-jerk dread and repudiation begin creeping into the procession: an oceanfront dominated by a nuclear power plant; archive footage of fields of tanks and planes; an abandoned housing project due for demolition; the test explosion of a nuclear bomb. Nevertheless, the principle of photogenic fascination often undermines the apparent implications of these sights.
Just as clearly, a weak spot emerges in Reggio's pictorial schemes--an inability to integrate human beings. They just don't fit into his lofty vision, and the worst single passage in the movie is a series of head-on "portraits" of fellow citizens that tell you nothing, except that they were obliging enough to stand still for the director's long, probing exposures.
The only way that people are effectively integrated into The Conception is by fooling with the film speed. Crowds of commuters funnel themselves in amusing herky-jerky motion onto escalators, or assembly-line workers perform their tasks lickety-split. The term "time lapse" takes on added significance in this case, and Reggio doesn't necessarily control the lapses. Occasionally, in slow-motion scenes of pedestrians, you'll catch the ghost of a smile or some spontaneous gesture of contentment, and it seems to demolish "Koyaanisqatsi" as decisively as the demolition teams flatten derelict buildings and spans. That's the problem with grandiose conceptions: you can't trust other people to keep a straight face or keep from getting distracted all the time. Some jokers are bound to be thinking their own thoughts and making their own sort of fun.
You can feel the movie running down in the final third, when Reggio surrenders to the temptation of repeating certain shots and belabors his ironies and trepidations into visual patterns as monotonous as Glass' three- and four-note musical phrases. Still, it seemed an achievement of sorts to sustain this kind of audio-visual white elephant for longer than an hour, since it's fundamentally a short film exercise.
In the postscript, Reggio is unwary enough to define "Koyaanisqatsi," an expression borrowed from the Hopi, as several things, including "life out of balance" and "a state of life that calls for another way of living." What we've seen really won't support the presumption that it sums up the discontents of civilization and points in the general, backward direction of A Better Way.