By Steve Dorst
Creative Director, Z-Channel Films
Wow, 35 years! That’s how long it’s been since Godfrey Reggio’s seminal film, Koyaanisqatsi came out, challenging our beliefs about what a documentary could be.
I watched it again last week while gearing up to make a new documentary here in LA. The story I’m trying to tell is more of an essay film, which demands more of viewers than a traditional narrative documentary with a conventional plot. That’s why I turned to Koyaanisqatsi for a little inspiration. How did it manage to blow our minds without a word of dialogue?
Time-lapse, how I love you so
During the first half of the film, I could only assume that the time-lapse shot was a true innovation back in 1982, because the long takes of traffic, pedestrians, and clouds doesn’t pack much emotion. This hasn’t aged well.
The music, however, is still a true tour-de-force, perhaps too much so. In fact, Koyaanisqatsi never would’ve experienced as much acclaim without Philip Glass’ score. It shaped soundtracks for 30 years—from Errol Morris’ work to my own. The turbulent, evocative music ultimately detracts, however, because it dominates so early and often. Are all of the director’s creative elements working together to serve the story? Or are the images slaves to the music, like a music video? I found myself wanting to breathe and let the images take over for a while. Maybe that’s the point? I’m okay with this paradox: Glass’ soundtrack is at once groundbreaking and uncomfortably overblown.
For the most part, the editing ensues by theme: nature, industry, and travel, then war and destruction. There is little attempt to juxtapose unrelated shots for irony, surprise, or compositional artistry (the hot-dog making, then crowds on escalator, 54:00; or city aerial to transistor, 1:06, are rare exceptions). When the editing accelerates, the intent is to confuse and numb: it’s a blur. I suppose that’s the most purposive editing in the film.
Visually, a victim of its own success
As for the visuals, more than 35 years later, the landscapes and city skylines and traffic patterns no longer grab your attention. Paradoxically, this is a function of how shockingly timely and influential this film was, during a time of environmental awakening. It presaged an era of eco-consciousness, and informed its icons.
Most enduring for me are the time-lapses of industry and laborers working the assembly lines, the repetitive movement accentuated by the compressed time, the comment on the dehumanization of the human condition. Are we all automatons? This theme is as timely as ever, and the images here really engaged me.
I found myself preferring the shots with human beings, because I instinctively tried to impute meaning from action. It’s hard to impute meaning from flows of traffic and wisps of clouds, but I love the long clip (1:09) of people getting on the elevator, all men, so similarly dressed, robots confined in a box, mute expressions of society’s stark constraints.
So, what’s the take-away?
I suppose it’s a little depressing to rewatch Koyaanisqatsi, and discover that it hasn’t aged well. But I know why: the film inspired us all to see the world a certain way and today, that vision is so familiar as to be tiresome.
So what if Koyaanisqatsi is a film of its time? What if the techniques it employs and the themes it hammers home are no longer fresh?
Koyaanisqatsi is more than the sum of its music and time-lapse shots and high concept. It’s a reminder—even after all this time—that documentary film can defy the rules and shake you to your core.
At Z-Channel, we’ve made feature documentary films that current play on Amazon, iTunes, and DirecTV. Our short documentary videos can be found at events and YouTube channels of companies, nonprofits, and government agencies. Read more about Z-Channel Films’ documentary video production.