Released in 1983, Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi numbers among the more remarkable debut films in American cinema history. The nonnarrative feature with a mysterious title provided an intervention into normal moviegoing, but despite its refusal of character and plot, it was and is engaging and often awe-inspiring in its depiction of American landscape and cityscape. Indeed, Reggio’s commitment to transforming the familiar into the visually fascinating recalls the Lumière brothers’ first films.
Koyaanisqatsi quickly became an art-house hit as well as a popular presentation at colleges and universities, and it remains well known among a cine-wise, environmentally concerned younger generation. Beautifully photographed by Ron Fricke, Koyaanisqatsi is accompanied by a Philip Glass soundtrack that has had its own considerable life. The success of the film opened the way for two more: Powaqqatsi (1988) and Naqoyqatsi (2002). Each of the Qatsi films is a meditation on a different dimension of modern life, and together they offer a celebration of the magnificence of both natural and human creation, as well as a warning about how much is endangered if we fail to find a more effective balance between nature and technology.
In the trilogy, Reggio’s reliance on such unusual techniques as slow-motion aerial photography and stop-motion shooting creates a contemplative experience that is quite distinct from conventional cinema. In some considerable measure, this approach seems a result of the unusual road that led to Reggio’s career as a filmmaker. From the time he was fourteen until he was twenty-eight, Reggio (b. 1940) lived an ascetic life as part of the Christian Brothers, a strict Roman Catholic community. His adolescence and early adulthood were spent in silence, fasting and prayer—though over the years, Reggio gradually became disaffected, as he told me in an interview:
Philip Glass & Ensemble will be performing Koyaanisqatsi Live! at the Orpheum Theatre Friday, September 20 at 8pm. Tickets available through the Orpheum or tickets.globalartslive.org. The day before, WBUR hosts A Conversation with Godfrey Reggio and Philip Glass moderated by Haden Guest. The event will be held at CitySpace and tickets are available at wbur.org.