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Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance, is a 1982 American experimental film directed by Godfrey Reggio with music composed by Philip Glass and cinematography by Ron Fricke.
The film consists primarily of slow motion and time-lapse footage of cities and many natural landscapes across the United States. The visual tone poem contains neither dialogue nor a vocalized narration: its tone is set by the juxtaposition of images and music.
Reggio explained the lack of dialogue by stating "it's not for lack of love of the language that these films have no words. It's because, from my point of view, our language is in a state of vast humiliation. It no longer describes the world in which we live." In the Hopi language, the word Koyaanisqatsi means "unbalanced life".
The film is the first in the Qatsi trilogy of films: it is followed by Powaqqatsi (1988) and Naqoyqatsi (2002). The trilogy depicts different aspects of the relationship between humans, nature and technology. Koyaanisqatsi is the best known of the trilogy and is considered a cult film. However, because of copyright issues, the film was out of print for most of the 1990s.
In 1972, Godfrey Reggio, of the Institute for Regional Education (IRE), was working on a media campaign in New Mexico, which was sponsored by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Instead of making public service announcements, which Reggio felt "had no visibility," advertising spots were purchased. To produce the television commercials the IRE hired cinematographer Ron Fricke, who worked on the project for two years. The television advertisements aired during prime time programming and became so popular that viewers would call the television stations to learn when the next advertisement would be aired. After the campaign ended, the institute only had $40,000 left in their budget, Fricke insisted to Reggio that the money could be used to produce a film, which led to the production of Koyaanisqatsi.
Fricke and Reggio chose to shoot unscripted footage and edit it into an hour-long film. Production began in 1975 in St. Louis, Missouri. 16mm film was used due to budget constraints, despite the preference to shoot with 35mm film.
Footage of the Pruitt–Igoe housing project was shot from a helicopter, and Fricke nearly passed out during filming, having never flown in a helicopter before. Reggio later chose to shoot in Los Angeles and New York City. As there was no formal script, Fricke shot whatever he felt would "look good on film".
The IRE's $40,000 was exhausted after the filming, and almost two cases of film had been used. The IRE was continuously receiving funding and wanted to continue the project in 1976. After quitting his waiting job, Fricke traveled with a camera crew to the Four Corners, where Arizona, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico meet which was chosen for filming for its "alien look".
Fricke traveled back to New York City in 1977, during which the New York City blackout occurred. Footage of the blackout was filmed in Harlem and the South Bronx, and the film was desaturated to match the appearance of the 16mm footage.
Reggio and Fricke came across time-lapse footage in "some low-visibility commercial work". They felt such footage was "the language [they] were missing", and collectively decided to implement time-lapse as a major part of the film to create "an experience of acceleration".
The time-lapse shot overlooking the freeway in Los Angeles was filmed from the top of a building through a double exposure, with ten-second delay between frames. The first take was shot throughout the day for twelve hours, then the film was rewound and the same scene was shot at night for twenty minutes.
In the score by Philip Glass, the word "Koyaanisqatsi" is chanted at the beginning and end of the film in an "otherworldly” dark, sepulchral basso profondo by singer Albert de Ruiter over a solemn, four-bar organ-passacaglia bassline.
Three Hopi prophecies sung by a choral ensemble during the latter part of the "Prophecies" movement are translated just prior to the end credits:
"If we dig precious things from the land, we will invite disaster."
"Near the day of Purification, there will be cobwebs spun back and forth in the sky."
"A container of ashes might one day be thrown from the sky, which could burn the land and boil the oceans."
The film's soundtrack was released in 1983, after the release of the film and in 1998, Glass re-recorded the album through Nonesuch Records with a length of 73 minutes, 21 seconds. The album was released as a Philip Glass album titled Koyaanisqatsi, rather than a soundtrack to the film. The music has become so popular that the Philip Glass Ensemble has toured the world, playing the music for Koyaanisqatsi live in front of the movie screen.
Reggio stated that the Qatsi films are intended to simply create an experience and that "it is up to the viewer to take for themself what it is that the film means." He also said that "these films have never been about the effect of technology, of industry on people. It's been that everyone: politics, education, things of the financial structure, the nation state structure, language, the culture, religion, all of that exists within the host of technology. So it's not the effect of, it's that everything exists within technology. It's not that we use technology, we live technology. Technology has become as ubiquitous as the air we breathe ..."
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