Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance (1982)
November 29, 2022 2:02 PM - Subscribe

A collection of expertly photographed phenomena with no conventional plot. The footage focuses on nature, humanity, and the relationship between them. Trailer.
posted by johnofjack (26 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I think this must be a fairly divisive film. At least one of the local theaters had a "no refunds" policy on the film when it was first released. I know one person who loved it and others who find it unbearably pretentious, and when I tried watching it last year with my boyfriend we got about halfway through before I heard him snoring softly. I loved it when I first saw it decades ago, still liked it when I watched it again ten years ago, and found it a bit overlong for its message last year. But it's a remarkable experience and I've never been sorry I watched it.

That said, I think it's generally agreed that each volume in this series (Koyaanisqatsi, Powaqqatsi, Naqoyqatsi) offers less than the one before it.
posted by johnofjack at 2:03 PM on November 29, 2022 [1 favorite]

I've only seen this one, first when I was in high school and a couple of more times since. One of these days I'd like to really sit down and watch it again--it's been almost 15 years since the last time.

I did "watch" it at work one day, when the film was showing on Vimeo. I'm mostly here for Glass's soundtrack, so I listened to it and would occasionally page over to see the associated video. Not a terrible way to get through a copy-editing heavy afternoon.
posted by thecaddy at 2:53 PM on November 29, 2022

This was the answer of the day over at Framed a few days ago. I was the only one of my siblings to get it right, and I got it on the first frame.

As I said to my sisters, "Koyaanisqatsi is to film as Pink Floyd is to music. Interesting, novel, and probably more enjoyable when high."
posted by hanov3r at 2:58 PM on November 29, 2022

I admit I got back into piracy because Amazon wanted me to pay $15 to watch Koyaanisqatsi. I was ready to pay the standard $3 rental, but I wasn't gonna buy it. I found that to be a pretty fun rating system for how much I like a film. I like it "$5 and an evening staying alert" worth, not "$15 and a place in the permanent collection" worth. "$10 and a drive across town"? Maybe if there's a good dinner in it.

More seriously, I have to be in the exact right mood to enjoy this one, but I like it a lot as like an artifact of cinema. Some movies I appreciate less on their merits, and more on the knowledge that the filmmaker had this odd idea and they followed through on it all the way to its odd conclusion. Sometimes you think of a thing like that and really want it to exist in the world, whether it's "good" or not. So I'm glad it exists.

Also I've always found Philip Glass really compelling, which helps. I understand he can be a little divisive on his own.
posted by Phobos the Space Potato at 3:55 PM on November 29, 2022 [4 favorites]

I have seen it at least three or four times on a big screen and I own the DVD. I haven’t watched it in a decade or more, but it casts a long shadow and a significant chunk of the commercials made in the last decade of the last century owe something to it.

And like a couple of others above, I find the Glass half of it* more engaging than the Reggio half. I could listen to Pruitt-Igoe quite a lot before I tired of it.

*I considered and discarded several ‘Glass half full” puns here. You are welcome.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 4:41 PM on November 29, 2022 [3 favorites]

Fuck the haters, this movie rules
posted by phooky at 7:40 PM on November 29, 2022 [11 favorites]

My final semester of college (spring 1988), I took a film class, and this was the most contemporary movie we watched. I was completely mesmerized, having never heard of Philip Glass or seen anything like this before.

It was only something like 20 years later that I was playing a snippet from this at work and a co-worker (who had gone to Berklee School of Music) mockingly intoned "Koyahhhhhh-nisqatseeeeee."

Of course, realizing that others make fun of what you find a highly spiritual experience is never nice.

Watching the people on the street and the tumbling rocket shards with that pipe organ gives me the chills every time.

I think it was in the days after the 2000 election that I was in the gym, and had this music on my iPod, that I felt such overwhelming grief for the country, that I had to compose myself before getting changed to go back to work.

Also, on preview, what phooky said.
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 7:42 PM on November 29, 2022 [2 favorites]

I enjoyed this one far more than I expected to, but I'm not sure I'd watch it again.
posted by praemunire at 8:34 PM on November 29, 2022 [1 favorite]

This is turning into a bizarre day. Koyaanisqatsi came up three different times, independently, in conversation today (with different people, and I did not bring it up). It's like the universe wants me to watch it again.

I tend to describe it as what must be the most boring movie ever made and I, consequently, must be one of the most boring people. Because I rather like it but every single time I have watched it with another person they have fallen asleep.
posted by selenized at 8:50 PM on November 29, 2022 [1 favorite]

It's a much better experience on real movie screen than a TV. At least that's what I remember as I watched it on a movie screen in the 80's and it blew me away, compared to watching it on a TV screen recently. But with 40 years between watches, maybe it's me who has changed.
posted by ShooBoo at 9:24 PM on November 29, 2022 [1 favorite]

I watched this once 30 years ago and again a few months ago. It seemed cool and outsider and weird back then, now it seems kind of nostalgic with the footage of old K-Mart employees and people walking the streets. It undercuts the director's intended message quite a bit.

In both cases I thought the music was amazing and it's one of the reasons electronic music is now one of my hobbies. I still listen to the soundtrack sometimes.
posted by mmoncur at 9:37 PM on November 29, 2022 [1 favorite]

An excellent example of the now-lost experience of seeing a movie in a cinema with no distractions. In 1982 you would have made a plan to see this movie at the one art theater in town during its two week run. You would have have dinner before, maybe hotboxed a joint in your car, then settled down for two hours of overwhelming images and maximalist music. Fully filling your brain.

Now folks are probably watching this streaming on a TV at home with music squeezed out of a mediocre soundbar. And it's kinda boring so they're reading Metafilter and watching TikToks at the same time. I have to think it's not possible to really experience Reggio and Glass' work in those conditions.

Occasionally the movie has been shown with a live orchestra performing, often The Philip Glass Ensemble itself. I really wish I could experience that. I did get to see a big promotional screening of Powaqqatsi in 1988 when it was released and it was definitely special seeing the whole thing as a Big Event.
posted by Nelson at 7:59 AM on November 30, 2022 [3 favorites]

I was excited to watch this a year or so back, but I found it so unbearably boring I stopped a while in. I believe it was streaming on Kanopy, which you may be able to access via your library card.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 8:56 AM on November 30, 2022

Relevant, if you have never heard it before.
posted by wittgenstein at 9:18 AM on November 30, 2022

The experience of seeing this film in a theater was incredible. No plot, no dialogue, and yet the imagery and Philip Glass' music evokes feelings.

For the record, I probably had a drink, but I was not high.

Not that I can throw stones, but I was also struck by how remarkably unattractive the people on whom the camera focuses are.
posted by Gelatin at 9:28 AM on November 30, 2022

One of my favorite movies and especially scores. I have to be in a really specific mood to be open to it, but few films have moved me like Koyaanisqatsi has.

I'd love to see it in theaters, but a decent home system worked for me. A movie like this demands your whole attention and should be played loud. In the background, it might even seem boring.

I can see where the pretentiousness criticism comes from but I dunno sometimes you just gotta enjoy something being earnest.
posted by davidest at 9:50 AM on November 30, 2022 [4 favorites]

It's a much better experience on real movie screen than a TV.

Yeah, I think I saw this at the Yale Med School Film Society back in the day when university organizations actually existed to show rep and second-run films on the weekends in auditoriums not being used for classes. The effect would be much diminished on a home screen.
posted by praemunire at 10:14 AM on November 30, 2022

I was also struck by how remarkably unattractive the people on whom the camera focuses are.

It is a well-known fact* that 99% of people from the past were ugly as hell.

*that I just made up
posted by Saxon Kane at 11:55 AM on November 30, 2022 [1 favorite]

I also saw this in college, unaffected by any substances whatsoever except the liberal arts, and really enjoyed it. It probably helped that this was before the invention of cell phones, when my attention span was longer. I'm a little scared to re-watch it, even on my nice OLED TV. Certainly there's much to mock here, but I found it affecting. In the meantime I have come to loathe Arvo Part's Spiegel im Spiegel, so hopefully the soundtrack holds up.
posted by wnissen at 2:01 PM on November 30, 2022 [1 favorite]

I saw this in the theater around 20 years ago when Philip Glass was touring with a number of other musicians to play the soundtrack live. They were in town for four or five days and I saw this, Powaqqatsi, La Belle et la Bête/Beauty and the Beast, and some other things I don't remember. I think the comments above are right, that it's most rewarding with undivided attention.
posted by johnofjack at 2:02 PM on November 30, 2022

I did get to see the live version at Lincoln Center about a decade ago, and it was a blast. The lights went down, the film came up, the music started, the soloist stepped up to the mic and the their voice immediately cracked halfway through the first ponderous "KOYAAAANIIAQUAATSIIII". It sucked the pomposity out of the room in a flash, and the rest of the film just felt so much more chill and fun after that unexpected start.

The other thing I remember about that performance was watching the columns of people filing down the escalators afterwards, each face illuminated from below as they scrolled through all their missed messages on their phones, and realizing that that image could have fit into the Grid sequence of the movie perfectly. You could probably remake Koyaanisquatsi today with modern imagery entirely from cheaply available stock clips, and have it work.

pardon me while I add "Koyaanisquatsi" to all my AI prompts
posted by phooky at 5:40 PM on November 30, 2022 [3 favorites]

I went to a conference once in the mid 2000s. I got to see parts of Koyaanisqatsi (or one of the other ones, the one with the Hajj) streaming on a big screen remastered to 4k. Long before 4k was a thing. They had one of the two or three network streamable projectors in the US at the time. We also got to see lots of footage shot by one of the military academies that had been lent the only 4k streaming camera in the US at the time by NHK. It was awesome seeing the difference between SD, HD, and 4k in that small theater.
posted by zengargoyle at 5:37 PM on December 1, 2022 [2 favorites]

Saw it in it's original run and again recently at the Queens drive-in event. In those 38-something years in between I had developed an appreciation for cinematography, and so was even more impressed the second time around.

It kinda breaks my heart to think of the damn CGI-inured kids on my lawn looking at such stunning, masterfully filmed sequences and yawning. I felt such a sense of nostalgia for the Real.
posted by whuppy at 10:59 AM on December 2, 2022 [2 favorites]

Of course, realizing that others make fun of what you find a highly spiritual experience is never nice.

Speak for yourself.
posted by whuppy at 11:02 AM on December 2, 2022

Never saw it in a theatre, but the version I saw in 1988 was literally VHS footage from a camcorder somebody smuggled into a theatre. So watching it in 4K on a 57" TV was truly impressive!

(On Apple TV, I think it's a remastered version.)
posted by mmoncur at 8:13 PM on December 2, 2022

Godfrey Reggio on the Qatsi films:
These films however, have ambiguity built into them, because it's too easy in film to make a strident work of propaganda or advertising, which are really the same thing anyway, meaning the message is unmistakable.
That’s an approach I hadn’t considered before: propaganda and ads characterized by a lack of ambiguity.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 4:27 PM on December 4, 2022 [1 favorite]

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