Koyaanisqatsi - Life Out of Balance
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Prepare to experience a truly remarkable filma cinematic masterpiece so extraordinary that it regales the senses, stimulates the mind and actually 'redefines the potential of filmmaking (The Hollywood Reporter). Celebrated director Godfrey Reggio, innovative cinematographer Ron Fricke and Golden Globe-winning* composer Philip Glass have created a 'spellbinding [film] so rich in beauty and detail that with each viewing it becomes a new and different film (Leonard Maltin). Unique profound mesmerizing and thought-provoking (Boxoffice), Koyaanisqatsi contrasts the tranquil beauty of nature with the frenzied hum of contemporary urban society. Uniting breathtaking imagery with a hauntingly evocative, award-winning score, it is original and fascinating (People) one of the greatest films of all time (Uncut). *1998: Score (with Burkhard Dallwitz), The Truman Show
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KOYAANISQATSI and POWAQQATSI were both principally photographed in the 1980s, when widescreen television was a vague idea somewhere off in the future and a large picture tube was 27" across. While conceived as theatrical features, both films were shot with consideration of possible television broadcast, which at that time was almost exclusively full-frame 1:1.33 (4x3). The alternative to "protecting" for 4x3 by composing the image to work well in full frame would have been to "pan and scan" the widescreen image when transferred to videotape for home video release and TV broadcast.
I am sure that anyone who has seen KOYAANISQATSI and POWAQQATSI would agree the pan and scan approach would have yielded a ludicrous result for these films: for this reason when the films have been broadcast they are presented in the full "academy" aperture of 4x3, showing _more_of the original film frame than was shown in the theater. And when video transfers of the films were made prior to the MGM DVD they were also made 1:1.33. This reflected the conventional practice at the time, when very few films were transferred to video wide-screen.
However in the past few years there has been a markedly increased interest in wide-screen home video and the the technical means to display wide-screen video adequately in the home has become commonplace, arising chiefly from the popularity of larger displays. Reflecting this new environment the decision was taken now to release the films on DVD in their original 1:1.85 aspect ratio. I repeat that this image is exactly as originally intended by the director, Godfrey Reggio and the cinematographers.
I don't mean to imply that the 4x3 image in earlier transfers is somehow "invalid". I think this way of watching the films is very interesting.
It is a mark of how carefully crafted were these films that both ratios work very well. However, in no sense is the viewer of the MGM DVDs "losing" something by watching the films as they are shown as a motion picture, at 1.85, anymore than the audience was "missing something" watching the premier of KOYAANISQATSI at Radio City Music Hall in 1983.
Now thirty years later, with more degrees, more knowledge, and more weariness about life under the sun, I watched Koyaanisqatsi anew with a discerning young friend who is the same age as I was when I first watched it. This lends itself to some reflection.
There is no narration, and voices only are heard as the credits run. The cinematography is everything and is impressive in its variety, depth, and scope. The theme is the relation of nature to culture, of the wild to the human and the domesticated, so to speak. We behold vistas of creation's grandeur and sublimity. The film begins very slowly with ulta-slow-motion footage of a rocket launch. Then scenes of dry mountains and deep ponds appear. These may have been present to juxtapose the permanent beauty of nature with the fleeting ugliness of man. However, what is the point of beauty if we blame the beholder for existing and trying to flourish? There are no scenes from forests or jungles or icecaps.
Something is then blown up. A mountain falls--and we move into civilization, where humans touch nature. There is little emphasis on the achievements of man, but on his failures and miscalculations. All is overcrowded, much is ugly, workers are mere drones on assembly lines, and more.
Hopi "prophecies" are shown at the end of the film, giving the viewer the idea that they knew. They knew what would be lost. They knew what would come...
But these prophecies are quite vague and offer no hope. In this, the film is romantic about nature, forgetting about its redness in tooth and claw; in fact, animals are scarcely seen. Man is not measured by both his majesty and misery (Pascal), but by how he as despoiled nature. The film also neglects man's conservation of and concern for nature.
The credits reveal that several social critics, such as the Christian sociologist, Jacques Ellul and the Catholic priest, Ivan Illich, have helped in inspire this documentary with no words. The score is by Phillip Glass, and is, of course, very repetitive, both in its slow scenes and in its speeded-up scenes of humans driving and bustling about. This waxes cloying after a few moments.
The technology, which is generally vilified in this film, is, to the contemporary eye, rather antiquated. People play huge, public video games, such as Pacman. They stare at bulky and non-digitized television sets. There is not a laptop or cell phone in sight. Thus, the gap, as it were, between nature and culture has widened. Have we become "tools of our tools," as Thoreau said?
It's worth hearing everyone discuss on "Moving On" if this film was better sober or under the influence. For the record, I watched this film sober.
By its end, I felt that man, being fallible by nature, is clearly designing their own imperfect world in a blind pursuit of efficiency in all things. But, half the fun of this film is everyone drawing their own conclusions!
I hope you enjoy Koyannisqatsi as much as I.