Within a political and social climate blissfully ignorant of the myriad problems our planet will soon face, where the desperate cries of scientists are rarely heard over the noise of those promoting doubt, Godfrey Reggio’s 1982 masterwork Koyaanisqatsi has perhaps never been so relevant. Released before many had heard of the term global warming, Reggio’s film is often read as presenting us with both the magnificence and destruction of global capitalism, revealing a society oblivious to its implication within the industrial machine, where each individual, reduced to an anonymous face in the crowd, a speck of light on the motorway, is as insignificant as anyone else oppressed by modernity. Today, the implications of Reggio’s film are even more enhanced. As we know more now than we ever have about the environmental destruction brought by industrialisation, Koyaanisqatsi’s images appear imbued with a heightened significance. The faces of the dishevelled, aging, injured people rejected by capitalism of the film’s final scenes not only point to the alienation brought by modernisation but now seem to be commenting on the direction the Earth is taking towards increasing warming, environmental upsets and irreversible change.
It is to the power of the film’s visuals in place of plot, character and dialogue that interpretation of the film is an ever changing practice, where the viewer is influenced not by the words of characters or the flow of narrative but his or her reading of Reggio’s play of images. While Reggio’s use of Eisensteinian montage may seem to strive for a certain type of filmic didacticism, the absence of those aforementioned elements common to nearly every other film and the focus on cinematography, editing and music, leave the viewer to interpret the film freely. In Reggio’s words ‘for some people it’s an environmental film, for some people it’s an ode to technology, for some people it’s a piece of shit, for other people it moves them deeply. It depends on who you ask’. When I first watched Koyaanisqatsi I saw it fundamentally as a purely aesthetic experience, one of the greatest works of film art, an endlessly fascinating, hypnotic, original and influential movie. Today, on returning to Koyaanisqatsi for another viewing – after studying climate change at University – I see the film in a more political light, although never without at awe at the film’s tremendous visuals, courtesy of director of photography Ron Fricke, and its mesmerising score by Philip Glass.
Koyaanisqatsi abstains from all those elements inherited from literary and dramatic forms – narrative, character development, dialogue and acting – and replaces these with just sound and image, a combination of elements frequently described as cinema at its purist. If ‘pure cinema’ is a term of any use – the phrase has floated around throughout film history, describing everything from the greatest works of silent cinema, to those of Alfred Hitchcock and the avant-garde experiments of Stan Brakhage and Michael Snow – it can surely be applied to Reggio’s film. From some perspectives, Koyaanisqatsi could additionally function as the category’s most obvious and successful example (this is not to discount the importance of films such as Ron Fricke’s Chronos (1985), Baraka (1992) and Samsara (2011) in addition to the rest of Reggio’s Qatsi trilogy to the history of film art). What we are offered in Koyaanisqatsi are fantastic moving images coupled with a hypnotic score, however such a description does little justice to the power of the film.
The film opens with what appears to be a Native American cave painting, held on screen for a number of moments before destroyed by an explosion. This however is not a literal explosion; instead Reggio superimposes the painting over a fire, offering obvious symbolism in his introduction to the film. Quickly he moves to a desert in the American south west. Here the landscape is untouched, appearing pre-modern, serene and beautiful. The camera is mostly static in these scenes, often observing shadows of clouds in time lapse traipse over mountains and neighbouring deserts. Glass’ score matches the mood here: life is slow, calm and without danger. Clouds form, disintegrate and burst above; caves harbour the only forms of life available. Slowly Reggio moves towards civilisation. Spiralling aerial photography flies us across waterfalls, lakes, reservoirs, fields of colour; nature soon morphs into agriculture, agriculture transforms into heavy industry, images of transport, the military, space exploration follow, finally settling where we will now spend most of our time: the city.
Throughout this process of presenting the development of humanity from its origins in nature to its coalescence in modern civilisation, Philip Glass’ score swells, increasing its tempo and the volume of repetitions as we come closer to the world’s greatest metropolis: New York City. The grandeur of New York is however suspended. First Reggio shows us the destruction of housing projects, the inner city slums, the failures of the utopianism the first images of New York suggest. Once we understand that the magnificence of the megacity is only one aspect of American reality, we are allowed to observe New York in all its time lapse glory. Cars resembling red blood cells shoot past each other on motorways, crowds in Grand Central Station intermingle at 100mph, bodies flow up and down escalators.
While most will feel astonished at this reminder of the extent of humanity’s accomplishments, a feeling of unease soon sets in as Reggio exposes the inner workings of this capitalist system. Combining with Glass’ reiteration of the same musical phrase and motifs without much development on the soundtrack, Reggio cuts to scenes of workers on factory lines repeating their same movements time and time again like robots, tired and bored with their monotonous lives. Here humanity is reduced to a cog in the machine, insignificant, replaceable and alienated. Subsequent images of crowds and cars therefore begin to take on new meanings. From above, Reggio shows us our unimportance, the triviality of lives spent working in the machine: we are mere ants deluded by the system we live in. Following these scenes, Reggio moves to depict those individuals spat out by the system, dejected, knowing of its cruelty, looking for change. A rocket is fired into the sky, it explodes and we are left with that same cave painting from the film’s beginning, soon replaced by the words: KOYAANISQATSI. Ko·yaa·nis·qatsi· (from the Hopi language), n. 1. crazy life. 2. life in turmoil. 3. life out of balance. 4. life disintegrating. 5. a state of life that calls for another way of living.
If the various juxtapositions of the earlier images did not suggest to the viewer that Reggio has a political point, its finale works to offer five interpretations, ranging from the aesthetic, ‘crazy life’ to the most political (and perhaps Marxist) ‘a state of life that calls for another way of living’. While on my first viewings of the film, I enjoyed Koyaanisqatsi tremendously for its aesthetics – for its photography, editing and music, which can be enjoyed in isolation from any political meaning – on this viewing I saw the film’s political implications, ideas which are increasingly relevant to our current culture, a culture which is unaware of the damage it is doing to the world we live in.