It’s been more than thirty years since I watched Godfrey Reggio’s documentary art-film Koyaanisquatsi (1983) at its theatrical debut. Last night, watching it on the relatively small screen at home, I was just as impressed, even spellbound, as I was the first time.
There are a few observations to make on the film from the distance of three decades. The first, which I can’t remember thinking at the time, though it must have been as inescapable then as now, is the profound influence of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. There is the obvious similarity of the films’ lack of dialog and dramatic use of music to supply, not so much cues to emotional responses, but simply the feel of motion, slow and fast. There are sections in the later film in which the lights of cars at nighttime are sped up to the point where they form solid streaks of moving, jittering color, and other scenes of natural geologic formations photographed from above (including LANDSAT images) that recall the descent into the Jovian atmosphere that anticipates the former’s conclusion. But there are other, human moments, too, and I can’t help wonder that they are deliberate echoes: a worker seen in profile, whose long, sweptback hair recalled the apes in the opening scenes of Kubrick’s film, and an old, nearly bald man on a street who could be Keir Dullea’s double from the closing shots.
Of course, the central cinematic conceit of Koyaanisquatsi, the incredibly fast or super-slow presentation of scenes of human life, or clouds roiling through skies, was not entirely new at the time. It has, however, been much imitated since. And if it was not the first film (but probably the first feature film) to feature a soundtrack by Philip Glass, it certainly established more than a vogue for the use of the minimalist composer’s music in movies, apart from spawning innumerable imitators. Koyaanisquatsi marked a moment when an aspect of the avant-garde became mainstream.
Certainly there were many subtleties of the construction of the imagery that escaped me on first viewing. I’m sure that I noted the parallel presentation of pictographs from the Great Gallery in Canyonlands National Park as the first and last images of the film, and probably picked up on the implicit reverence for the Native American attitudes towards our planet that they were meant to convey. The ensuing, highly abstract footage of a Saturn rocket launch that follows, certainly went over my head as a framing device.
Also on first viewing, I’m sure I didn’t appreciate the transition from the opening sequences of images of the natural world and the way that they would segue into the human, built environment. Two things struck me with particular force this time around in this regard. First, after the splendors of the American West are revealed in a series of aerial shots, almost the first man-made structures that come into view are large electrical pylons, their humanoid shapes mimicking the figures from the Great Gallery in their broad-shoudlered frontality. Another image from the early man/machine sequences, of a United Airlines plane approaching the camera through a distorting heat haze, wings outspread, seemed humanoid as well. Throughout the remainder of the film, I kept seeing the man-made through the lens of the natural, be it the arterial analogies of the freeways or the capturing of cloud images in the great glass-and-steel skyscrapers.
The second thing that struck me about the editing or sequencing was that many of the early scenes of the constructed environment were in fact scenes of destruction. First natural, rocky landscapes explode in massive, slow clouds of dust. Then mushroom clouds of atomic detonations rear up behind spiky desert cacti. And finally, the vast, deserted sentinels of derelict housing projects, as barren as the deserts, implode and sink into still more clouds of dirt and debris.
It is hard now to watch these scenes of controlled destruction, of tall, thin towers pancaking down on themselves without thinking of the collapse of the World Trade Center, still twenty years off and unimagined at the time of Koyaanisquatsi‘s release. If the film’s subtitle, “life out of balance” was meant to be prophetic as well as descriptive, it’s hard to imagine a more chilling foresight of the predicted apocalypse.
The other accidental prophecy that is inescapably seen in hindsight today dominates the final moments of the film. One of the Hopi predictions that form the libretto of Glass’s score says “A container of ashes might one day be thrown from the sky, which could burn the land and boil the oceans.” In a mirror of the opening Saturn rocket sequence, we watch another rocket, early Atlas-Centaur, arc into the sky and then explode. The final shots (barring the return to the images from the Great Gallery) is of a fragment of the rocket, flames flashing from its interior, slowly and almost gracefully free-falling through a deep blue sky, spinning end over end as a testimony to man’s imperfectibility if not his hubris. Again, it is impossible to watch this sequence today without seeing the remains of the Challenger in the mind’s eye.
There is an unavoidable irony in the fact that this film, designed to warn us of the dangers of the accelerating investment in technology and human transformation of the natural world, is such a thing of beauty. It is one of the achievements of Koyaanisquatsi that is uses that beauty to both deliver and to soften its message: the film is provocative and mesmerizing at the same time, and I came away from a second viewing subdued, but without feeling I had been sermonized.
I’ve never seen either of the remaining parts of Reggio’s trilogy, Powaqqatsi and Nagoyqatsi, and I’m not sure why, although I suspect that reviewers found them not quite as brilliant, and certainly not as innovative, as Koyaanisquatsi. I think maybe the time has come to have a look at them for myself.