Ways Of Seeing: Koyaanisqatsi At 40

Although groundbreaking at the time already, Koyaanisqatsi has only earned greater value 40 years later in our modern climate crisis, finds Josef Steen

For some, it was the first example of environmentalist cinema. Others would no doubt think it “a piece of shit”, as its director would have it. It was perhaps only thanks to an enthusiastic Francis Ford Coppola’s insistence on helping distribute the film that Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi — an 87-minute “visual poem” with no plot, characters or dialogue — did not quickly tumble into obscurity.

Though its inimitable visual style has safeguarded it as a quintessential cult film most at home behind a shroud of pot smoke, the influence of Koyaanisqatsi has been sweeping. Ron Fricke’s frenzied cinematography has been both aped and parodied in a variety of commercial media, from the use of turbo time-lapses in Madonna’s

music videos to The Simpsons mocking its notorious penchant for stop-motion and brooding aerial landscape shots. Conjuring vast panoramas that stretch from skyscrapers to sandstone, production lines to cloudscapes, housing projects and mountains, Fricke’s cornucopia of techniques were not only fundamental to realising Reggio’s vision, but became a basis of the budding environmental genre.

The same goes for Philip Glass’s kaleidoscopic score, no less distinctive than the film’s fevered imagery. Glass’s balancing act of delicate arpeggios with operatic, schematised chaos is a crucial component for how the film imbues seemingly banal scenes of everyday life with an unprecedented sense of drama. Explaining the vision behind this highly original style of filmmaking, Reggio often talks of his conscious aversion to cinematic conventions, and a wholesale rejection of narrative filmmaking: “I’m talking about poetic cinema, which is based not in word, but in pictorial composition. It is a wholly different experience.”

Such was his inclination to reject any prescribed meaning, Reggio initially didn’t even want to name the film – preferring instead to market it through an image. Despite its ominous title (meaning “Life Out of Balance” in Hopi Indian), Koyaanisqatsi is not explicitly trying to persuade viewers of anything — it is an exercise in cinematic expression above all else. Despite this,the climate crisis reveals greater clarity in just how vital such an expression was, and still remains.

From the second Koyaanisqatsi breathes fire onto the screen, its potent and uncompromising style gives no shortage of apocalyptic sights to behold. This is not, however, the end of the world in the vein of a disaster flick, or even the Book of Revelation. As its crimson red title bleeds across a pitch-black screen, in a manner almost resembling Ridley Scott’s Alien, there are no straightforward emblems of environmental fallout brought about by human beings — the kind of technique often seen in today’s eco-docs like Avi Lewis and Naomi Klein’sThis Changes Everything or National Geographic’s Before the Flood. By the last frames of Reggio’s avant-garde narrative, such omens of imminent doom all seem a little superficial. Koyaanisqatsi digs deeper into the Anthropocene, letting the viewer experience the glorious absurdity of a world moulded in mankind’s image.

It might be tempting to read the film’s blistering depiction of environmental and social destruction as a reflection on modern life as a fall away from nature. However, Reggio’s ambitions were more nuanced. Much of its power hinges on breathing life into the mundane scenery of modernity, as neither critique nor praise. In juxtaposing the monumental beauty of natural landscapes with the vibrant technicolour of buzzing cityscapes, Koyaanisqatsi takes this Frankenstein’s monster, invisible to waking life, and dazzles the world with it. On the question of the human race’s radical reshaping of its home, there is no call-to-arms à la Extinction Rebellion here: the idea was always to show “the beauty of the beast”, Reggio asserts.

By capturing this beautiful mass of technology within the beastly, plundering the Earth’s resources to support life as we now know it, Reggio stresses the displacement of human beings in a story about the world they seem to dominate. Indeed, Koyaanisqatsi’s defiant rejection of the human-centric story and linear timelines common to the medium is there to capture the essence of the Anthropocene. The lack of any ‘event’ in this quasi-narrative reinforces the view of the scientists Eugene Stormer and Paul Krutzer, who coined the term in 2000: there is no singular event marking the Anthropocene that humanity can really fathom.

Mankind does not even make its first appearance until the film’s halfway mark, in a sequence featuring a mother and infant, faceless, seemingly buckled under blistering heat on a parched bed of grass. The camera pans to reveal this tender moment sitting beneath a monolithic industrial plant, coolly churning away. Effacing the boundaries between nature and technology, the film suggests the technological extension of humanity does not corrupt nature — it is nature. The same way a bionic prosthetic arm can enable a human being to hold a knife and fork, if technology is ultimately the tool that has put human beings on top, the Anthropocene is not an aberration, but simply the current chapter in the story of evolution.

There is no prescription for ‘rewilding’ here. Just the realisation that, since it now constitutes so much of daily reality, the main attraction is this artificial extravaganza of whirring semiconductor machines, factory conveyor belts, welding robots and cars scurrying through the night like neon beetles. The dreamlike beauty of the beast, as it were, comes from this deep, tangible web between society, technology and the environment — and it’s hard to look away.

In this same way, Glass, Reggio, and Fricke imbue the functional demolition of abandoned housing projects in the “Pruitt Igoe” sequence with the spectacle of devastation. Not only does this scene seem to anticipate the co-mingling of awe and horror that marked the collapse of the World Trade Centre into dust, it evokes the modern appetite for destruction writ large. The camera stalks buildings, cranes and bridges tumbling blindly into nothing, with the same sense of of sublime calamity that Lars Von Trier was surely trying for in Melancholia, which begins and ends with a rogue planet destroying the earth in a blue Wagnerian blaze. To see the planet incinerated while the universe looks on indifferent is a haunting image, no doubt, but this kind of cosmic, existential horror is a little too neat. Under Reggio’s manic microscope, life is characterised by a slow violence that has been underway for decades, if not centuries.

Koyaanisqatsi offers a path to understand our modern predicament in a way that other apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic films fail to. The philosopher Fredric Jameson touched on this idea in a 2003 essay for the New Left Review, where he alluded to the suggestion that “it is easier to picture the end of the world than the end of capitalism”. Since the structures in which we live, or rather which live through us, are at once invisible yet all-consuming, they are far too embedded in reality to even imagine them crumbling.

Today’s cinema is not short on near-Biblical images of hellfire, tsunamis or the earth turning into an icicle (see Roland Emmerich’s filmography or 2021’s Don’t Look Up). It remains uneager, however, to take a look at the kind of disorder Koyaanisqatsi finds inscribed on both macroscopic and microscopic levels — from the power plant plume to the canal of the circuit board. In an age where the pervasive digital culture of work is escaped by bingeing TV shows or doom scrolling social media, perhaps it takes a sensitive eye to make such phenomena attention-grabbing.

Even as the threat of climate catastrophe has become a mainstream issue, frequently it is churned into a digestible narrative about human beings “saving” the planet, or taking up arms against the evil status quo of corporations. Koyaanisqatsi still mounts a strong challenge against the idea that human beings can be masters of their destiny. It also refrains from indulging in any dull confidence that technology can do anything about this man-made mess, either.

The film also shies away from indifference or pessimism on the state of this new natural order – even if the final sequence, featuring a failed Saturn V rocket launch, seems to suggest otherwise. The camera lingers on this flaming heap tumbling through the sky like Icarus, only to then fade to a shadowy spotlight on primaeval cave paintings — a contrast that seems to suggest, unsubtly, what the inevitable price of human ‘progress’ is.

Yet this is eclipsed by the text translation of the title as “a state of life that calls for another way of living”, appealing to some form of hope. 40 years on, as the influence of the human species has snowballed into multiple crises, not only are distractions more abundant, the majority of solutions to a world moulded in man’s image remains fixated on images of imminent doom. More than ever, the value of art and cinema to the modern predicament will be found in works like Koyaanisqatsi, by calling for another way of seeing entirely.

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