“Koyaanisqatsi” is a film you can easily envision having been made in the 1920s or ‘30s, or even the 1950s — that wonderful Cold War decade that sent schoolchildren scrambling beneath their desks for nuclear war safety drills — a film out of somewhere like China, or Russia. One of those strange, state-sponsored films to show capitalism in disreputable, and unchecked, disintegration. Likewise, to show some Benevolent Government (it doesn’t have to be China or Russia, but I’m a Westerner and have been properly washed of all things harmful coming from Daddy Country; this year such a country could be Iran, or Venezuela; or America!) in perfect resolve to protect its people and uplift them, and show the outside world the splendid life they live, under the watchful and care of said Benevolent Gov’t.
Nothing could be further from the truth, however. This scenario comes wholly from the imagination of historical happenstance. “Koyaanisqatsi” premiered in 1982, directed by Godfrey Reggio (famous for broad, panning scopes that articulate the world in poetic folds of visual concentration), and produced by Francis Ford Coppola. The film features what many high-profile reviews and casual viewers have described as “a movie with no conventional plot.” Fifteen thousand home reviews gave it an 8.1 out of 10, by the way.
What’s here is a focus on humanity’s unbalanced relationship with the Earth’s environment, brought about through untamed progress. One can disagree with the reviews my own, simple, synopsis of “Koyaanisqatsi.” It’s certainly an art film, by all stretches of modern film description. Yet it also holds that socio-political angle, if at least (or, only?) by interpretation of its subtitle: “Life Out of Balance”.
I have rarely review movies. As my passion for arts extends to each possible room of art’s domicile, I can say something about how the movie affected me. Before I do so — let me point out that this affect has little to do with my overall point of this essay. Nonetheless, readers expect this, in the back of their mind, to the effect of asking themselves, “But what do you think about the movie?”
So here’s my take on “Koyaanisqatsi.” Reggio presents a vision of life that seems straight out of Alvin Toffler’s 1970’s “Future Shock”, a dramatic exposition of life happening so quickly that people’s minds — partly because of genetics, perhaps, but more likely their sense of history and of themselves in its maelstrom — cannot grasp the ever new landscape presented to them by science, medicine, manufacturing, social change, architecture, even art. All this sounds familiar, doesn’t it? A computer’s life is about two years; pharmacology has advanced to such a point that people live much longer than they should ever rightly expect; the Internet has changed everything about communication and information retrieval for the present and into the long, long future. Do you think future shock is lived by you? Now? Think again. If I were writing this essay in 1970, I would have had to stop and go to the library to look up Toffler’s book for the year it was published; likewise for Reggio’s “Koyaanisqatsi” — 12 years later! Instead, I found both references—and all the information I could possibly want and mostly discard— within 18 seconds, just by Googling both names. That, my friends, is future shock.
“Koyaanisqatsi” makes a case for life out of balance through images and sound. First, by showing in those broad, sweeping pans, Mother Earth in its pristine nature. Then, gradually, it introduces the effects of humanity on both Earth’s landscape and, ultimately, the environment. As this happens, music plays; first with the tempo appropriate to Earth’s historic geological progress, then, increasingly, according to humanity’s intrusion on the world, right up to that present day when the film’s last roll was shot in 1981. I won’t say more of “what happens” in the film, because that would sully the overall experience each of us can have with its images and musical score. However, a few minor notes before one overriding issue: there is no dialogue; there are no characters; and, you can watch this film with popcorn and soda.
That Web sites and reviews call “Koyaanisqatsi” “without conventional plot,” I would both agree and disagree. Shut up, please, and let me be contradictory for a moment. “Plot” is such a conventional term that I’m not surprised “Koyaanisqatsi” is described that way. Yet plot is not needed, or, to wit, plot need not be talked about at all with so much else going on. What else is there going on, Mr Reviewer? you may ask. I will tell you!
Reggio uses images and music to do the work in 1.5 hours that thousands of voices in the ‘60-70’s “ecology” movement did to finally help establish the Environmental Protection Agency in the USA raised for at least a decade: too much is going on with our lives, and in society, that affects the environment and humanity. This film is the microscope under which these issues are enlarged.
Plot? Plot?? Who needs plot when you have character? “The Earth”; “Machinery”; “Shapeless High-Rise Buildings”; “A Man Walking Quickly”; “A Woman Staring.” Or, who needs plot when you have metaphor? “Man Vs. Himself; “The Machinery of Progress Vs. Necessities of Life Fully Lived; “Modern Life’s Speed Vs. Stress on One’s Humanness”. Or…come up with your own after you’ve watched the film.
The irony of that ubiquitous statement— “a film without conventional plot” — is part of what “Koyaanisqatsi” battles against. Plot summaries are quick avenues to the notation of materials, be they film, book, play, ballet, television plot, and even poetry. Speed is what society, worldwide, is all about nowadays. We want things fast. We want information there, when we need it, as we demand it. I’m no different. When I searched for the “Future Shock” reference, I had to wait nearly two seconds for the page to load. What agony when I’m holding onto a thought to complete the sentence I had in mind to write!
Yes. Life out of balance. The increased speed with which we live, and thus demand of those objects — and people — that we use for our business, relationships, relaxation, and pleasure. There is no time for plotless movies, is there? Well, if that where true, there is then no time for metaphor, no time for irony (if people even know what that is anymore); and, then, there is little enough time for Shakespeare, for Sam Johnson, even for … … plug in your own ending.
Shame on this sentiment. And a pox, too! For when we loose the mental image that metaphor creates, and then the story that springs from metaphor (yes, story), we as humans are in fact the slaves to the very machines that we’ve demanded use of in order to lessen our dependence on long, painstaking tasks, and thus leave us more time to read, to succeed in our relationships; more time for love, for our children, even time to contemplate the world. If that limitation becomes reality, what is to happen to our sense of ethics, skepticism, or even honor?
BTW: can you “like” this on Facebook? And, oh … oh: Tweet it, too? Just go ahead and get this out to all that soc-media stuff 😉
The Village Wit (2010) is a humorous and sometimes dark odyssey through village life, love’s fall, sexual politics, and that place where memory and modern love intersect. Read an excerpt here. This book is also available as an ebook.