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For some, it was the first example of ecological cinema. Others would probably think it’s “shit”, because its the director would have it. It was perhaps only thanks to the insistence of an enthusiastic Francis Ford Coppola to participate in the distribution of the film that Godfrey Reggio Koyaanisqatsi — an 87-minute “visual poem” with no plot, characters, or dialogue — didn’t quickly fade into obscurity.

Although his inimitable visual style preserved it as a quintessential cult film most at home behind a shroud of pot smoke, the influence of Koyaanisqatsi swept away. Ron Fricke’s frenetic cinematography has been both aped and parodied in a variety of commercial media, from the use of turbo time-lapses in Madonna
music videos at The simpsons poking fun at his notorious penchant for stop-motion and moody aerial landscape shots. Evoking vast vistas that stretch from skyscrapers to sandstone, production lines to cloudscapes, housing projects and mountains, Fricke’s cornucopia of techniques was not only fundamental to realizing Reggio’s vision , but became the basis of the nascent environmental genre.

So does Philip Glass’ kaleidoscopic score, no less distinctive than the film’s feverish imagery. Glass’s balance of delicate arpeggios and lyrical, oversimplified mayhem is a crucial part of how the film imbues seemingly mundane scenes of everyday life with an unprecedented sense of drama. Explaining the vision behind this highly original style of cinema, Reggio often talks about his conscious aversion to cinematic conventions, and a big rejection of narrative cinema: “I am talking about poetic cinema, which is not based on speech, but on pictorial composition. It’s a whole different experience. »

Such was his tendency to reject any prescribed meaning, Reggio at first didn’t even want to name the film – preferring instead to market it through an image. Despite its disturbing title (meaning “Life Out of Balance” in Hopi Indian), Koyaanisqatsi doesn’t explicitly try to persuade viewers of anything – it’s primarily an exercise in cinematic expression. Despite this, the climate crisis reveals more clearly how vital such expression was and remains.

From the second Koyaanisqatsi blowing fire across the screen, his powerful, uncompromising style has no shortage of apocalyptic sights to behold. It’s not the end of the world in the vein of a disaster movie, however, or even the Book of Revelation. As its crimson red title bleeds onto a pitch black screen, in a way that almost looks like Ridley Scott Extraterrestrialthere are no simple emblems of environmental fallout caused by human beings – the kind of technique often seen in today’s eco-docs like Avi Lewis and Naomi KleinIt changes everything or National Geographic before the flood. In the final frames of Reggio’s avant-garde narrative, such omens of impending doom all seem a little superficial. Koyaanisqatsi delves deeper into the Anthropocene, letting the viewer experience the glorious absurdity of a world fashioned in the image of man.

It might be tempting to read the film’s searing 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 lies in bringing the mundane landscape of modernity to life, without criticism or praise. By juxtaposing the monumental beauty of natural landscapes with the vibrant technicolor of animated cityscapes, Koyaanisqatsi takes this Frankenstein monster, invisible in waking life, and dazzles the world with it. On the question of the radical remodeling of the homeland by the human species, there is no call to arms here for the Extinction Rebellion: the idea has always been to show “the beauty of the beast”, Reggio asserts.

By capturing this beautiful mass of technology in the beastly, plundering Earth’s resources to sustain life as we now know it, Reggio emphasizes moving human beings into a story about the world they seem to dominate. . In effect, KoyaanisqatsiThe provocative rejection of human-centric history and linear timelines common to the medium is there to capture the essence of the Anthropocene. The absence of any “event” in this quasi-narrative reinforces the opinion of scientists Eugene Stormer and Paul Krutzer, who coined the term in 2000: there is no singular event marking the Anthropocene that humanity can really apprehend.

Humanity doesn’t even make its first appearance until the film’s halfway point, in a sequence featuring a faceless mother and child seemingly bent over in scorching heat on a bed of parched grass. The camera pans to reveal this tender moment sitting under a monolithic industrial factory, which coldly recedes. Erasing the boundaries between nature and technology, the film suggests that the technological extension of humanity does not corrupt nature – it is nature. In the same way that a bionic prosthetic arm can allow a human being to hold a knife and fork, if technology is ultimately the tool that put human beings on top, the Anthropocene is not a an aberration, but simply the current chapter in the history of evolution. .

There is no prescription for rewilding here. Just the realization that, since it is now such a big part of everyday reality, the main attraction is this man-made extravaganza of whirring solid-state machines, factory conveyor belts, welding robots and cars rushing through the night like neon lights. The dreamlike beauty of the beast, so to speak, comes from this deep, tangible web between society, technology and the environment – and it’s hard to look away.

Similarly, Glass, Reggio and Fricke permeate 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 mixture of awe and horror that marked the World Trade Center’s collapse into dust, but it evokes the modern appetite for destruction at large. The camera tracks buildings, cranes and bridges crumble blindly into nothingness, with the same sense of sublime calamity that Lars Von Trier was surely looking for in Melancholy, which begins and ends with a rogue planet destroying the earth in a Wagnerian blue fire. Seeing the planet incinerated as the universe stares indifferently is a haunting image, no doubt, but this kind of cosmic, existential horror is a little too neat. Under the maniacal microscope of Reggio, life is characterized by a slow violence that has lasted for decades, even centuries.

Koyaanisqatsi offers a path to understanding our modern predicament in a way that other apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic films fail. Philosopher Frederic Jameson addressed this idea in a 2003 essay for the New Left Review, where he alluded to the suggestion that “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.” Since the structures in which we live, or rather that pass through us, are both invisible and devouring, they are far too grounded in reality to even imagine that they are collapsing.

Today’s cinema is not short of quasi-biblical images of hellfire, tsunamis or the earth turning into an ice cube (see Roland Emmerich’s filmography or that of 2021 Don’t look up). He remains, however, unwilling to examine the type of disorder Koyaanisqatsi discoveries recorded at both the macroscopic and microscopic levels – from the plume of the power plant to the channel of the circuit board. At a time when the pervasive digital culture of work is escaped by catastrophically scrolling TV shows or social media, perhaps it takes a sensitive eye to make such phenomena eye-catching.

Even as the threat of climate catastrophe has become mainstream, it’s often turned into a digestible tale of human beings “saving” the planet or taking up arms against the evil corporate status quo. Koyaanisqatsi still strongly challenges the idea that human beings can be masters of their destiny. He also refrains from indulging in any faith that technology can do anything about this man-made mess.

The film also avoids indifference or pessimism about 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 heap of flames hurtling across the sky like Icarus, only to fade into a shadowy spotlight on primitive cave paintings – a contrast that seems to suggest, without subtlety, what the inevitable price of human ‘progress’ is. .

Yet this is overshadowed by the textual translation of the title as “a state of life that calls for another way of living”, appealing to some form of hope. 40 years later, as the influence of the human species has snowballed into multiple crises, not only are the distractions more plentiful, but the majority of the solutions to a world shaped in the image of man remains fixated on images of impending catastrophe. More than ever, the value of art and film for the modern plight will be found in works like Koyaanisqatsicalling for a completely different way of seeing.


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