Koyaannisqatsi: Life Out of Balance
Directed and Produced by Godfrey Reggio
Music by Philip Glass
Musical Director/Additional Music Composed by Michael Hoenig
Cinematography by Ron Fricke
Editing by Alton Walpole and Ron Fricke
Written by Godfrey Reggio, Ron Fricke, Michael Hoenig, Alton Walpole
Associate Producers Francis Ford Coppola, Mel Lawrence, Roger McNew, T. Michael Powers, Lawrence Taub, Alton Walpole
Koyaannisqatsi is a documentary that offers only beautiful music and stunning imagery to communicate a complex view of nature and technology engaging in a grand and terrifying dialectic. Nature is violently displaced by human machines of war, resource extraction, mass production, and mass housing. One is left with the impression, initially, of the earth being punished, subverted, and subdued. But something more subtle and pervasive is going on here, something like a usurpation of nature, but always keep in mind that humans and their productions evolved out of nature. What we are seeing here is the creation of a new kind of nature, one that is based in technology rather than biology. Or maybe it's a mixture of technology and biology. Maybe technology, in this instance, is just "biology by other means."
No venerable expert talking heads, no portentous voice overs, no editorial cartoons, and a minimum of on-screen text. Watching this movie, one will not walk away with a sense that one should vote for a particular politician or convert to a specific ideology or religion, although there are passages of it which flirt with being Luddite, which comes, I think, from a profound skepticism of the Utopian dreams and cynical schemes which seem to be so intertwined with high-technological societies. There is also an awareness of the exorbitant cost that high tech First World societies extract from the developing world, where many people live in crushing poverty, and do not necessarily understand what the overall aims and goals of the invasive First World fully entail. And, perhaps, maybe the First World technocrats don't really understand what drives them on, either. Technological progress has an eerie way of erasing what has gone before, and those of us who have grown up in such societies have no memory of what things were like before the advent of globalization, TV, the internet, etc. Koyaannisqatsi seems to suggest that technology is merging with nature to produce a third thing that is somehow both more and less than either thing alone. More, in that some benefit greatly from the new synthesis; less, in that many will suffer and lose their lives and livelihoods to bring about that new synthesis. The movie offers no easy morals or advice. It is more of a portrait of things as they are, reality itself, in all its cruelty and grandeur. If there is a message here, maybe it's something like, "Brace yourself!" or "Ready or not, here it comes! It's already here!"
Koyaannisqatsi's method is pure montage, perfectly synchronized with Philip Glass's alternately majestic and mechanistic music score. Glass's music provides a kind of "machine soul" to many of the terrifying apparatus on display, and then there are other times when the score seems to be invoking a "soul of desolation" to give voice to the massive waste and folly of humanity's violence towards the environment. This is a spiritual movie, but not a dogmatic one. It is spiritual in that it seeks to create new spirits through music, images, and montage that gives voices to the inanimate things which surround us, and to some extent dictate our lives. Glass and director Godfrey Reggio do not hide their terror and skepticism at the new techno-behemoth stalking the planet, and offer up a kind of requiem in picture and sound for the old world now gone.
There are no leading characters in the usual sense, just stunning footage of natural landscapes in the opening sequences, which eventually gives way to mining operations, engineered floods, dams, and terrifying displays of atom bombs, Soviet tanks, and American fighter craft. These displays of destructive power give way to haunting footage of abandoned apartment buildings, desolate housing projects, shining skyscrapers which look eerily like science fictional mausoleums erected no doubt by the Eloi, and then picks up again with a majestic, and darkly comedic sequence which depicts the integration of frenetic human social and mass production activity into something like a worldaround computer circuit. I suspect the Wachowskis must've had this movie in mind when they made The Matrix some years later. Humanity is clearly depicted as being at war with nature.
But are we destroying the planet, or are we just making it over in our own image? Koyaanisqatsi itself is a product of high technology, a movie, whose purpose seems to be to give the audience a global perspective in such a way that would've been hard to come by in 1983, the year of its original release. No World Wide Web, no Google Earth, no capacity for billions of people around the globe to produce high volumes of televisual content for their own amusement via YouTube, just a darkened theatre to create just the right kind of worshipful mood to pay homage to the glowing screen. Well, all right, I guess there were books and nature programs on TV back in 1983, but I couldn't help but think that Koyaannisqatsi must've been a qualitatively different viewing experience for its first audiences.
All throughout the movie there are images of humans wandering the streets of large cities, herded along by WALK/DON'T WALK signs, and occasionally stopping to stare into the camera. Everyone looks lost. There's a shot of a man alone in some kind of automated facility, tending machines which don't need tending. I can't quite say why, but I want to say that this man isn't lost. He has found his place. Good for him . . . this is definitely one of those movies that invites you to create your own narratives, intimate and grand, as it carries you along to its stunning finale.
The opening sequence begins with the launch of a magnificent rocket of some kind, taking off, I guess, for outer space. There is a rather cruel payoff to this opening scene, at the very end, which gives the movie an effective shape, lends it a quality of myth, of legend. I'm thinking of Icarus here.
But there is also an inquiry into the nature of physical production, of engineering and construction projects on a vast scale. It must be said that dams, tanks, fighter jets, nuclear bombs, and large scale strip-mining operations involve vast numbers of people, and large quantities of equipment, guided by hard quantitative skills involving advanced mathematics, engineering, physics, management, and a lot of other things above my head. If Koyaannisqatsi has within it deep skepticism at our aborning high-tech civilization, then it is also about a system, a beast, which is both inspiring and terrifying to behold.