By Erik Nikander
Today, Koyaanisqatsi‘s striking cinematography, soaring Philip Glass score, and clear-eyed depiction of a modern world out of control is more perceptive and chilling than ever.
It may or may not have been their intention, but Global Arts Live’s choice to present Koyaanisqatsi Live! on September 20 could hardly have been more fitting. A global strike took place on the very same day; hundreds of thousands of people around the world marched to demand more drastic action in the fight against climate change. It’s hard to shake the feeling that humanity may be slowly approaching the brink of disaster, having grown increasingly dependent on a life lived out of balance with nature. Released in 1983, Koyaanisqatsi was lauded for Ron Fricke’s striking cinematography, its soaring Philip Glass score, and its clear-eyed depiction of a modern world out of control. In 2019, director Godfrey Reggio’s vision feels more perceptive and chilling than ever.
For the uninitiated, Koyaanisqatsi is somewhat difficult to summarize — there are few films quite like it. In essence, it’s a portrait of modern life told through a series of images ranging from quiet, desolate stretches of nature to whirlwinds of human activity. As powerful as this footage is taken in isolation, Philip Glass’s absorbing soundscape brings all of the movie’s disparate imagery together, combining looping synths with vocal chants and sung Hopi prophecies. Director Stanley Kubrick believed that the ideal film would more closely resemble music rather than narrative; the visuals would be designed to present moods and emotions for viewers to process on a subconscious level. It’s not clear whether Kubrick ever saw Koyaanisqatsi, or what he thought of it if he did, but the film fits his criteria perfectly.
This screening of Koyaanisqatsi was accompanied live by Glass himself, performing with his Philip Glass Ensemble. Made up of nine musicians, the group proved to be incredibly flexible, handling the sparser sections of the score with a gentle touch, but fully capable of filling the Orpheum Theatre with ringing intensity, particularly during the compositions “Pruit Igoe” and “The Grid.” It’s difficult to pick a standout performer among the bunch, in part due to the nature of the screening: the audience is meant to be watching the film, after all. That said, the Ensemble’s near-perfect unity and cohesion suited the film on a thematic level. Koyaanisqatsi is the story of humanity — taken as a collective. The major drawback to this live accompaniment? The chants in the film’s middle segment were generated out of synthesized sound — not sung live — though this artificiality never calls attention to itself. Somewhat disappointing, but a reasonable alternative to the cost of hiring a chorus.
Given the images of war and destruction that recur throughout the film, as well as the dire Hopi forecasts provided before the credits roll, Koyaanisqatsi positions itself as a cautionary tale. We’re presented with the systematic agonies of modernity, such as a homeless man, clearly in pain, being dragged onto a stretcher. Yet in contrast there is the film’s undeniable beauty, striking even during its most chaotic sections, when the sped-up images become abstract. Commuters, bunched together in a single blurred mass, leap up a row of escalators, looking like a waterfall in reverse. Footage of cars moving through the city resembles blood coursing through veins. Sections of the film dramatize a rhythmic pulse ignored by most of us in everyday life. So, while there are costs and drawbacks to modern life, the film can’t help but reflect the breathtaking scope of humanity’s ambition, as well as the marvelous possibilities offered by technology.
Reggio’s point, however, does not seem to be that technology is the enemy. The danger lies in how we use it – or how it uses us. Throughout the film, especially in its latter half, the frame is dominated by the machinery of commerce, from telephone wires and vehicles to factory machines and giant, lit-up advertisements. People are herded in one direction after another as part of their daily grind, or workers stand in one spot all day, packaging Twinkies and hot dogs. One shot in particular is an apt summation of the film’s critical perspective on consumer culture, part of a scene set at a factory assembly line. Because of the sped-up nature of the film, auto workers appear to zip to and fro, guiding a gigantic hunk of metal as it sinks slowly down onto the conveyor belt. Automation has become so ingrained in our lives that we are not just cogs in the machine — but have become machines ourselves, shaping our environment to accommodate the instruments of commerce at the expense of our humanity.
Reggio’s implementation of time-lapse photography, especially in the segment of the film that plays alongside “The Grid,” suggests that humankind may be on an unstoppable collision course with extinction. Creating a groove based on the relentless pace of daily life, the section casts an almost hypnotic effect — Glass’s music swells louder and faster, days and nights pass by in a blink. The difference between what we see on TV screens and “real life” images of the exterior world becomes almost indistinguishable. Here the film’s connection with the climate crisis becomes frighteningly clear. Decisions made without foresight since the dawn of the industrial age have led humanity down a path it can’t step away from or reverse. If we can’t chart another course, we may find ourselves living the awful image at the end of Koyaanisqatsi – a rocket exploding into smithereens, a mangled piece of debris dancing amid the fireball.
It’s unfortunate that Koyaanisqatsi’s warning against global disorder remains so pertinent, though it guarantees that Reggio’s work is no less breathtakingly universal now than when it debuted. Watching one of the most distinctive films of the 20th century all by oneself is a compelling experience. But a communal screening like Koyaanisqatsi Live! provides a rich opportunity to experience its power in a more politically compelling context. Given where we are now in our battle to save the world from an overload of greenhouse gases, the movie’s message, amplified as a live event, sounds like a clarion call.
Erik Nikander is a critic, playwright, and filmmaker based in the New England area. His film criticism can be read on Medium and his video reviews on a variety of topics can be viewed on Youtube at EWN Reviews.