Koyaanisqatsi (US, 1982)

Mind blowing, mind expanding eco cinema

The content of the images of this film, mostly shot in the ’70s, may have dated but its portrayal of human (capitalist?) stupidity is even more relevant as our planet is now kicking back at us for the way we have treated it. The screening I saw had a live accompaniment, of their new score for the film, by GoGo Penguin. It was a fantastic performance.

Godfrey Reggio’s (mostly) fast motion montage of city life – bookended by images of the Grand Canyon – is in the tradition of the city films of the 1920s, such as Berlin, Symphony of a City (Germany 1927). Graphic matches in the editing, for example fast motion clouds flowing over hills is cut to water flowing, link the images but the lack of a voiceover requires the audience to construct the narrative. Reggio’s purpose, however, is clear; shots of sausages being produced on a production line are followed by (fast motion) people flooding into a commuter station, tells you what you need to know about his opinion of modern life. Toward the end the frenetic pace accelerates and I felt like the astronaut in 2001: A Space Odyssey (UK, 1968) – see image above – as he enters a worm hole (or something).

The shots of factory workers operating robotically shows the dehumanising effect of the production line. Today their function will probably have been taken over by actual robots. On one level this is an improvement; on the other, it’s not: what jobs are there for the factory workers? The answer is low paid, ‘flexible’ (for the employer) hours contracts. Instead of using the savings created by using robots, in time and money, to better the life of humanity, wealth has percolated upwards to those who don’t need it. This madness, which won’t end well, is different to the madness of modern life portrayed in Koyaanisqatsi but, nevertheless, is incredibly stupid.

I’m a fan of GoGo Penguin, a jazz trio (piano, bass and drums), but was sceptical about what they could bring to a film that benefited enormously from Philip Glass’s hypnotic score. At first I found the live performance distracting as you have to concentrate on the images, remember what follows what to create the narrative, and so can’t ‘follow’ the music. However, I soon tuned in and was gobsmacked by the trio’s integration with the images; if they missed a cue it was only by tenths of a second. The crashes of cymbals as bombs exploded was truly visceral. Brilliant playing of a superb score.

35 years after the film’s release, which only happened thanks to the intervention of Francis Ford Coppola, we are surely at a watershed in terms of whether we are going to repair our planet in time. In America the disconnect between political leadership and the need for ecological change could hardly be greater. This week California experienced record temperatures for the time of year and winter is now two weeks shorter than it was one hundred years ago. One scene in Koyaanisqatsi shows dollar bills being counted and for many money is all that matters. For an increasing number that’s simply a matter of survival; for the rich… Well, I don’t know why they need more; do they?

The only thing I missed hearing in this screening was the Hopi Indian chants of ‘koyaanisqatsi’ (‘unbalanced life’) that occur, if I remember correctly, at the end. If life was unbalanced in the ’80s we’re now in a tail spin.

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