There’s no proselytizing to be found in Koyaanisqatsi; what I half-expected going in was an eco-nut jeremiad about the evils of industrialized civilization. What I experienced was something much more akin to Shklovsky’s defamiliarization effect: a sustained, artistic effort to re-align my perception of modern life, if only momentarily, in order to induce me to reflect critically on my place in it. In order to portray a “life out of balance,” filmmaker Godfrey Reggio and his collaborators needed to find a style that would shock the audience without losing it, and the result is a very tight montage of nature in continuity from what some might call “pristine” wilderness to the garbage-strewn streets of the urban metropolis. What the film evoked for me was a sense of someone who wanted to show me something very important, something beautiful, something terrifying, but this person found he could not stand far enough back to take it all in. Even with its flaws, the impact was sublime.
Peter T. Chattaway’s brief commentary for the Arts & Faith list of the 100 greatest films is what inspired me to watch the film, and he captures its potential ambiguities succinctly:
For one thing, while the film encourages us to reflect on the role that technology plays in our lives, there is no escaping the fact that the film is, well, a film—which means it is just as much a part of the technological landscape as anything it depicts. (The film even acknowledges this, when it shows people watching TV or sitting in a movie theatre.) But more than that, the film can even be construed, despite itself, as a celebration of technology; it is only because of films like this, after all, that we can watch the clouds move so fluidly in the first place.
This is partly why the message that our lives have gotten too crazy doesn’t feel too preachy; as a technical achievement, the film is acutely aware of its own manipulations and framing of spatial and temporal flow. Another reason is that Reggio doesn’t point a specific way out of the chaos; Koyaanisqatsi is a consciousness-raising experiment, and it works, because, in that respect, it doesn’t overreach. It also pauses from time to time to remind the viewer that people are an important part of the project. Candid, slow motion, street level shots capture pedestrians’ reactions to the camera, ranging from curiosity to amusement to suspicion. Portraits of commuters or a pilot are framed against the background of a fighter jet or speeding subways, implying the tension the title makes explicit; the machinery of modern life may form the foreground of most of the film, but there are fleeting moments when individuals are allowed to take center screen… before receding again.
Humanity as a whole is woven throughout the film, even though one of the first shots of an actual human being (if not the first) is of a machine operator climbing into his rig, which then belches such a cloud of black smoke that it entirely obscures the machine — and its operator. Juxtaposed with magisterial shots of fleecy white clouds breaking like waves across mountaintops, the image is suggestive. Other images are as intensely striking. Chattaway spotlights time-lapse shots of freeways in which “the red lights zipping down the road might remind you of blood cells, for example, and might seem almost organic on that level.” Others are include a jumbo jet taxiing down a runway, but in the heat shimmering across the ground and in the atmosphere, upon first appearance it looks more like a fantastical creature lumbering through the haze. Another ethereal sequence features double (maybe triple) exposed footage of people on the floor of a stock exchange, walking through each other like semi-translucent ghosts, forever haunting the site where they bartered away their souls. In yet another shot, depicted on the cover art for the film, the moon looks as if it is about to collide with a skyscraper.
The most striking image, however, is very nearly the last shot in the film. While some of the sequences leading up to it tested my patience, both in their redundancy and in their propensity for inducing eye strain (and ear strain, since Philip Glass’s relentless score barely ever lets up the assault), the overall arc of the film is grounded in footage of a rocket lifting off into the atmosphere. After an hour of the hammering rhythms of modern life pushing ever onward, we watch the momentous rise of a rocket cumbrously propelling itself up, up, and away into the stratosphere, a celebratory triumph of human invention and technological innovation literally piercing the heavens — and then, in a decisively Pynchonesque moment, it explodes. The shock of the explosion is elongated and underlined by a hypnotic, single shot following a flaming piece of debris falling back to earth. Few moments in cinema feel as direct and powerful as a slap to the face, but this can easily claim that distinction.
A slap, but not a punishment; it’s a wake-up call. Koyaanisqatsi feels akin to other films, such as San Soleil (but without Chris Marker’s sense of adventure and curiosity) or Man with a Movie Camera (but without Dziga Vertov’s wit and easy humor). In scope, it is probably most closely matched by 2001: A Space Odyssey in its attention to man’s relationship to his tools. Kubrick had metaphysics on his brain, though, in a way that Reggio does not. Kubrick’s perspective on technology was ambiguous, and he his relatively shallow meditation on the co-extensive evolution of humanity and its tools is resolved by transforming an astronaut into a star baby. Reggio’s perspective isn’t quite as ambiguous, but he deliberately avoids resolution entirely. 2001 charted historical-technological progress to its illogical conclusion; Koyaanisqatsi sketches contemporary life, minus a historical trajectory. What it calls for by reframing our perception is not a specific agenda but a reconsideration. Rather than evolution (or revolution), it calls for recognition. By seeing the world we know in a way we otherwise wouldn’t, we are given the perceptual tools to re-evaluate our position relative to the structure of our modern life. It’s an opportunity — not a program — for rebirth.
If we’re living modern life as it’s portrayed here, then we are being reached by a medium born of that life; we are hearing the truth spoken to us in our own tongue. Koyaanisqatsi is not proselytizing; it’s bearing witness.☕