This is the first of four columns in which Michael Munro examines the two films he considers to have been ripped off the most frequently during the last 25 years: Koyaanisqatsi and Return of the Jedi. The pictures couldn’t be more dissimilar, but their residual effects have had equal influence in a wide array of media.
Koyaanisqatsi is the first entry in the Qatsi trilogy, a collaboration between director Godfrey Reggio, cinematographer Ron Fricke, and composer Philip Glass. It operates as a unique kind of documentary, a pure cinematic experience whose message is delivered solely through images and music. Through a series of expertly devised thematic sequences, the film examines the effects that we humans have had on our environment — in particular, the technological advances that have disrupted our natural habitat to the point of our dissociation from it. In Reggio’s view, humanity is a throbbing mass of neuroses, a species caught between the extremes of frenzy and melancholia. His diagnosis is grim, but his solution is clear: In order for the human race to survive, we need to slow down, cheer up and quit digging precious things from the land.
The technophobic themes of Koyaanisqatsi have grown even more relevant in the years following the film’s release. And yet it’s ironic that Ron Fricke’s technological innovations have proven to be the film’s greatest legacy. His exceptional eye for the inherent beauty in even the most pedestrian of scenes finds its perfect outlet in this film: The background is brought to the foreground, the set dressing transformed into the star. Fricke’s technical prowess makes manifest Reggio’s unique perspective of the world, transforming throngs of people into a singular entity and imbuing sentience upon natural phenomena.
Barring an introductory shot of an ancient Fremont pictogram and a super-slow-motion depiction of a shuttle launch, the first 15 minutes of Koyaanisqatsi consist almost entirely of desert vistas, filmed in astonishing panorama with Fricke’s peerless attention to detail. The exquisite beauty of such southwestern landmarks as Monument Valley and the Grand Canyon is conveyed with nothing short of reverence, and is accompanied by an in-flight adagio for woodwinds and brass courtesy of Glass. Apart from the sheer splendor of the locations, the most visually arresting aspect of this passage derives from the time-lapse photography utilized to capture images of cloud formations brewing into existence and racing across the sky. This footage is complemented by slow-motion studies of oceanic tides, gigantic waves crashing upon each other before returning to the swell. The parallel between the sky and the sea is obvious, their similarities made explicit through cross-cutting.
Following this blissful display of the environment in its unadulterated state, we are introduced to the character of man by way of his violent intrusion — specifically, through a rock face demolition. The music becomes darker and more menacing as various vehicles and implements of destruction are paraded before us, exhibiting their handiwork upon the land. Indeed, man is seen as secondary to his machines; the emphasis is not on the individual, but on the changes he brings to his domain. Power lines and hydroelectric dams give way to freeways and landing strips, and the rise in population is reflected in the increasingly cluttered landscape.
After we are briefed on man’s domineering spirit, we are treated to a pair of montages that convey his destructive tendencies in ways both eruptive and corrosive. The first sequence is comprised of archival footage of warfare, a barrage of explosions in the sky and on the ground. This is followed by a tour of the doomed Pruitt-Igoe projects in St. Louis, a barren expanse of concrete and detritus which was laid to waste in a series of controlled demolitions. The ideological failure represented by the ruination of Pruitt-Igoe embodies numerous themes of the film: the societal decay reflected in urban sprawl; the human misery wrought by poverty and overpopulation; the myopic folly of our faith in technology. The footage of the projects’ day of reckoning initiates the second montage in this cycle, during which we are treated to the demise of a variety of structures, including high rise buildings and support bridges. This battery of implosions and explosions achieves a level of bombast which borders on the absurd, undercutting the gravity of the situation even as it hammers the viewer into submission.
The penultimate, and arguably most famous, portion of the film concerns the collision of humanity that is the modern metropolis. Spanning the United States’ biggest cities from New York to Los Angeles, this is the most vibrant sequence in Koyaanisqatsi, and has proven divisive over the years for its portrayal of human beings as mindless automatons. Fricke once again employs his time-lapse technique to speed up the action. However, since human beings move at a considerably greater momentum than clouds, the result is a dizzying blur of activity that resembles nothing so much as a colony of ants in distress. There is a tremendous beauty in this sequence, borne of seeing our everyday interactions in an alien fashion: Escalators and revolving doors churning out people like fodder; shopping malls and train stations swarming with commuters; nighttime traffic coalescing into a single shimmering fluorescent strip. A voyage through America’s blue-collar substrata yields footage of hot dogs firing out of an automatic linker machine and Twinkies cruising along a conveyor belt to their destiny; postal workers and tailors complete their work by hand, while people on an auto assembly line move as one with their machinery. It is a symphony of organized chaos, a rapturous ode to the mechanics of capitalism, and it builds to a climax of near-subliminal speed as the whole holy mess is viewed from inside a moving vehicle. The music grows in intensity along with the film, all glittering arpeggios and euphoric chorales, until one feels completely overwhelmed — but at the moment everything reaches a fever pitch, the emergency brake is pulled, and we are ejected into the final stage of Koyaanisqatsi.
It is at this point that we see the effects of such a delirious lifestyle. The final scenes of the film move at a lugubrious pace, providing a sobering respite to the preceding hysteria. They depict human beings as individuals in naked isolation, doing whatever we can to find a foothold what is essentially an indifferent universe. Bewildered old men wander alone amidst the crowds, searching for some sort of direction; firefighters sift through the remnants of a residential inferno, while paramedics assist a vagrant off the street and into an ambulance. Inside a hospital, an elderly patient limply beats her withered hand against her bed until a nurse takes heed of her call and clasps the woman’s hand in her own. Such simple interactions are imbued with enormous pathos by Fricke’s delicate framing and Glass’s elegiac choral arrangement, and the film closes with an upward gaze: the footage of an Atlas rocket on an unmanned test flight. As the rocket soars through a perfectly blue sky, it slowly veers off-course, then explodes; the resultant cloud of debris plummets slowly back to the Earth. The self-destructive nature of human society could hardly be more eloquently stated than through the visual analogy of a flaming piece of shrapnel spiraling downward against a flawless backdrop, an image which freezes on the screen before dissolving into the same pictogram which opened the film.
This transition from fiery destruction to ultimate renewal segues perfectly into the admonitions posited by the Hopi, the Native American tribe from which Koyaanisqatsi derived its title. The Hopi prophecies which provide the film with its coda prove to be wholly prescient: They warn of the dire consequences which await those who allow their own hubris to supersede their reliance upon the Earth. It is a message which remains as urgent today as when Reggio first pleaded his case for a saner world almost three decades ago.
By Michael Munro