Young Life Out Of Balance: The Impact and Legacy of ‘Koyaanisqatsi’
By Michael Grasso
Source: We Are the Mutants
Throughout the latter half of the 1970s, ex-seminarian/political activist Godfrey Reggio and cinematographer Ron Fricke shot, assembled, and edited film footage from all over the United States—from the yawning chasms of southwestern American deserts to the teeming mechanized metropolises of New York and Los Angeles—creating a feature film that would speak to the overwhelming complexity of late 20th century life in the West. This film, Koyaanisqatsi, debuted at American film festivals in 1982 and quickly became an arthouse (and eventual home video) favorite. The frequently eerie score for the film, composed by Philip Glass, provides the only aural accompaniment for this 86-minute montage showing the collision of nature and technology, of mankind and the planet. The word koyaanisqatsi, Hopi for “corrupted life” or “life out of balance,” provided a mission statement for the film; while Reggio has been cagey about not wanting to either imply or explicitly provide any specific meaning for the film, both the title and the Hopi prophecies of doom sung over the film’s final act make Koyaanisqatsi‘s point of view more or less explicit: something is dreadfully and fundamentally wrong with the way the settler inhabitants of America and the industrialized world as a whole relate to both the planet and themselves.
Koyaanisqatsi arrived with much fanfare as part of the PBS “Great Performances” anthology series in March of 1985. Given my love of all things PBS, I was absolutely there to see it in one of its initial broadcasts or repeats in ’85 or ’86. I’d heard about it most likely due to the hype around the film’s arrival on broadcast television for the first time. I do remember watching it at night, alone, possibly while my parents were out or in bed. When I found Koyaanisqatsi on a streaming service this year, I realized that I hadn’t watched it in its entirety since I was 10 years old. As I watched, I found myself thinking about how 10-year-old Mike responded to these overwhelming images. The process of meaning-making for a 10-year-old kid watching a film containing a sophisticated symbolic critique of modern life fascinated me. I decided to watch Koyaanisqatsi in 2019 with a close eye towards the images and sounds that had stuck with me subconsciously in the intervening third of a century, the sequences that offered today’s me a direct connection to my younger self. In childhood I was surrounded by films, cartoons, and other educational programming that transmitted the profundity and complexity of human existence and the universe directly into my growing brain. What did Koyaanisqatsi‘s sensory bombardment, its sometimes overwhelming contrasting of nature and technology mean to me then? And how did that meaning change for me as an adult, now fully conscious of and conversant with the issues Reggio raises?
It’s absolutely the first 15 minutes of the film that I remember most vividly from childhood. It begins with the juxtaposition of ancient petroglyphs at Horseshoe Canyon in Utah against slow-motion, almost abstract closeups of the Apollo 11 launch in 1969. This kind of meaning-through-montage connected with me on an intimate level at the age of 10; this was precisely the kind of respect for the pageant of human “progress” that electronic media teachers such as Carl Sagan had inculcated in me in my early years. Sagan did not necessarily privilege the Western, “scientific” worldview in his works; understanding that the ancient astronomers of the American West were precisely as clever as their European and Asian counterparts was an important part of Sagan’s pedagogy. And in this sweeping montage of the natural environment of the American West, Reggio offers a simultaneously calming and stunning view of the untouched majesty of nature. This is the same “blank screen” of desert that would thrill Baudrillard during his sojourn in North America at about exactly the same time. Even on a relatively tiny 1980s television screen, these aerial shots were breathtaking; it wouldn’t be until I first saw an IMAX projection in 1987 when the Omni Theater opened at Boston’s Museum of Science that I felt something similarly awe-inspiring.
These images of nature and the elements—earth and clouds and crashing waves—soothe the viewer; Glass’s musical accompaniments for these sections are tellingly titled “Organic” and “Cloudscape.” But just as we are lulled into a sense of security and a naturally human sense of awe at the landscape, Reggio (and Glass) throw us violently out of our idyll, showing us what man has done to these landscapes. We see engineering on a massive scale: strip mining, power plants with huge cooling lakes, massive dam projects. Glass’s hectic, pulsing aria, titled “Resource,” says it all. Natural rhythms and flows are subsumed under black clouds of pollution from earth-moving equipment; natural landscapes carved by millions of years of river and wind are carved into regularly-repeating, Cartesian geometry. “Resource” is horrifying, punishing: every trumpet blast announces the coming of something horrible. Again I am reminded of Cosmos: Sagan opines in Episode 5, “Blues for a Red Planet,” where Sagan imagines how an alien species will be able to determine that an intelligent species inhabits Earth—by how we change and adjust our natural environment. To Sagan, this is a largely joyful sign of our ingenuity and a necessary contrast with the natural “canals” of Mars. To Reggio, these marks are a constant, painful scarring, and his depiction of them on-screen has an immediate and negative emotional impact on the viewer, even a young one. Pollution was, of course, something I’d been made aware of from an early age: not just from the constant bombardment of PSAs on television, but from the plumes rising from the smokestacks every time I’d cross the Tobin Bridge in the family station wagon to go into Boston.
For much of “Resource” we are denied the opportunity to see sky: despite the grandeur of the landscapes, the camera angles and editing completely remove the context of said landscape with its cycles with nature and climate. The only blue we are offered is the reflection of the sky in the slightly sinister pools of the power plants’ cooling waters. And it’s here that we start to see humans for the first time as well, first dwarfed by the enormity of the dams and power plants around them, then briefly a few individuals populating the background of a sequence in a metal foundry. These figures are the reason behind all the scarring and carving of industry. Here is mankind. The glowing metal of the foundry reminds us of the original technological myth: fire tamed by Promethean man.
And there Reggio brings forth the myth’s ultimate expression: nukes. Stock footage of nuclear explosions would not be a symbol that needed much in the way of interpreting for a 10-year-old still scared bone-deep of the prospect of nuclear war. In this section we begin to see how all of these technological “advances” impact humanity. We see beachgoers enjoying a hot sunny beach—but with a huge looming power plant behind them. We see the mighty Boeing 747 taxiing on a runway, another testament to human ingenuity—sheathed and shimmering in an uncanny petroleum haze. Highways and cloverleaf overpasses are shown, overflowing with traffic; new cars are lined up in a holding yard, soon juxtaposed with Soviet tanks, American fighter jets, ICBMs, and more Apollo footage. Production and consumption, the war machine, and the nuclear arms race: all part of the same insane global system. The film footage of cluster bomb blasts, de rigueur as a signifier of the American war machine since the days of Vietnam and thus intimately familiar to 1985 me from various expressions on television and in pop culture, have a new and shocking impact when shown as part of the unnatural system that digs resources from the ground and turns them into immediate, instant death.
For many, the segment near the center-point of the film where the viewer is treated to an aerial survey of the abandoned Pruitt-Igoe housing projects in St. Louis is the film’s most brutal and emotional. Bookended in Koyaanisqatsi by other images of the failure of social housing in the South Bronx, and very much of a piece with the worldwide midcentury penchant for Brutalist “urban renewal”, the tale of Pruitt-Igoe would be resolutely familiar to an adult in the early 1980s. For me at 10, a sheltered white kid who’d grown up entirely in the suburbs, the sequence’s eerie ruined majesty held complete mystery. What were these huge repeating buildings shaped like boxes? Why were they in such disrepair? And why were they being totally and completely annihilated with explosives in such a dramatic fashion? I was insulated through much of my youth (by express design of the white power structure, as it turns out) from the living and educational conditions of Black Americans in both my own home city of Boston and around the country. The wages of centuries of American apartheid were nothing but a vague unease at the periphery of my consciousness. The power demonstrated in both choosing to build and choosing to destroy these buildings, over a period of a mere three decades—little more than one human generation—was accurately and shockingly conveyed by the film, but its ultimate meaning was lost to me. As an adult, with all the context and knowledge present upon my re-viewing of the film, “Pruitt-Igoe” stands as a testament to midcentury liberalism’s best intentions, naturally sabotaged by the white violence inherent in American capitalism. This is the one sequence of Koyaanisqatsi that I look back on today and wish I’d had an adult—a wise, sensitive adult—to guide me through.
At the film’s halfway point, we really begin to see mass man. At first in slow motion, urban crowd “B-roll” shots of a type I would have been intimately familiar with from television in 1985, shot in slow-motion, cut with close-ups of individual human beings in front of vivid backgrounds: the whooshing of an urban subway, a military officer in front of a jet engine, a group of casino workers with the lights of Las Vegas flashing behind them. In a concerted way, these “portraits” arrest us as viewers after the sensory assault of the first 40 minutes of the film, getting us to begin seeing the individuals behind the mass movements and incomprehensible destruction we’ve seen so far. As an adult I find them almost unbearably poignant; I found myself wondering what happened to all these folks after Reggio and Fricke finished filming them. As a kid, their slightly outdated fashions (from the mid-to-late-’70s, by the looks of it) consigned them to the more recent past of the only context I could understand: sitcom reruns in syndication, that forever-lagging-behind-the-present that ensured I was in some ineffable way a nostalgic even at the age of 10.
“The Grid” is the section of Koyaanisqatsi where Reggio and Fricke first use time-lapse photography for, I would argue, its greatest achievement in film history. As much as we’ve been given a key to understanding the impact of technology and so-called progress on the natural world, this section, full of glittering cityscapes and the pulsating grid of traffic in Los Angeles at night, are heartbreakingly beautiful. The flow of traffic through midtown Manhattan, so expertly regulated by traffic lights, is yet somehow unnatural; these highway and street scenes, sped up, remind us (and certainly would have reminded the young me who’d grown up with educational programming) of microphotography of blood cells in arteries and capillaries, but somehow off: constantly halting and resolutely inorganic. In contrast, one of the film’s trademark shots (featured on the home video box and posters) of the moon’s movement through the sky as it is eclipsed by an office block is so sure in the lens of Fricke’s innovative time-lapse cameras, so machine-precise, far outstripping in elegance and power the stuttering processes of automobile and pedestrian traffic regulated by human-created technology.
Possibly the most homely, familiar, and comforting section of the film involves the juxtaposition of manufacturing, industry, and food processing with the crazy-quilt of consumption that completes industrial capitalism’s cycle. Hot dogs and Twinkies, blue jeans and televisions and automobiles roll off of assembly lines; as an adult in 2019 all I could think was “look at all those human workers!” There were so few robots in sight in each of these sequences, and the factory workers themselves looked so humble yet so proud. I also thought back to me at age 10, and how Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood would have primed me to look at these time-lapse sequences of production as something wondrous, something to be proud of. The flip side of all this production is seen in Koyaanisqatsi‘s views of Americans enjoying their leisure time: playing video games (I spotted Ms. Pac-Man, Q*bert, and Defender among many other video cabinets in the arcade sequence), bowling, going to the movies, visiting the mall food court, and especially watching television. The time-lapse photography zips through banks of televisions airing the prime-time advertisements and network news breaks of the kind I’m obsessed with and hunt down on YouTube in 2019. As a kid, this would have been the segment of the film that would’ve been the most immediate and identifiable to me. The people in these sections looked like me: they were suburban, not urban, dressed in casual clothes, not hats and suits and trenchcoats. They were young! There were younger kids sipping on milkshakes and having burgers with their families at the mall. These people were me. Did I understand how my consumption made me an accomplice to the black billowing smoke and scarred landscapes seen earlier in the film? At that age, I’m sure not.
Reggio always returns to people, not only to give the viewer (whether 10 years old or 43 years old) that sense of identification, a sense of their stakes in the modern “life out of balance,” but to return to the dignity of the individual human being. Reggio’s intellectual origins both in post-Vatican II Catholic conceptions of social justice and human dignity as well as Christian eco-anarchism demands this kind of attention to the individual humans behind these teeming visual landscapes. The final sequence is titled “Prophecies.” Glass’s musical accompaniment for this final sequence features a chorus singing three Hopi prophecies, interpreted by academic consultants Michael Lowatewama and Ekkehart Malotki, and translated on-screen at the end of the film. These prophecies are ones that would be familiar to anyone raised in the Western Christian tradition: tales of the death of the world thanks to mysterious poisons falling from the sky. As the choir chants these predictions of chaos and confusion, we see people wandering the streets, crushed by their surroundings: a homeless man gazing down at the change in his hand, a sick man put onto a litter by EMTs, someone in a hospital with a bloody wound resulting from an intravenous injection of fluids. The combination of Hopi prophecy on the soundtrack with the kind of lost people that Christ tried to minister to is devastatingly effective; even as a child, this section evoked pity and empathy in me rather than the disgust from seeing out of control pollution or technology. Bookending this is a lengthy sequence in slow-motion of an Atlas-Centaur rocket disaster, one of its thrusters tumbling back to earth slowly. The name of the star might have been Wormwood, but a year after this PBS airing, both a Challenger disaster and a nuclear disaster at another Wormwood half a world away would offer yet another Promethean lesson to both the U.S. and the Soviet Union.
I can’t remember exactly what I felt like immediately after viewing Koyaanisqatsi all those years ago, but its indelible images and sounds remained firmly in my subconscious all through my adolescence and adulthood. Now I’m middle-aged, the same age as all those scurrying New York City businessmen who seemed so weirdly uniform and alien to me as a kid. As I watch now, I of course am able to see that we are all lost in the life out of balance now. I wouldn’t call Reggio prophetic because anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear knew what was happening to us in the years since the end of the Second World War. And while art can absolutely point out injustice, fraud, exploitation, and abuse, it can very easily be used to recuperate these ideas into a more comfortable idea of the inevitability of “progress.” I don’t feel like any later misuse of Reggio’s praxis is his fault per se; whether or not he expressly provides meaning for us, his words and actions in the years following Koyaanisqatsi‘s release are clear and obvious.
I’ve never bothered to watch the two “Qatsi” sequels released in the years following the original. Their dual focuses were on life in the developing world and “life as war,” focusing on the modern world’s war with itself over technology. I’m not sure if they could achieve the mythic status and impact which Koyaanisqatsi had on my developing brain as a kid. Was 10 years old too young to consider these kinds of issues of modern life? I’m not sure. All I know is that I’m grateful I was given the opportunity to internalize these images and thoughts, to consider my place on a planet, both blessed and cursed by my surroundings, to ponder my role both as an individual and as part of a societal collective. While the televisual instruction of my childhood idols Sagan and Rogers may have in some small part normalized the mindset that brought us to this point (all while being steadfast advocates of social justice and peace, of course), Reggio’s camera, untouched by words, conveys the meaning of this life out of balance directly, resolutely, fearlesssly. A prophet Reggio himself may not be, but his filmic prophecy, and through it the prophecy of the Hopi, lives on.
Watch the full film on Kanopy here: https://www.kanopy.com/product/koyaanisqatsi