Koyaanisqatsi Redux


I went to Hollywood one night last week to watch my favorite film of all time, Koyaanisqatsi (released in 1983). It was being shown on a big screen at the Hollywood Bowl, accompanied by orchestra playing the original score, conducted by its composer, Philip Glass. Oh, I didn't go to the Bowl; I watched it at my daughter's apartment about half a mile away (hi def DVD and digital sound system turned way up, thank you). It was much more enjoyable than going to the Bowl; after all, I didn't want to share the experience with an audience that undoubtedly would have, shall we say, a different appreciation of the art.

You see, the message and meaning most of the Hollywood crowd take from Koyannisqatsi (Hopi Indian for "life out of balance" or "crazy life") is that man has despoiled and separated himself from his natural environment. Frankly, it has always had the exact opposite effect on me. Even after what must be 100 viewings, I am continually overwhelmed, impressed and delighted by the images of what man has been able to create, invent and build to control his environment, increase his wealth, provide him his food and energy, raise his standard of living, and transport him around the planet (or across the city).

I am sure most of the Hollywood Bowl crowd has a different response, and finds the images disturbing and disgusting. This is the reactionary impulse, born of an anti-industrial, anti-development mindset. I would wager the majority of that audience has bought completely into the scaremongering of catastrophic man-made global warming, which to the properly skeptical and scientifically literate remains unproven (oh hell, it's ludicrous on its face). This is deliciously ironic, as many sequences in Koyaanisqatsi were filmed in the 1970s, when most of the same crowd were hectoring us about global cooling (doubly ironic, as a cooling may now actually be upon us).

My first review of the film, published some 25 years ago, needs only minor updating.

This truly remarkable film by Godrey Reggio has no plot, no characters, no dialogue. The images of the film are awe-inspiring: first, huge expanses of pristine nature: deserts, rivers, mountains, mesas, lakes, waterfalls, clouds. Then grand-scale technology: huge earth-moving machines, power plants (nuclear and otherwise), oil refineries, food-processing plants, space shuttles, rockets, jets, freeways, subways, skyscrapers, shopping malls, train stations (and of course the obligatory atomic bomb explosions and mushroom clouds) - all shot in fascinating slow-motion and/or time-lapse format by cinematographer Ron Fricke. The accompanying music by Philip Glass is eerie, haunting and perfect.

The film is a visual, aural and emotional feast. If it bores you, you don't understand you are looking at, in juxtaposition, the majestic indifference of nature; the supreme accomplishments of physical engineering; and some of the most awful consequences of attempts at social engineering. Some of the images that make indelible impressions, all set to a majestic, driving score:

  • desert rock formations unchanged through thousands, if not millions of years
  • huge power transmission lines stretching forever across barren desolation
  • the implausible flying behemoth that is a 747
  • the flow of vehicles on a freeway, at night, from 50 stories up, that in time-lapse photography really does look just like the flow of blood through vessels, arteries and capillaries as seen through a microscope
  • row upon row of huge, empty, abandoned south Bronx tenements
  • the razing of the Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St. Louis (the most graphic depiction of public policy failure ever committed to film, I should think)
  • the rush of commuters who in time-lapse photography look like ants swarming an anthill
  • various mass production activities: mail-sorting machines, industrial assembly lines, escalators, elevators, revolving doors, conveyor belts, money counting machines, huge bowling alleys, movie theaters
  • finally, the high resolution satellite photograph of a massive city grid (Los Angeles, of course) overlaid, first, on a printed circuit microchip board, and secondly, on an intricate Hopi Indian woven blanket. The matches are nearly perfect.

A very noticeable detail of the '70s-era footage from Los Angeles is the blanket of smog that covers the city; I can tell you, having lived here all of these years, that the situation is dramatically improved. (I now see far-off mountain ranges daily; in the '70s that was rare.) Environmental quality has been improving over the decades (read The Skeptical Environmentalist by Bjorn Lomborg for the statistical evidence). The solutions to the problems that technology causes often end up being more technology, sensibly and carefully applied.

The single greatest contributor to the amelioration of LA smog, for example, is the catalytic converter. Instigated and required by government, you say? Developed and produced by industry in response to marketplace demand, says I.

I find the movie very relevant today. It seems some of our new political overlords seem to think they can have a productive economy without production, without what the film depicts: heavy industry; mass processing of food, clothes, consumer and industrial goods; massive residential and commercial development; huge efforts devoted to energy extraction, production and transmission; untrammeled mobility for goods, people and vehicles. Now I'm a "new economy" guy myself, but I realize that our wealth, standard of living and quality of life - the current and future prospects for hundreds of millions of us - are dependent upon these activities, and that the health of the industries that make them possible are far more important than any particular small sub-species of bird, fish, ant or rat (the threats to which are always exaggerated anyway).

We are really talking about the role of government here, not only in protecting nature. What the film shows me is that it is in fact government's job to protect the "other” environment: the environment that encourages, promotes and allows incentives for production. Part of this environment is the need for massive infrastructure: energy systems, water systems, waste systems, transport systems, roads, dams, etc., etc., in adequate capacity and in good repair. Mass production and economies of scale bring good quality cheap to millions, and provide opportunities to generate incomes, grow wealth and lead productive, modern lives. More efficiency can also create more nature; for example, the millions of acres of non-redundant farmland turned into forest or open space.

We used to know and understand this as a society. Our political elites were devoted to it. Now, not so much. We need to relearn the basic lessons and regain that consensus again.

Dr. Roger Selbert is a trend analyst, researcher, writer and speaker. Growth Strategies is his newsletter on economic, social and demographic trends; IntegratedRetailing.com is his web site on retail trends. Roger is US economic analyst for the Institute for Business Cycle Analysis and its US Consumer Demand Index, a monthly survey of American households’ buying intentions.

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Nonhumans in Koyaanisqatsi

Dr Selbert,

I enjoyed your post. I too thoroughly enjoyed Koyaanisqatsi, which I first came across on Wikipedia when researching the razing of the Pruit-Igoe housing projects. I agree with your interpretation of the film and how it is relevant today - perhaps even more so than it was when it first released. It's "prophetic" nature is perhaps a factor of it's esoteric visuals; however, the blending of nature, society and humanity, which is does with immense clarity and beauty, are issues that are being dealt with in today's social science debate with increasing intensity it would seem.

For what it's worth - I recently blogged myself about Koyaanisqatsi, in relation to Bruno Latour's writings about non-humans. Although I only briefly mention it in contrast to 2001: A Space Odyssey, I believe it to be a great film to understand the increasing inter-digitisation and blending of human and nonhuman factors. If you (or anyone for that matter) is interested, the post is here: http://olimould.com/2009/07/16/is-2001-a-space-odyssey-latours-favourite...