Thursday, November 10, 2011


Spent a good part of today screening and discussing aspects of “Koyaanisqatsi” with the two sections of my freshman seminar, “Music and the Natural World.” This unit of the course is dealing with the rise and influence of environmentalism and “Koyaanisqatsi,” a 1983 film without dialog and with music by Philip Glass, is the perfect foil for class discussion. In fact, it invites a good deal more intelligent conversation than a great many other environmentally inspired works – composers like John Luther Adams (who I love) have made careers of linking music and nature in beautiful, intelligent ways. But with its inherently conflicted intent – part radical engagement and part Buddhist detachment – “Koyaanisqatsi” is tense, mesmerizing and philosophically resonant.

With much of the footage dating from the 1970s, it is surprising how contemporary the movie still feels. We note the old look of Times Square, the leisure suits and the clunky-looking cars (why don’t they come in those colors anymore?) only tangentially. In the main, neither the images nor the music have lost any of their force. The film is no more dated than is “The Rite of Spring.”

On the surface is a glib comment on the destructive nature of technology and human society. But the film’s director, Godfrey Reggio, finds himself embracing the machines and the humans who built them in all their ugliness and majesty. A witty transition into the human traffic sequences pauses on the façade of the corporate headquarters of a company called Microdata: The next scenes show humans themselves as microdata, streaming over the planet along paths of their own creation, like termites. Earlier scenes of a Twinkie factory are answered later by a shot from a camera on the conveyor belt, from the perspective of one of the Twinkies, as we head into a section dominated by lightspeed images of people in machines: We, the creators, have become the products.

Glass’ music is rarely dramatic in the Romantic sense of the word, instead accompanying the breakneck scenes with a cool-headed transparency, even as the tempo ratchets to match the superhuman pace of the visuals. Exciting because the images are exciting -- because we find them exciting -- the music drapes and does not flatter or judge.

What Reggio sees, and what Glass’ music perfectly captures, is the serene indifference of the universe, the gorgeous, unmoved natural world that serves as a backdrop and contrast for our descent into technological madness, our exotic, ongoing, unthinking metamorphosis into some future, unrecognizable machine. The haggard, contorted and notably self-satisfied human faces, shown in painfully long portraits that break up the high-speed action, tell a story more complex than can be told in words – a story of grasping at love, of devotion to emotional amputation, of the rationalization of our living death, our imprisonment in society’s high-priced, hurtling, hot rod hearse.

Should be required viewing in any media class.

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