Sunday, July 27, 2008

Film in Perfect Balance: 'Koyaanisqatsi' at 25

The annals of film-centered writing are littered with remembrance articles. Published a certain number of years after a given film's release (ten, 25, and 50 appear to be the usual suspects among such anniversaries), these obligatory bloviations offer fond reminiscences of life in a bygone era, the film's initial box office run, and vapid catch phrases from the film's screenplay that have since permeated our popular culture to become a part of our lexicon. Invariably, these disingenuous recollections are written to boost the sales of said films' special DVD box sets.

In the case of Godfrey Reggio's Koyaanisqatsi, a welcome exception to this rule is at hand. Though the film does celebrate its 25th birthday this year, nowhere will a theatrical re-release or commemorative DVD be found. Leave it to the studios' anti-substance marketing machines to heap nostalgic recognition on undeserving films. If the spectrum of film criticism produces no other acknowledgment of Koyaanisqatsi this year, let this missive stand as a salute to one of the most powerful statements on humanity's relationship to planet Earth every captured on celluloid.

As a fair disclosure to my readers, it should here be noted that detailed descriptions of several scenes will follow. Though this disclaimer smacks of a spoiler warning, such words are not appropriate in this case. Koyaanisqatsi is a film of such depth and beauty that even if the most astute film scholar in the world were to intricately dissect its every frame and its every second of sound, the analysis would not come close to spoiling anyone's first viewing. Ten viewings will yield ten separate interpretations, and at least as many new discoveries. In the truest Confucian sense, this picture is worth ten thousand words.

The film opens with a series of nondescript shapes that gradually form the film's title (which roughly translates from Hopi to English as "life out of balance") in a vivid red font. This unveiling, which closely resembles a sunrise, is accompanied by the solemn score of Philip Glass. Soon the image changes to a zoom-out shot of an Indian pictograph depicting a group of dark figures (presumably humans) standing around a taller, lighter-colored figure wearing a crown. A lingering dissolve brings us to a slow-motion close-up of a spacecraft lifting off from its launching pad.

This stark contrast is but the first of many dualities that figure heavily throughout the film. Interior shots cut to exterior shots, the photography intercuts between dance-like slow-motion and frenetic time-lapse, day contrasts with night, and the music features melodies built on ascending and descending arpeggios that alternate between major and minor keys. In this universe, everything moves in cycles, but nothing is above decay.

It is at this moment that the film deviates from every other feature documentary made before it. Usually, the audience hears a familiar voice like Morgan Freeman's delivering the introductory narration after a few minutes. Koyaanisqatsi eschews narration completely, an audacious choice considering the film runs nearly 90 minutes. In fact, the film features no spoken dialogue whatsoever. In trusting the camera and Glass' music to narrate the action, Reggio skillfully weaves the channels of image and sound together to convey more than any spoken voice ever could.

In a sequence that puts any footage ever aired on The Discovery Channel to shame, the next several minutes treat us to a collage of breathtaking natural environments. Pristine canyon landscapes, crashing ocean waves, bubbling volcanos, and spectacular wind-blown clouds roll before us in a majestic presentation of the four elements that make our world as untouched by humans. Like Gustav Mahler's Third Symphony, the music assumes a quality so reverent, it practically jumps out of the soundtrack and proclaims, "Behold!"

Suddenly, the music changes to a dark, ominous tone. A monstrous mining truck slowly approaches the camera before pulling to a stop. Then, a construction worker (the first human seen in the film) enters the frame from the right and approaches the truck. Without warning, a thick cloud of black dust billows upward before engulfing the vehicle completely. Interpreted as a linear timeline, the simple scene portrays the destructive irony of man moving backward instead of forward when chasing technological advancements, only to be swallowed whole by the very machines designed to make life easier.

What follows is a mobile collage that places organisms and manmade structures in the frame simultaneously. Power lines divide a desert landscape in half. Beachgoers bask in the sun with a menacing power plant encroaching in the background. An atomic bomb's mushroom cloud dwarfs a cactus in the foreground. A low-angle shot of a skyscraper reflects passing clouds in its grid-like windows.

The next two-and-a-half minutes are responsible for one of the most stunning unedited shots ever captured in a feature-length film. On an airport runway, a commercial aircraft slowly taxis toward the camera. The heat rising from the asphalt makes the apparition seem otherworldly. Just when the plane comes clearly into view, it makes a sharp right turn out of the frame and is immediately replaced by a second aircraft advancing toward us. The front of the 747 resembles a blank face that stares at us dispassionately, a far cry from the warmth of the human face that Ingmar Bergman once called "the great gift of cinematography".

A cutaway brings our attention to an overhead shot of a busy freeway. For the first time in the film, the frame is completely occupied by manmade structures. The angle and position of the camera splits both directions of traffic evenly down the middle in a composition similar to that of the desert power lines seen earlier in the film. A helicopter shot provides a broader view, with the lanes resembling veins, cars resembling cells, and their drivers appearing similar to mitochondriae. Collectively, these images form a smoothly efficient network serving public functions like systems in a human body.

When rush hour gridlock brings traffic to a near standstill, the scene quickly match cuts to a helicopter shot of cars parked in perfect rows on a lot. The precision of their arrangement merits comparison to a military officer's ribbon racks. One wonders what image could possibly follow it. A junkyard? A demolition derby? The scene of a fatal collision, perhaps? No sooner do these questions cross the mind than does the shot cut to stock footage of Soviet tanks lined up in similar rows. The jarring effect of the edit strikes the viewer with the awe of a skyward-thrown bone changing to an orbiting space satellite. After an incredible shot of an in-flight B-1 Lancer aircraft taken with a cleverly mounted camera, the pace quickens with a montage of explosions that brings back memories of Dr. Strangelove's memorable finale.

When the last detonation occurs, the scene changes to a calm view of New York City at dawn. Shadows of clouds glide across the skyline as the music transitions to a lament played on a cello. Soon we see the dilapidated buildings of the failed Pruitt-Igoe federal housing project in St. Louis. Shattered windows, abandoned playgrounds, broken streetlights, torn curtains whipping in the wind like surrender flags, and unkempt ghetto residents weave an urban tapestry of despair. Several angles of the project's inevitable demolition reveal one of the most destructive cycles of modern life: build, destroy, repeat.

A time-lapse shot of clouds passing overhead transports us to another metropolis. At busy intersections, hordes of stressed pedestrians cross city streets surrounded by billboards advertising fast food, cigarettes, and liquor. How fitting it is to capture an exhausted populace rendered sluggish by the breakneck pace of life in slow-motion. Here we are treated to one of the film's most telling compositions in the form of a neon sign perched high above a city street bearing the words "Grand Illusion".

Day changes to night and the pace quickens. Freeway traffic rushes by at triple-quick speed. Commuters at Grand Central Station flock and scatter in structured chaos. City traffic darts between stoplights in short bursts that serve as an uncomfortably true metaphor for the lockstep daily routines into which we fall. The supersonic rhythm the film assumes during this sequence is enough to double the heart rate.

The alacritous procession continues with images of assembly line workers in factories. Processed foods, clothing, and automobiles race through various stages of production, sometimes with the camera keenly placed on the conveyor belt. Intercut with these preparations are snippets of supermarket shoppers in checkout lines and mall shoppers riding escalators. Some angles on the latter appear virtually identical to hot dogs emerging from production line machinery. This oscillation between the manufacturer and the consumer denotes their codependence, and underscores the ever-shortening replacement cycle by which our economy operates.

Advertising eventually finds (or, more appropriately, forces) its way into the bedlam. A close-up of a television set projects broadcasts that fly past us too quickly to be understood, but just slow enough to be perceived. An ad for Rolaids follows a young Lou Dobbs, Ted Koppel reporting live on ABC precedes a Tylenol commercial, and (in the most audacious pairing) a sermon delivered by Jerry Falwell airs just before the familiar logo for Ban roll-on deodorant graces the screen. It is an exposure of the manipulative nature of visual media that is as revealing as the writings of Vance Packard. The message is clear: don't think, just buy.

Even leisure time goes unspared from the rapid-fire onslaught. A cramped family eats dinner amid the rat race at a mall. A succession of children stand transfixed at video game cabinets, pushing buttons as feverishly as lab rats awaiting food pellets. Disco patrons maneuver uneasily on illuminated dance floors. A culture that promotes stress relief by way of additional stimulation can only end in ruin.

With a series of lingering dissolves between extreme close-ups of microchips, the film begins its gradual, haunting conclusion. The microscopic views of integrated circuits suggest the bird's eye view of city blocks. Not surprisingly, these shots are bookended with satellite views of the latter. As technology advances and hardware engineers devise ways to make large amounts of data travel faster by packing circuits closer together, the life of the machine shortens. Similarly, as the population grows and architects design buildings that hold more residents, property values and productivity may increase -- but then again, so does stress.

The long-term effects of these conditions are then laid bare in a series of slow-motion segments. The hand of an infirm woman reaches for the comforting grasp of a nurse. A homeless man wanders aimlessly among the aftermath of the New York City blackout. Burnt out pedestrians lumber down crowded streets practically unaware of one another. Finally, multiple overlays of the frenzied New York Stock Exchange meld in a disoriented blur. One wonders whether if it is methodical or accidental that a self-centered society like ours routinely produces people who lose their sense of identity.

The film ends with the spectacular liftoff of an unmanned Atlas rocket used in the Mercury space program. Though the sequence consists entirely of footage from NASA archives, the finished product shines with the polish of a big budget feature. Unlike the thrilling launch scenes in The Right Stuff and Apollo 13, however, this ascent is accompanied by a gripping sense of doom. From the moment the spacecraft clears the tower, the audience is hit with the dreaded notion that the flight is going to end badly.

In an eerie foreshadowing of the Challenger disaster, the rocket suddenly explodes while still in the troposphere. After probing the ferocious blast, the camera locates a flaming piece of debris and follows it for the next two minutes. Caught in an irreversible downward spiral, the displaced jet fragment spins toward an inevitable crash as a single organ plays an elegiac melody. What began as a promising advent has ended in ruinous destruction. With each turn, the jet's flames wane. Like a dying animal, the fragment seems determined to prolong its life as much as possible. It is arguably the most shattering metaphor for the decline of the human species ever recorded on film.

Instead of showing the jet fragment landing on Earth's surface with a violent crash, Reggio cuts to a closer, slow-motion angle of the image while it is still in the air. The final shot of the film perfectly bookends the beginning with a view of an ancient pictograph. This rendering is starkly different than the depiction seen earlier as this expression features no humanlike figures. Without a single subtitle to translate its meaning, the drawing conveys the universality of art in that the viewer does not need to speak a certain language or belong to a given religion in order to understand its message or be moved by its power.

The relevance of Koyaanisqatsi in today's world speaks to the myriad struggles we face; some old, some new, some seemingly unfixable. While our standard of living has largely improved since the film was first released in 1983, our economy has slipped into disrepair with the food crisis, mortgage meltdown, and astronomical gas prices making headlines. In this and other regards, evidence of conditions improving and worsening can be found in equal proportions. Without question, however, the one discussion the film will raise more than any other at this point in our history is that relating to the environment. Outside of the Iraq War, global warming has been the most (pardon the pun) hotly debated issue in the current presidential election. A viewing of the film will trigger lively debates among voters of different minds on alternative energy.

The film's assets are multitudinous, especially with regard to technical excellence. For these efforts, kudos of the highest order must go to cinematographer and editor Ron Fricke. His balancing of stock footage with material he shot himself blends together with seamless perfection. Those unfamiliar with the film's background would think he filmed the whole project himself.

The other artisan responsible for giving the film its power is Philip Glass. Like the greatest film composers, Glass has the gift of molding music to fit the action on screen as a painter chooses colors and brushstrokes. His melodies awaken images that would appear frightfully dull without his contributions.

Interestingly enough, Reggio originally planned to structure the film around a sequence of images on which he had decided with Fricke. After hearing an early recording of the score, however, Reggio completely recut the movie to fit the rhythm of the music. Prior to that stage, Glass showed reluctance when first approached by Reggio to compose the score, remarking that he "didn't do movie music". After several meetings between the two, Glass finally gave in. Thank the forces of good that the director was so persistent.

The film's greatest strength lies in the approach taken by the director. Though the temptation to preach when directing a documentary can be irresistible, Reggio keeps the impulse in check. He caters to no agenda and he panders to no group. Instead, he simply presents the sounds and images as a philosopher presents an argument and lets the audience draw their own conclusions. Adhering to this work ethic, Godfrey Reggio has achieved the goal that most directors never come close to reaching: he has made a film that speaks to the whole world.

Shortly after he saw 2001: A Space Odyssey for the first time, John Lennon likened his viewing to a religious experience, remarking that the film should be shown every day in a temple. Those seeking an audiovisual marvel unlike anything they have ever consumed before will feel precisely the same way. Koyaanisqatsi is a title that not only belongs in every household, but deserves inclusion as a bequest in every will. When the next generation inherits this cinematic marvel, its unfaltering resonance will affirm the film's reputation as a work that stands the test of time.


souldesqueeze said...

This is an exceptionally great review. You revealed with the utmost eloquence the essence of this film's timeless appeal. Bravo.

Harry Roger Williams III said...

I hope you still view this blog and will see this expression of gratitude from a fellow admirer. I loved your "...rush hour gridlock... cars parked in perfect rows... officer's ribbon racks... Soviet tanks... The jarring effect of the edit strikes the viewer with the awe of a skyward-thrown bone changing to an orbiting space satellite." Wow! I have purchased two CDs of the soundtrack over the years, and more recently the DVD. I recently retired after 41 years in the library world (where we, like the philosophers you mention, also believe in providing the "evidence" and letting people draw their own conclusions) and am starting a second career as a narrator. (I volunteer as emcee and ad producer for the Brockton Symphony Orchestra in Massachusetts.) I tell you this only as context for my agreement with your assessment that in Koyaanisqatsi, any narration would weaken the power of Glass' music and the images in the film. Thank you for this wonderful review. Be well and prosper!