Koyaanisqatsi Program Notes

by Matthew Tchepikova-Treon (UMN, MIMSGG)

dir. Godfrey Reggio w/ music by Philip Glass

Centuries after scientific inquires into rising global temperatures began, yet still decades before the deleterious effects of human influence on the Earth’s climate became a stark reality for the general public and a dangerously divisive ‘issue’ in the political drama of U.S. self-governance, Koyaanisqatsi rendered the radical reshaping of natural ecologies as an audiovisual flow of terrifying grandeur. Composer Philip Glass once referred to Godfrey Reggio and Ron Fricke’s images in the film as “civilized violence.” Such a juxtaposition of terms perfectly describes Koyaanisqatsi’s stunningly aestheticized portrayal of destruction brought on by the annihilating powers of our industrial technologies, as well as mass-media’s relentless surge through post-industrial society. But while this poetically didactic film is critical of modern civilization, no doubt, it is not an idyllic return to some romanticized agrarian past. Moving from the mercantile to the mass-mediated, Koyaanisqatsi instead presents us with a cinematic treatise on our present techno-social order that celebrates technology—what Reggio calls “our shining beast”—while also assessing the damage done by its mechanical hand.

In form and content, image and sound, Koyaanisqatsi is total excess. The film feels like a monolith made of fractured parts transformed by their sheer accumulation. It blends the hyperkinetic movement of time-lapse film and the twitch of stop-motion photography with the placid beauty of extreme slow-motion. It moves from massive landscapes (both natural and human-made) to the immense detail of urban spaces filmed through super-telephoto lenses. All the while, the relentless music of Philip Glass gives shape and weight to the images, sometimes working as a propellant and at other times in counterpoint to the film’s sense of speed and movement.

Over the course of eighty-six minutes, natural landscapes become overdeveloped wastelands as machines rip up the Earth; technologically mediated cityscapes become spaces of repetitive production and consumption; the city-machine then watches itself through the spectacle of televisual flow once the productive forces of the mass market begin to produce the very desire to consume. In total, Koyaanisqatsi works to show how, in Guy Debord’s words, “social space is invaded by a continuous superimposition of geological layers of commodities.” And by the end, we experience, in radical form, the totalizing system of needs and wants that makes up capitalism’s solipsistic enterprise of producing not just goods and services but of subjectivity itself. As a film that produces what it signifies, Koyaanisqatsi shows us how we give ourselves to technologies and then go to them to find ourselves again—alienation and disalienation on a historical loop. As such, Koyaanisqatsi seems to ask: How does our infinite-seeming technological environment reproduce the alienating conditions of everyday life that technologies are so often hailed as having the potential to radically transform?

Within Koyaanisqatsi itself musicologist Robert Fink finds the sonic analogue to this sense of alienation. In his study of the relationship between minimalist music and the repetitive marketing techniques found everywhere in post-1950s mass-mediated consumer society, Fink describes a certain strand of minimalist music (distinct from drone and microtonal minimalism à la La Monte Young et al, and epitomized by the music of Philip Glass beginning in the 1970s) as “the avant-garde sound of absolute frequency.” This “pulse-pattern minimalism,” which drives Koyaanisqatsi, utilizes a relentless rhythmic pulse that underlies the repetition of short musical phrases that evolve into complex musical patterns. These patterns develop over large expanses of musical time, and the cumulative effect can even alter the listener’s perception of time. Nowhere is this effect more present than in Koyaanisqatsi’s climax, subtitled “The Grid”: a menacing twenty-one minute sequence built on a continuous two-chord progression over which we hear rapid arpeggios (played by a swarm of synths, strings, woodwinds, a pipe organ, and a chorus accompanying a solo soprano voice) increase in speed and intensity. In its entirety, “The Grid” imposes its ever-expanding and hyper-rationalized musical structure onto the cyclical time-lapse images of the city-machine’s workers, commuters, and assembly-line-producers-turned-assembly-line-consumers, and induces in the listener a sense of inescapability well before we even see the first images of a semiconductor that signals an imminent networked world in the coming years. The power of human activity is awe-inspiring.

So what do we make of Koyaanisqatsi in the nearly four decades that have elapsed since its initial release?

Last month (October 2018), a digital artist named Rico Monkeon developed Gifaanisqatsi. It is exactly what it sounds like. When activated, an algorithm randomly pulls from the Giphy online repository GIFs tagged with either “time-lapse” or “slow motion” and loops them in a random sequence over the sound of the original Koyaanisqatsi trailer, which includes two-minutes of Philip Glass’s score and a dramatic voiceover advertising “a remarkable film event, a breathtaking experience, a fusion of image and sound.” The result is an absurd mix of the parodic and the profound drawn from the detritus of the Internet. And the aesthetic effect is quite mesmerizing. Much like the images shot and assembled by Reggio and Fricke and the music of Glass, the looped GIFs create multiple senses of duration, with both internal and cumulative repetition. And as with Koyaanisqatsi, it also moves from the prophetic to the parodic and back again in stunning ways. It is easy to laugh at Gifaanisqatsi and move on. But one can just as easily laugh nervously while recognizing the absurdity of the networked technologies it utilizes—the same technologies that shape our perception of a world that modern civilization continues to violently shape at accelerating speeds. Seeing and hearing Koyaanisqatsi presents us with a sense of that speed.

November 29th, Trylon Cinema

The screening of Koyaanisqatsi is made possible with support from the University of Minnesota’s Cinema in the Cities and the Institute for Advanced Study, and is co-sponsored by the Environmental Humanities Initiative.