Koyaanisqatsi offers what can only be described as a radical defamiliarization of humankind, treating civilization as a known-unknown and humanity as an alien artifact. Famously soundtracked by Phillip Glass’ gloriously minimalistic score, Godfrey Reggio’s first of three environmentalist impastos offers a symphonic image of the human experience, contradictions and curiosities existing in tenuous, frictive harmony. Transparently environment and even polemical, Reggio’s film is less a plea for salvaging the environment than a call for a new kind of perspective on existence: the camera turning, warping, acknowledging its mediation of nature’s might and igniting the potential of the natural world that is often taken as backdrop, a mere resource to be plundered rather than imaginative energy to be mined.
Generally, Reggio’s film operates as a kind of Benjaminian phantasmagoria, a portrait of modern life as a wandering world of ghosts and specters selling newness only to, in reality, repackage preexisting forms in more spectral variations. Koyaanisqatsi primarily emphasizes the lost and the adrift: a decayed, destroyed past looming in the distance (if only we look) what it sees as the increasingly phantasmic presence of modernity, ever-present but always so rushed and mutating that it never quite settles into corporeal, stabilized form. Images blur and bleed, weave and warp, becoming ghostly half-presences of themselves, as though appearing and becoming irrelevant so immediately that they cannot even settle or corporealize. The shots cannot even materialize; the material world – and modernity’s fetish for the tangible – paradoxically denatures itself. Every material image seems to fade into its negative mirror-image or partial half-presence, mimicking and mocking the herky-jerky hustle-and-bustle immediacy of modernity by envisioning a world where nothing is stagnant anymore, where the possibility of cohesiveness and completion is fallacious at the very level of the image.
The associational images practically speak for themselves in this regard. A sky of endless possibility creates increasingly fewer plausibilities; clouds that can float can also carry darkened, storm-brewing threats. A plane seems to phase into corporeal existence slowly, as though an unnatural figment of another universe. Modern humanity arrives in fire and brimstone, apocalyptic machines and volcanic factories centrifugally colliding in a miasma of simultaneous creation and destruction. But that isn’t even the heavy hitter here. More brutal than any diegetic explosion is a pulverizing and heart-stopping cut roughly thirty minutes in: the camera dances and pirouettes around the cars, panning outward until they morph into a multi-colored domino game, until the cars suddenly metastasize into a phalanx of tanks. It’s as if the camera is ready to play with them, toying with modernity, until the autocratic implications of that sense of play with the world rears its ugly, all-too-present head.
Slightly later, a molten sun seems to creep through the frame from behind city walls that metamorph into prison bars, nature’s most seismic force of unadulterated energy struggling against the everyday penitentiaries of modernity. From there, the city is a toxic green decadence running out of control, an urban spire as pregnant with the miasma of modernity as the same year’s notionally more dystopic Blade Runner. The back-half of the film formalizes the failure of rationality, the dawning realization of its fragility as images speed up past the point of sanity, beyond the possibility of recognizing them or signifying anything from them. The film engenders the chaos of modernity: at one point the overdriven camera, literally riding the rails of capitalism, is trapped on a roller-coaster to a particularly chrome hell.
When the film does lull out of the hyper-active throngs of modernity in full-on panic attack mode, passers-by demand to be reckoned with, curiously looking at the camera, as if testing the film’s empathy, or as if they themselves are mentally negotiating some of the communicative hurdles of technological modernity, a modernity which, of course, the film camera they stare at is inextricably a part of. Perhaps it’s that self-reflective quality – people looking at a camera that monitors them much as the modernity the film ostensibly chastises does – that truly opens up the film beyond its otherwise obvious metaphors and tendentious visual cues. Perhaps for that reason, many of the film’s most startling shots ring out ambiguously for me, less clearly committed to a clear “thesis” about modernity but, instead, playing with the images of modernity associatively to see what connections can be drawn. At one point, when clouds prowl into frame, they’re refracted through a skyscraper, the buildings’ Hobbesian perfection threatened immediately by this natural happening. The clouds, glimpsed by the camera as reflected off the skyscraper, seem to turn the building, a modern leviathan of corporate America, into a refractory canvas that reflects the weather anew, winkingly towered over by the word “Microdata” cheekily watching over the building.
Little moments of absurdist poetry abound in Reggio’s film, and they problematize his argument without overriding it. The aforementioned image, along with so many others, has a playful, mischievous quality that cuts through the “argument” that sometimes threatens to reduce the film to new age-y transcendentalism. Truthfully, Koyaanisqatsi doesn’t always benefit from Reggio’s convictions. Its sharpest moments actually reveal the contradictions embedded in his perspective, or the stray moments of poetry and jouissance that inspire, perhaps even in spite of the film’s obvious skepticism about the modern world. There’s obviously more than a hint of irony in the film’s rapidly metastasizing montages of modernity absolutely run amok, but in exposing the associative aspects of the modern world (what Marshall Berman so thoughtfully referred to as modernity’s “agitation and turbulence, psychic dizziness and drunkenness, expansion of experimental possibilities and destruction of moral boundaries and personal bonds, self-enlargement and self-derangement, phantoms in the street and in the soul”) the film visualizes the contested contours of modernity. Reggio’s film is too busy, at times, carefully annotating and underlining a vision of modernity as a hellscape, contrasted with an almost untouched past, the cosmic truth to modernity’s lie. But this idealized projection of a binary can’t but reveal a more complicated, contested battleground of partial, competing truths which don’t sit around ready to be fit into any restful, untroubled binary.
Thus, the most incisive bits of Koyaanisqatsi are playful devils, sudden inversions of meaning and perverse cinematic encryptions of modernity’s various dualities. The film’s images, although perhaps intended for monosyllabic, unquestioned purposes, seem to be questioning themselves. Smudging the demonic and the sacrosanct, the film refracts the light of modernity in so many directions that it appears both demented and rousing, blinding less because it distracts us from the moral certainty of an untouched nature but because it confounds our understanding of what to do with it, how to use it. And, in films like Koyaanisqatsi, revealing the possibility that a more playful, experimental working-through of modernity, working with and against but also through the sights and sounds of chaotic modern existence experimentally treated as fragments of possibility, may animate more than Reggio may even know, or want to admit.
Much as Reggio may wish to encode all his images painfully and carefully into his own master narrative, Koyaanisqatsi works best as a kind of non-rationalized piling up, accumulation in the mode that Francophone Caribbean theorist Edouard Glissant suggests allows sight and sounds, concepts and aesthetics, to intersect and dialogue without having master narratives or aspirations toward final truth overlaid upon them. To force them into an “argument” would sanctify and circumscribe the liberating potentiality to disrupt such narrative conclusions they hold within them. Glissant’s writing is among the great environmentalist visions of our time not only because it draws attention to the plight of the world’s marginalized populations and its marginalized earth but because it questions the linear narrative forms which strive for self-conscious mastery and underwrite that desecration of the earth. Too often, they also underwrite the counter-narratives which attempt to redress oppression without actually questioning the embedded logic of singularity and monolithic-ness underwriting that oppression.
Writing in hopes of a non-dominated, nonsingular orientation toward existence, what he calls comprehension in a way which emphasizes not mastered knowledge (comprehension as nailing the meaning of a concept, a person, an image) but comprehension as (what his translators have called) a kind of giving-on-and-with: words which don’t clarify certainty but which ask of us what they give to us by ultimately renewing questions the more they answer others. Central to Glissant’s notion is that many who resist the oppressive features of modernity still find themselves under its argumentative logic, its preference for clear divisions and simple demarcations, what Glissant calls the clean, linear “cartography” to which he offers a “tortured geography”. He means this thematically – as a way to understand history, the social, and politics – but also textually, as a way we ought to try and write and communicate. Thus, rather than writing books which mount an argument about how to create a “nation,” with all the attendant assumptions about one-ness that tend to track with nationhood, Glissant chooses to open up various fragments of wind and dirt to the unstable play of the world. He offers up poems that cast words adrift, associationally, into the ether, hoping that this non-directionality will open up new possibilities, raise new questions, and discover new connections that a linear mounting of a text toward a conclusive “argument” would merely dismiss or blinker itself to.
To understand Koyaanisqatsi as it usually is: a paean to the “natural,” resonates with this cartography, offering a comparatively simple binary which masks the implications of Reggio’s own camera complicit in the modernity it would decry. In this binarized frame, the film underwrites its hagiographic treatment of nature with a speciously romantic pinching together of “indigenous” and “natural”, and a consequent vision of the indigenous as a slower, almost proto-time, outside of time, way of life. This perspective dubiously (and in a quintessentially modern way) overwrites the history of time itself being constructed out of the rise of modernity rather than before it: there is no “untouched” beauty, no “pre-modern” culture that we can return to and model ourselves after in a hermetic sense. This cartographic perspective offers a clean, simple binary of a world, one which fixes supposedly pre-modern people in the past and assumes that modernity and “civilization” are simply a linear line forward form that past (albeit a negative line toward apocalypse in this film, rather than the positive line of civilizational achievement assumed throughout most of Western history). For Glissant, that linearity is essentially domineering, totally unconducive to the lived experience of life in both the Caribbean (his emphasis) and the world (by implication) where hybridization and crosscurrents of movement to and from various liminal places more aptly describe what a totalizing, cleanly-directed, linear story could not.
For this reason, we might open ourselves up to Koyaanisqatsi as a tortured geography, even when it may not intend itself to be one. It might be best to uncouple a film like Koyaanisqatsi from the imperial signposts of visual totalitarianism and fixed imagistic certainty. Try as he might to stage-manage his vision, and try as we might to fit the film into a prefigured argument, Koyaanisqatsi reveals the potency of the undirectable image, and it may do so with such vigor because that was so very far from its intent. At minimum, we might think about runaway modernity – the very system which the film suggests so thoroughly disorganizes the world – not only as a system which so palpably threatens our visual, sonic, and narrative identities but as a system that might unlock new ones. Rather than thinking that Koyaanisqatsi is bruise because it can no longer stabilize its own narrative, we might look to the ways in which this very destabilization unlatches the door to an alternate possibility of images undeterred by the need for causal relationships between them, a more provocative and perhaps life-affirming form of storytelling precisely because it is so vulnerable, so open-ended, so capable of being read and re-read with an eye for alterity and polyphony, and so thoroughly committed to exploring the ways in which the loose, fuzzy connections which sights and sounds share are as if not more important than the dogmatic, programmatic connections. The title of this film famously translates to “life out of balance.” But we need not assume that returning to a view of placidly “untouched” nature, standing mystically and unknowably beyond us, is anything other than a fallacious simulacrum of balance, one that is itself conditioned by modernity’s too-easy compulsion to binarize present and past, one good and the other its supposed opposite. We need not view all imbalances, or at least all disorientations, pejoratively.