New Statesman (UK), September 2, 1983

Alan Brien

Koyaanisqatsi (U)

Faced with a film that has an unpronounceable title, no characters and no story; no dialogue and no commentary, where the conventional backgrounds – landscape and city streets, machines and crowds – have advanced to hog the screen, this critic, anyway, must admit a problem.

Godfrey Reggio’s album of moving pictures, choreographed to the music of Philip Glass, transmutes the realities of modern American into a succession of wonderful, weird metaphors that positively invite anyone with a typewriter to match them with words. What worries me is how to convey the excitement of this piece without making it seem like Pseud’s Corner on celluloid.

Koyaanisqatsi opens on Hopi Indian cave paintings, ramshackle, childish structures. A Danikenian, searching for clues to visiting spacemen, might interpret them as prophetic glimpses of industrial civilization – tumble-down sky-scrapers, abandoned Calor gas bottles, towers of tea-chests. Then we take to the air, racing across an empty moonscape of the Badlands; foothills like rotten teeth; mountains of rock-candy; sluggish, wormy rivers eating away the soft stone; deserts wind-sculpted into sprawling odalisques, geometrical and anthropoid, like Cubist nudes; cliffs nature has chiselled into steps, colonnades and temples; steaming plateaux where hot springs create misty wraiths. It reminds us of how alien and inhospitable much of the New World still remains and how the struggle to subdue this wilderness may account for much that seems callous and uncompromising in the American temperament.

There is a hint of the horror movie as we ride the speeded-up storms in the stratosphere, with clouds like boiling milk in which strange hearts pulse. Dawn and dusk whisk by in the flicker of the camera shutter and shadows wipe across the countryside below like gauzy curtains. We glimpse signs of humanity’s invasion in rainbow strips of fruit and vegetables, meeting our first people sun-bathing beside great spherical crucibles, like concrete testicles.

Now we begin to see sights Leonardo and Shakespeare never knew, mirages and illusions only the camera can capture. A jet plane wobbling and rippling in a heat haze. Glassy tombstone buildings reflecting horizons of themselves. Cars rocket along multilane highways, jerking and jumping at night with the headlight eyes of maddened fireflies. A Martian might monitor our cities like this and think them enormous pin-ball machines.

We go inside video games and TV sets. We become runaway supermarket trollies, turn into fast-food rissoles on factory conveyor belts. We roam ruined suburbs, mile-long avenues of decrepit new tenements like tenth-hand filing cabinets. We watch them demolished, falling like washing on a severed clothesline. There are times when it appears like a re-make of Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will – not the world Hitler would conquer, but a world that destroyed itself without him.

Not everything and everybody is injected with amphetamines. The crowds of scuttling insect shoppers and commuters fall into the Dead March, the funeral parade of homo sapiens, loping along to nowhere with appalling slowness, recalling Eliot on the masses crossing London Bridge – ‘I did not know death had undone so many’. Koyaanisqatsi is Hopi Indian for life out of balance’. It could also be a sub-title to ‘The Waste Land’.

We stop to watch faces, black and white, prosperous and poor, seeing on them, like Blake, marks of weakness, marks of woe, obliged in the stillness and sudden silence, the blank soundtrack hitting us like a thunder-clap, to invent their life-histories. Koyaanisqatsi never leaves us passive, but always invokes our comment. Glass’s music, ranging from Tibetan temple bells to what could be Italian hurdy-gurdies, ominous chanted choruses and gay little dance tunes, sometimes made me want to shout "Stop!’. But it remains always linked to the images, carrying us on even against our will.

The film embodies a built-in paradox, which occasionally nags at our attention. Its implicit indictment of technology out of control can only be brought to us by the same technology – a satellite view of our world in skeletal blueprint recorded by heat sensors; a moon the size of a floating island hiding behind an office block. But, like Marx in the Communist Manifesto, Reggio also pays tribute to the heroic endeavours of the bourgeois battle against nature – the huge pipelines, the enormous dams set against the giant earth-mover vanishing in its own exhaust smoke, the land swallowed by silos, cranes, oil drills and highways, the obligatory shot of the atom bomb erupting is massive cerebellum of gray matter.

In the end, the return to the Hopi Indian paintings, their legends of a world ended by dust and debris raining from the sky, seems almost a cop-out. But all along the way, it is a trip on a roller-coaster that makes you scream but hang on.

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