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Koyaanisqatsi Revisited
Alex Steffen, 7 May 05

I first saw Koyaanisqatsi fifteen years ago, in college. I hadn't seen it, or frankly, thought much about it, until recently, when I had a chance to see it again.

I was amazed by both the power of the original filmmaking -- it really is a beautiful film -- and the degree to which it feels somehow superfluous now: the imagery, which once felt so fresh, raw, even hallucinogenic, has become the stuff of advertisements, commonplace and unremarked.

It's rather like the Earth seen from space. Stewart Brand first got famous by popularizing the idea that a photo of the Earth seen from space would change people's understanding of ecology, human interconnectedness, the planet on which we live, everything. In 1966, he ran around San Francisco (the story goes) passing out buttons asking "Why haven't we seen a photograph of the whole earth?" The result (the story goes) is that NASA released photos astronauts had taken, and they became completely stunning and iconic images, transforming an entire generation's sense of planetary consciousness.

Now that image is so mundane and overused, it's boring. In a similar way, much of the visual vocabulary of Koyaanisqatsi has become hackneyed and pervasive. Oh, ho hum, another nuclear mushroom cloud.

Which is too bad, because what Godfrey Reggio was after was quite, quite interesting and important.

As he says in an interview on the DVD:

To me, the greatest event of our entire history has fundamentally gone unnoticed, and the event is the following: the transiting from old nature, or the natural environment, as our host of life and human habitation into a technological milieu, into mass-technology as the environment for life.
So, these films have never been about the effect of technology, of industry, on people, it's been that everyone -- politics, education, the financial structure, the nation state structure, language, culture, religion -- all of that exists within the host of technology. It's not that we use technology, it's that we live technology. [This is] a way of life which is not seen and is not questioned.

I wished for Koyaanisqatsi not to have any name at all. ... I though we shouldn't have a name, we should have an image. ... It's not for lack of love of the language that these films have no words, it's because, from my point view, our language is in a state of vast humiliation. It no longer describes the world in which we actually live.

I think this is almost undoubtedly so. But the presumption in Koyaanisqatsi, like so much environmentalist art, is that if we saw our world for what it really was, we would recoil in terror, and devote every fiber of our beings to returning to a state of balance with nature which supposedly existed before.

Increasingly, I think that very perspective is part of the reason we have a difficult time seeing our world for what it really is. Increasingly, I ask myself, what if we are building a world never before seen... and that's a good thing?

What if what we're seeing is not death rattle, but birth pangs? And what images, what sounds, what stories might help us glimpse the world being born?

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Comments

I am too young to have experienced the paradigm shift that the first whole-earth-photos had. I grew up with them.

However, I wonder what could be a picture (or story, or event, or person, or ...) that would create a similar paradigm-shift, one transforming these pictures of this world to an _understanding_ of this world and its current state.


Posted by: thomas on 7 May 05

I'd say one such recent image was the WTC Towers standing and smoking from gaping wounds. Unfortunately the paradigm shift engendered by this image has been towards a world of limited freedom, cultural schisms, military buildup, and general paranoia.


Posted by: Rod Edwards on 7 May 05

I saw Koyannisqatsi when it first came out, and recently bought the DVD of it and its sequel Powaqqatsi. There's a third film in the series which I won't be getting, because, as beautiful as they are visually, and as wonderful as Philip Glass's soundtrack music is, their premise turns out to be fundamentally wrong.

Life is naturally out of balance -- always has been, always will be. The Anasazi ancestors revered by the Hopi Indians that Reggio takes his titles from vanished because they were out of balance with their desertifying environment.

Worldchangers know a better slogan: "adapt or die". The world will not go to the most balanced, it will go to the most adaptable; the best parts of the worldchanging enterprise are aimed at making more people able to adapt more comprehensively and effectively, including by making their technology less destructive. Reggio's films are tragic not because they show lives out of balance, but because they show lives fixed at a previous point of pseudo-balance and failing to adapt to their changing worlds.


Posted by: Alton Naur on 7 May 05

"What if what we're seeing is not death rattle, but birth pangs? And what images, what sounds, what stories might help us glimpse the world being born?"

I don't want to live in a world lacking positive, forward progress, but I think there is some danger in relying on hopeful metaphors.

Once we get past the birth pangs, what do we do with a baby hopelessly retarded by mercury?

Bio-additive mercury, saturated in our environment, a direct result of our industrial action, from which no "adaption" is possible, short of avoiding large amounts of a formerly superb food - fish.

We can never make a better future without solving the problems of the present, and that includes even listening to environmentalists from time to time.


Posted by: Jon S. on 8 May 05

What if what we're seeing is not death rattle, but birth pangs? And what images, what sounds, what stories might help us glimpse the world being born?

This question fascinates me; it's something I'm hearing a lot of in the lefty Jewish world. That's thanks in part to the work of people like R. Zalman Schachter-Shalomi -- people who argue that, yes, we're in the midst of a major paradigm shift, but it doesn't have to mean the end of the world; it can mean the beginning of something remarkable, if we have the vision to grasp it and move it forward.

And as far as what stories might help us glimpse the world being born? I think we read them right here. That's part of how I see what y'all do. :-)


Posted by: Rachel on 8 May 05

The problem with the idea that we might be on the verge of something great is that it's just mere mystics who are positing it. All the other signs seem to point in the other direction. We have totally thrown out the idea of being in balance with our ecosystem, because we think we are ready to take over. One bird flew busting out of our insane, synthetic reductionist ecosystem could literally make the 2nd World War look like a dustup. Nearly every weapon we have for keeping ourselves alive has come from one source, and it is scheduled to disappear in the next 20-30 years in a series of mass extinctions.


Posted by: Rob Williams on 9 May 05



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