Monday, February 22, 2010

Re-seen: Koyaanisqatsi

There is stuff on besides the Olympics. Tiring of watching the curling round-robin, I tuned into MGM-HD and, like the case of Wizards, caught a film I haven't seen in several decades: Godfrey Reggio's Koyaanisqatsi (1982). I was so blown away by this film when it first came out I saw a matinee screening, then came back a few hours later and saw it again in an evening screening. And unlike Wizards, seeing it afresh after so long didn't expose it as a flawed film. It's every bit as impressive as when it came out: It is history itself that has been unkind.

Koyaanisqatsi a work of the "pure cinema" genre, which I have long been a fan of. Pure cinema dispenses with actors, scripts, dialog, and traditional narrative, building meaning though the arrangement of images and the dialectical language of montage. Dziga Vertov (Man With a Movie Camera, 1929), Leni Reifenstahl (Triumph of the Will, 1934) and Stan Brakhage (Dog Star Man) are notable directors in this genre.

My favorite practitioner is Ron Fricke, who was Godfrey Reggio's cinematographer: He created Baraka (1992), shot all over the world in 65mm Todd-AO. This film has a deep, profoundly honest spiritual resonance that is hard to explain unless you see it, especially if you can see it projected in 70mm. You will not believe a film with no apparent narrative structure can leave you with a lump in your throat when the lights come up. (Baraka is available on Blu-Ray, and is the single best argument I can give you to get a Blu-Ray player.)

Koyaanisquatsi tells a story about humanity's relationship with technology and how it is unmooring us from the natural world, through arresting images (time-lapse footage of people on escalators or freeway traffic; urban blight), stock footage (bombs exploding, rockets launching), montage (cutting together sequences to explore and expand these ideas in a linear way) and Philip Glass' amazing soundtrack, a relentless, percussive work so singular Godfrey Reggio recut his film to match it.

Up to this point, I'm not saying anything that hasn't been written in the last 28 years. But from a contemporary vantage point Koyaanisqatsi has gained some new, unintended insights.

The film is a work of avowed social criticism. It is an 82-minute-long complaint about capitalism and technology, not that much different than the "message" in James Cameron's Avatar (2009). Judging by his age and biography, Godfrey Reggio was no doubt a Vietnam-war-era New Left activist, a hippie-age Boomer, and a bit of a commie.

He shot the film over five years, from 1977 to 1981: the last half of the film is mostly composed of sequences shot in cities, freeways and factories all over the United States. It was a time before computer automation had completely taken over, and people can be seen at work doing things: sorting mail, stuffing Twinkies, stacking ham. It shows factory floors full of Americans doing things they don't do anymore: assembling televisions and Chevy Camaros by hand, streaming out of Lockheed's Burbank facility by the thousands.

Most of this footage was shot undercranked, which speeds everything up to a frenetic pace. Reggio did this to make a point about how technology is making us inhuman. But from our 2010 vantage point, he captured the the pulse of a lively period of American history, with a thriving manufacturing sector and something like full employment. The sped-up stuff just makes the workers of the time seem more purposeful and energetic. In contrast, if he put his undercranked camera in one of Google's vast cubicle farms in Sunnyvale, I don't think it would make compelling viewing.

Reggio saves his best jabs for the end: in the final act, he shows the paper-littered floor of the New York Stock Exchange. He employs the film's only post-production effects here (the under- and over-cranking was done in camera). The footage is double-exposed, rendering the traders as shadowy, invisible capitalists, controlling everything. Okay, I'll admit that part works.

We then get to the famous last scene, an amazingly long piece of stock footage of an Atlas-Centaur rocket blowing up. As the soundtrack goes to organ music and creepy basso profundo chorus, the camera tracks a second-stage engine slowly falling back to earth. Reggio is making a point by showing us what the kids call a "fail" but all I could think about, watching this footage, is the fact that NASA is close to shutting down the Space Shuttle program, and is looking for ways to privatize future space launches. So Godfrey Reggio's metaphor has become yet another example of something America can't do anymore.

You can see Koyaanisqatsi in it's entirety at Hulu: The jarring, every-twelve-minutes commercial breaks add to it's non-narrativeness.

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