Opinions In Turmoil, Opinions Out Of Balance, A Way Of Viewing That Calls For Another Way Of Thinking...
On a whim earlier today, I decided that I hadn't broken out "Koyaanisqatsi" in quite a while and had a hankerin' to see it again. I hadn't seen it at least since I finally broke down and bought a subwoofer. "Koyaanisqatsi", along with "Citizen Kane", was always one of my 'how come "Cannonball Run 2" is on DVD but this isn't' gripes. Both are now out in beautiful transfers, but I'm still waiting for "The Magnificent Ambersons". It's hard to mention "Koyaanisqatsi" in conversation without sounding like one of those insufferable, self-obsessed, film snobs who thinks anything made in colour, English or past 1950 is rubbish. But hey, it's the internet. And I'm writing a blog. In many ways it would be unethical to not sound like that, if just for a moment.
Make no bones about it, "Koyaanisqatsi" is a masterpiece, a genuine, bona fide work of art that stands, hyperbole aside, shoulder to shoulder with any painting from the old masters. Only a few people know it and even less love it. Oh sure, you'll never be short of pretentious beardy-weirdys who will talk all sorts of lavendar and lace about it whilst not actually saying anything of substance, trying to impress some skinny pale chick with thick-rimmed glasses, in between taking sips of their $8 cups of latte, but people who truly appreciate the film for what it is are few and far between. Most Americans, I've found, first experienced the film on PBS sometime in the 80s. Some were drunk, some were high, others were just burned out on 2am repeats of "Hill Street Blues" and got hooked out of sheer WTFyness. For those of you unfamiliar with the movie, let me give you a quick description. The movie opens just as Steven Segal and a swimwear model have had hot, steamy sex. The bodies of Sylvester and Frank Stallone (in a rare double cameo) lie on the floor in pools of their own blood, still clutching a calling card from a mysterious "Mr Crandalucci". Then the Japanese army come looking for Segal, but he beats them all to a pulp for being filthy commies, dashes off a quick one-liner ("I control the means of producing an asswhooping, you red bastards") and goes back to making sweet, sweet love to the swimwear model. Fade, credits.
OK, not quite. There's no dialogue in the movie, it's a series of images; some fast, some slow, some regular, some distorted, some unfathomable. All set to an arpeggiated Philip Glass soundtrack. (Be honest, is there any other kind?) Sounds pretty awesome so far, huh? What was that? What do you mean you want me to go back to describing the Steven Segal movie? Bloody phillistines! It's a terribly difficult movie to describe, especially if you don't want to make it sound like it's a pile of old pish. What you need to do is see it, and then come back.
Seen it? Good. Despite what director Godfrey Reggio says about individual interpritation, the tone of the movie is undeniably environmentalist. In the first five minutes alone, the jump cut between nature's beauty and a big, bad, mean piece of heavy machinery is enough to stamp a big "HUMANS ARE EARTH-RAPING SCUM" on the picture - and Philip Glass' soundtrack slipping into low, minor key notes certainly helps. Seriously. All that's missing is a guy in a top hat and cape, twiddling his wax moustache and going "mwaaa-ha-ha-haaa!" But I'm apparently weird. I find a significant amount of beauty in industry, so the footage of water pipes and electricity pylons against red rocks and blue skies is, I think, just as pleasing to the eye as the natrual rock formations were on their own. So drop into 'theatrical bad guy' tone all you like, Glass! I like tractors! =p thbtbthbthtbthbt!!
But so it begins, and so the tone is set. More images follow, buildings being pulled down, stock film of bombs going off, the Hoover Dam. And guess what? They all look awesome! Ron Fricke's slo-mo photography and his eye for colour along with Glass' unusual soundtrack MAKES it beautiful. I don't care that I'm being preached to about how destructive these so-called monstrosities are. I think they're gorgeous.
Well, OK. The mushroom cloud in the desert is a bit creepy. I'll give you that point.
But the highlight of the film for me, is once we reach the human sequences. Time lapse footage of a setting sun over millions of car lights and flickering office blocks, the high-speed bustle of (I assume) New York as cars and people alternate on the roads, industry hard at work making jeans, cars and twinkies. The people browse malls, they play Pac-Man, they eat fast food; all at high speed, looking for all the world like clothed ants. But what's being said here? That we are living our lives too fast and too repetitively? That humanity has worked itself into a rut? In many ways, it's like Romero's "Dawn Of The Dead", and I mean that above and beyond the mall connection. You can take it as a social commentary, or you can enjoy the ride. Personally, I enjoy the ride on both. I'm sure there's a message buried in there, but - and you film fans can scoff and roll your eyes as much as you like on this one - the pretty pictures please me. If I wanted a sermon, I'd go to a bloody church. The soundtrack takes a frantic turn at this stage, repeating and repeating and repeating, just as the people in the footage do. It's hypnotic, beautiful and sad all at the same time.
Something that nobody else has seemed to pick up on in reviews, which leads me to believe I'm either a visionary or a nutcase, is that the film is not only an artistic triumph, but an historically relevant bubble in time that gets more and more relevant as time goes on. Bear with me on this. What we have in "Koyaanisqatsi" is 80-odd minutes of American history. The orangey rock formations which have been unchanged (and will remain unchanged) for millions of years versus the sequences of technology and culture which are, just 20 years into the future, now almost completely irrelevant. It's the ultimate juxtaposition of the movie, and it may well be entirely unintentional. The silver-and-woodgrain TV sets, the sideburns, the orange decor and real live humans in industry now seem hilariously dated. Imagine what our kids and grandkids will think when they see that. "Daddy? What's Betamax?" "Daddy? What are those people doing in the car factories? Were they fixing the robots?". "Koyaanisqatsi", whether intentional or nor, serves as a perfect time capsule, a bubble of early 1980s American life that just doesn't exist anymore.
So what have we learned here today, other than that I'm a terrible writer, an even worse movie reviewer and that I'm going to receive a slew of hate mail from pseudo-intellectual environmentalists who will try to convince me that I've missed the point and that I'm an Earth-raping scumbag who is going to burn in hell because I "dug precious things from the land"? (Whatever. Go take a bath.) We've learned that art can move, that three people with different skills working together can create something truly astonishing and that people used to work in car factories. We've also learned that six notes repeated does, indeed, a soundtrack make.