In Godfrey Reggio’s stunning 1982 film Koyaanisquaatsi (a Hopi word meaning ‘life out of balance’), breathtaking images of earth, air, fire and water are suddenly and violently disrupted by giant earth-moving equipment that tear at the landscape like Tyrannosaurus Rex. The Phillip Glass score frantically accelerates as nature increasingly succumbs to the human initiatives until it all comes crashing down, like Icarus flying too close to the sun despite his father’s warning about keeping a balance.
Those images flood back as I watch the development drama being played out all over the Columbia region. As a former city planner I know development must take place somewhere, preferably within the city limits where public utilities already exist. Furthermore, I don’t own the land, so I don’t control what actually takes place there. But the image of nature stripped bare and rearranged at will still troubles me very, very deeply…
In The Secular City (1965), theologian Harvey Cox argued that Christianity opposed the magical vision, in which nature is regarded as divine, and helped accelerate the secularization process. We Americans enthusiastically adopted this worldview as we marched across the continent on our “Errand into the Wilderness”. Nineteenth century Americans like Walt Whitman celebrated the axe as the bringer of Civilization. Today we mourn the destruction of the tropical rainforest, but carve up our own Edens and remake them in our image. I brush away a thin layer of dust from my desktop as I ponder the micro-cosmic drama taking place across the road. Is this the Hand of God or the Terminator?
It’s a timely question, because the Museum of Art and Archaeology will show Reggio’s modern masterpiece Koyaanisquatsi (the film’s title comes from a Hopi word roughly translated into English as “life out of balance”) on Friday, February 19 @ 7:00pm in Pickard Hall 106. The film is free and open to the public. A sensation when first released in arthouse cinemas during the early Eighties, this visually stunning documentary fundamentally challenges what French philosopher Jacques Ellul characterized as The Technological Society. Ellul, whose writings deeply influenced filmmaker Godfrey Reggio, wrote that “modern technology has become a total phenomenon for civilization, the defining force of a new social order in which efficiency is no longer an option but a necessity imposed on all human activity,” the very air we breathe. Without dialogue or characters, Koyaanisqatsi nevertheless re-presents a powerful and surprisingly ancient fable about our imbalanced technological society.
The film can be roughly divided into three sections. The first possesses a meditative tone, depicting scenes of the natural world worthy of a National Geographic television special. The film’s meditative atmosphere quickly disappears, however, once the hyperkinetic time-lapse photography of its middle section appears. Time-lapse photography, while now a standard cinematic technique, was daringly revolutionary in the early Eighties. Ordinary scenes accelerate into a virtual danse macabre of modern urban society. This frenetic section will totally envelop you in its rising action; for some it will prove deeply disturbing.
The final section of the film focuses the camera’s detached gaze upon The Technological Society’s dazed inhabitants. Its falling action provides a needed denouement to the frenetic middle portion but in a real sense represents the ‘point’ of the whole film, Ellul’s claim that:
“What is at issue here is evaluating the danger of what might happen to our humanity… and distinguishing between what we want to keep and what we are ready to lose, between what we can welcome as legitimate human development and what we should reject with our last ounce of strength as dehumanization.”
Reggio’s experimental film (his first) was shot on a shoestring budget with no script in the desert Southwest and New York City. It attracted strong support from Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas as well as the absolutely essential involvement of minimalist composer Philip Glass. Its pioneering cinematic techniques, integrating Ron Fricke’s time-lapse photography with Glass’s visceral New Age music, have entered the deep consciousness of popular culture, along with its haunting ecological message and imagery. Reggio also shot a sequel, Powaqqatsi (1988), and completed the trilogy with Naqoyqatsi (2002).
Koyaanisqatsi was selected by the Library of Congress in 2000 for preservation in the National Film Registry as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”. Koyaanisqatsi offers MAA Film Series followers a chance to explore for the first time or once again this important cultural phenomenon and to consider its timely message in conjunction with the current Museum exhibition “Connecting with Contemporary Sculpture” and the upcoming 6th Annual Life Sciences and Society Symposium here at the University of Missouri. As Jacques Ellul concluded, “I cannot think that choices of this kind are unimportant.” In truth, a great deal weighs in the balance…
Posted by W. Arthur Mehrhoff, Ph.D., Academic Coordinator, Museum of Art and Archaeology