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Saturday, December 4, 2021

The best environmentalist movie you’ve never heard of

“Koyaanisqatsi” (1982) stands the test of time

The release of “An Inconvenient Truth” in 2006 helped initiate a string of powerful new documentaries about the existential threat of climate change and the countless sustainability crises we face. I’m thinking of films like “Chasing Ice,” “Chasing Coral,” Leonardo DiCaprio’s “Ice on Fire,” “Before the Flood” and, of course, Al Gore’s follow-up, “An Inconvenient Sequel.”

All of these documentaries are equal parts fascinating and frightening. They each have strong political messages and are not shy about making explicit calls for action. There’s nothing wrong with taking a strong stance on the issue of climate change, which calls upon our need to divest from fossil fuels and implement radical changes to our economy as a whole. Some nature documentaries have controversially failed to take a strong enough stance on climate change. As good as these more overtly political nature documentaries are, they often become overly political. While supremely informative, they are often just preaching to the choir, failing to reach an audience beyond those who are already convinced of climate change’s urgency.

This is why the most compelling environmental film is not one of the more recent films that blaringly sounds the alarm but Godfrey Reggio’s 1982 experimental film, “Koyaanisqatsi.” The film is comprised of nothing but time lapse and slow motion photography of nature and modern excess, complemented by the minimalist score of Philip Glass. No narration, no talking, no interviews. Just stunning imagery and mesmerizing music. Yet the film urgently conveys the sheer scale of our ruthless exploitation and vandalism of the Earth, critiquing our failure to live in balance with nature. It’s the story of man’s domination and destruction of his surroundings, told with stark, simplistic beauty and the clarity of the wordiest documentaries out there. 

The lasting impact and relevance of “Koyaanisqatsi” is not only a testament to its prescience, but a necessary reminder of our collective failure to act. It would be difficult to convince most people that the movie is older than a decade, much less three. Perhaps a viewing or twelve of this beautifully subtle film, which quite refreshingly lacks the partisan filter of today’s media, could help instill in people a stronger sense of purpose to reevaluate our abusive relationship with the planet.

It’s not just the beauty of the images that makes the film so engrossing but also the progression and juxtaposition of images, composition of the shots and shifting moods of Glass’s music. In the first section of the film, the music bubbles and simmers softly, like raw ingredients ready to be transformed, while the viewer is hypnotized by gorgeous images of pristine nature — sand blown by desert winds, endless ocean waves, millenia of erosion in canyons, layers upon layers of clouds. This makes it even more jarring and disturbing when the sinister, industrial sound of the orchestra’s low strings usher in imagery of irrigated agriculture, explosions, oil refineries and big ass trucks spewing fumes, massive mines, power lines and pipelines. The camera flies above Lake Powell, which infamously flooded some of the most beautiful valleys in the world in order to harness the immense electricity-generating capacity of the Colorado River at the Glen Canyon Dam. Next is my favorite shot of the film: the camera slowly pans from some happy beachgoers to reveal the massive San Onofre Nuclear Power Plant looming over them in the background. Chant-like singing gives the image divine significance, as if the nuclear reactors are demanding worship.

We then get faster transitions to mark our rapid societal and technological development. Cars are built. Cars wind through highways and interchanges in LA. Cars are stored in lots by the thousands as unused derelicts. Tanks are built by the thousands. Commercial planes. Fighter jets. Fighter jets ready for battle on a massive aircraft carrier that ironically says “E=mc2” on the runway. Nukes explode. We innovate so much but don’t hesitate to destroy even our own creations.

A crucial aspect of the film links a lack of environmental sustainability with war, poverty, the mundanity of modern life and general unhappiness. A fascinating sequence begins by showing glistening American cities from afar, with the glass of corporate skyscrapers reflecting the clouds, as if to protect the corrupt people inside from the consequences of their sins. The camera then zooms into the cities to reveal extreme urban decay, with people showering in the streets. We see the planned demolition of the massive Pruit Igoe housing project in St. Louis, which was created to house urban workers but fell into extreme disrepair and squalor. This is accompanied by destruction of countless more buildings and bridges. Reggio then presents images of ordinary people as they endure the drudgery and tedium of modern life. A moving sequence composed solely of people’s faces on the street reveals a pervasive melancholy.

At the end, after the final images of an exploding rocket fade away, Reggio finally gives a few small textual clues as to what viewers should make of his idiosyncratic film. Leaving this until the end is an important choice because it allows the viewer to absorb the images and not try to superimpose too much meaning on the film. Reggio provides translations of the three Hopi prophecies sung by the chorus in the score, but he first provides five definitions of “koyaanisqatsi,” the titular Hopi word: “1. crazy life, 2. life in turmoil, 3. life out of balance, 4. life disintegrating, 5. a state of life that calls for another way of living.” 

I am most intrigued by the final definition, which has a certain optimism that Forbes Magazine says implies a “good faith in what humanity is able to accomplish” — an important message for the climate change era.

Roger Ebert commented on the film’s interesting contradictions, with civilization simultaneously going “out of control” while making incredible innovations. I can’t help but see similarities with “2001: A Space Odyssey,” an even older but equally thought-provoking film, which can be interpreted as either a celebration of, or warning about, the power of technology. Reggio hinted at this in a 2002 interview about “Koyaanisqatsi.”

“For some people, it’s an environmental film,” Reggio said. “For some, it’s an ode to technology. For some people, it’s a piece of shit. Or it moves people deeply. It depends on who you ask. It is the journey that is the objective.”

Written by: Benjamin Porter— bbporter@ucdavis.edu 

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by individual columnists belong to the columnists alone and do not necessarily indicate the views and opinions held by The California Aggie.

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