Saturday, May 8, 2010

Movies: Koyaanisqatsi

Our host here is a filmmaker. In addition to screening his own films, he runs a film club and screens other movies around town every few weeks. Last Friday night, he screened Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi, the early 1980s characterless, plot-less, and dialogue-less first in the series of three portentous -qatsi films, showing it on an outdoor screen set up in the clearing of a tropical garden. It was one of the last fine evenings of the summer here in New Zealand, and as the clouds moved across the screen in the opening scenes, they outpaced the actual clouds, which moved in the same direction, sympathetic to the tempo of the moment.

Tempo is the key to this film, as its set to an original score by Philip Glass. I had already long loved this music before seeing the film for the first time in 2003, when it was accompanied by the Philip Glass Ensemble, playing the score live to a screening of the film at Davies Symphony Hall. Perhaps for that reason, I found the music more compelling than the video, both years ago, and again just the other night. That said, there are moments in which the sound and visuals are in such concert that one does get a slightly additional thrill than if one were merely listening to the record at home.

Reggio’s video, which begins by scanning the beauty of the natural world, then catalogues the terrific achievements of the industrial world, from the hot dog factory to the mushroom cloud—and I use “terrific” in the etymological sense. The director is not subtle, and while there is certainly much that is aesthetically pleasing about hair-netted women working a processed cheese assembly line, particularly when set to the edifying strains of Glass’ choral arrangement, the ultimate sensation one takes home is less poignant than despairing. In writing about the second film of the series, I described feeling it as a sort of invitation to mass suicide. Koyaanisqatsi, too, though its hideous scenes are often beautiful, seems designed to inspire a loathing for humanity.

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