To celebrate the reopening of Babylon Mitte after Lockdown, a free showing of a film I haven’t seen in decades. The concept is simple – lots of images shown at different speeds. And the underlying message – nature is good, human beings less so – is even simpler. A Time Out review from way back when said “The title, by the way, is pilfered from the Hopi tongue and means ‘vacuous hippy’.”
Well, not quite. Koyaanisqatsi is a Hopi word, and at the end of the film we are given 5 different translations, all variations of the theme of “life hurtling out of control”. So following some languid scenes of beautiful landscapes, the film – and the backing music – start to speed up as new images appear of men despoiling the environment and losing control of their own sense of self.
This is most effective in the scenes of production lines or of someone driving along a motorway, as the film speeds up, making us lose our sense of focus. This is also where Philip Glass’s soundtrack is at its most effective – the same few notes as before, just played more quickly and more urgently, so that we have a feeling that everything’s running out of our grasp.
And yet the underlying message remains dissatisfyingly superficial. Yes it is terrible that people are being forced into working longer hours at increasing speeds, but the apparent solution isn’t to challenge the system which produces these pressures but – implicitly at least – to hark back to some time in the past when we lived in trees, and didn’t have to suffer those technological interruptions to our tranquility – like cinema, say.
Maybe this criticism is slightly unfair, and we should just sit back and marvel at the beautiful images on the screen – and many are truly beautiful. But treating the film as just a piece of glamour without meaning undermines its attempted message – the pyromaniac pictures of exploding bombs are at least as impressively attractive than all those boring old canyons. The big bad polluters are thus made to look somehow glamourous.
Not all the scenes are hectic. After the mad flurry of images piled up on top of each other, the camera – and the music – slow down, showing close-ups of the faces of individuals in a crowded street. It is somewhat beautiful – and simultaneously old-fashioned – not just because of the 1980s fashion but also because after a while, leisurely shots of faces starts to get a little, well, boring.
The strength of Koyaanisqatsi lies in it not being like most other films – and this must have been even more so on its release. Around the same time, one of Britain’s first IMAX cinemas was built in my home town of Bradford, and for a while we looked astounded at pictures of dolphins and space missions and stuff being projected onto a 150 foot wall. It didn’t take too long before we got a bit bored and returned to films with a few more car chases. And plot.
Here we have something similar. Great that they made the film. Great to watch every few decades, but you don’t really need to make any more (even though the film makers were to reunite with Philip Glass to make 2 more of pretty much the same). It is something to be admired rather than to be loved – which is more or less also my attitude to Glass’s music. Great that he can get so much done with so little, but in the end we can get frustrated by the lack of notes.
In a sense, Koyaanisqatsi is a good metaphor for the nascent environmental movement which was starting to emerge when the film was made. Almost by instinct, it has a great sense that capitalist society is developing in a way that is unsustainable. Yet while it shows us the problem very well, at the same time it shrugs its shoulders and wishes for something better. There are worse views to have, but ultimately, it can be intellectually disappointing.