This is the fourth installment in our “Psychotronic Cinema” series. (What is psychotronic cinema?)
More than anything else, I am reviewing Koyaanisqatsi because it delights me that it (and the second in the trilogy, Powaqqatsi) are in The Psychotronic Video Guide. It is such an odd addition, and it makes me wonder what about it is, in fact, “psychotronic.” The film is not generically of a piece with other psychotronic film (although, as I’ve mentioned before this term encompasses quite a breadth of genres), and its non-narrative documentary style hews it closer to the arthouse than to the late-night cable time slot.
Perhaps its music and rhythmic sense of movement lends itself to a certain, let’s say, chilled out demographic.
Michael Weldon (originator of the term “psychotronic”) writes that the style and score of Koyaanisqatsi was influential culturally, especially in television commercials. This could point us to a tension that presents as psychotronic. If psychotronia’s guiding principle is a disregard for distinctions in taste, then it stands to reason that an art-house-friendly film like Koyaanisqatsi should not be barred entry. And if there exists this meta-textual irony – a film ostensibly about the stark divides between the natural world and the post-industrial one inspiring consumerist advertising in the form of TV commercials – then I can certainly see a psychotronic impulse emanating from this cultural object.
Koyaanisqatsi is a difficult film for me to review. It is hard to capture in words the power the film wields, and it is nearly impossible to discuss in terms of what it depicts without resorting to a list of shots. Suffice it to say that the major talking points that have already been said of this film are basically true. Its Philip Glass score is one of the best the cinema has ever produced. Reggio and DP Ron Fricke take images that have been captured on film countless times before and render them new and occasionally even alien. Crashing waves have never looked so textured and sublime.
Through the first movement of the film, nature moves with an uncanny ferocity. Then, Reggio juxtaposes this with a stillness of industry and man-made infrastructure – static networks of metal and concrete that connect Earth’s resources to humankind. It does not take a genius to know where this is leading. Movement returns, similarly ferocious. The natural disruptive forces – which produce erosion and shifting terrain and a harmonious balance of things – are met with the destructive and intrusive forces of oil rigs, dynamite, dams. The latter forces wound the landscape for the sake of forcible extraction.
But it doesn’t end here. This equation is multi-sided and multi-sited. The human variable in this equation takes up the majority of the runtime. It has its own movement patterns. Its own environments and interlocutors which weave in and out, forming and reforming new networks and exchanges.
This was not the first nor was it the last film to make a statement regarding the relationship of nature, machine, and man (one lengthy section here is something of a spiritual sequel to Man with a Movie Camera). It is, though, one of the most spellbinding. At times, I found the film’s imagery to be far too blunt, like a billboard PSA towering overhead as you rattle along the highway (just another dot for Reggio’s camera to capture). Still, it is hard to deny the beauty and simplicity of Koyaanisqatsi.
Reggio claims the film is not inscribed with any direct meaning; instead, what value the audience extracts from it is their own. “Art has no intrinsic meaning … It stimulates the viewer to insert their own meaning, their own value,” he says. While I agree that the beauty of art is in its potential for interpretation, one must question Reggio’s ambivalence toward the meaning of Koyaanisqatsi. “The film’s role is to provoke,” he says, “to raise questions that only the audience can answer.”
In art, the question-holder has just as much a hand in meaning-making as the prospective answer-holders. One requires the other for the successful transmission of art through a medium. It’s undeniably bold for a filmmaker whose film ends with “Hopi prophecies” about burning lands and boiling oceans to say his film has no intrinsic meaning. Regardless, Koyaanisqatsi is something to behold, and a film one can enjoy with or without the quest for meaning. Because sometimes it’s relaxing to just watch people and cars zooming through space-time while you stay perfectly still.
Maybe I should go see what that chilled out demographic is up to…
Koyaanisqatsi is in the Psychotronic Video Guide on pages 319-320, and Powaqqatsi is on page 437. The third film in the Qatsi trilogy, Naqoyqatsi, post-dates the publication of the Guide.
As always, thanks for reading!
—Alex Brannan (Twitter, Letterboxd, Facebook)