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Expired · 21st July 2009
Ray Grigg
Koyaanisqatsi (ko-yaa-nis-qatsi) is the name of a 1983 film made by Francis Ford Coppola. The music is by Philip Glass, a modern composer who is known – like Coppola – for pushing the bounds of ordinary experience. The promotional literature suggests that the effect of the film may not be easily dismissed. Indeed, its gentle incantational and mesmerizing quality invites an experience that is haunting and memorable, reminiscent of the lines of a BC poet, Peter Trower, who wrote, "On a bleak, bleary bitch-of-a-day / I turn out the lights and sit down to my soul." So we come away from the film with an insightful but disquieting awareness of the impact of our modern civilization upon ourselves and the precious planet we call Earth.

The 1 hour 27 minute film is not a story but a visual and auditory essay, a series of images in various kinds of time-lapse photography that juxtapose serene natural landscapes – mostly the rhythmical movement of waves and clouds – against images of cities. No understandable narrative accompanies the film; even the long, slow chant of "koyaanisqatsi" are in Hopi, as is the recitation of prophesies that attempt to describe a distant future.

Well, prophesies are always problematic, primarily when the language and concepts of one culture attempt to explain a future that is not even remotely within its understanding. So such predictions usually resort to metaphor, with all the imprecision and vagueness that these implied comparisons bring. In the case of Coppola's film, however, he weaves the Hopi predictions into this visual and auditory essay so they feel more explicit – once you have read the translation. There are three:
1. "If we dig precious things from the ground, we will invite disaster."
2. "Near the Day of Purification, there will be cobwebs spun back and forth in the sky."
3. "A container of ashes may one day be thrown from the sky, which could burn the land and boil the oceans."

When we think of modern civilization's sustainable future, the predictions do have a certain resonant accuracy that might give us pause for consideration. The excavation of fossil fuels is the essential cause of global warming, with all the cataclysmic consequences that we have been reluctant to consider or confront. The "cobwebs" might be the condensation trails left by hundreds of thousands of daily high-altitude flights that are symbolic of the poisons contaminating our skies. As for the "container of ashes", the land is not yet burning nor are the seas boiling but, should we lose our restraint, we do have enough thermo-nuclear bombs on the planet to nicely fulfil this prophesy.

If, however, prophesy is either too incredible or just too uncomfortable for anyone's consideration, just return to the present, to where we are and what we are doing on our planet. This is really the subject of the film. For "koyaanisqatsi" is the Hopi word meaning:
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.

Near the beginning of the film is the slow-motion capture of a non-specific explosion, a curling and churning mass of red and orange flame with flying fragments that suggests the power of a volcanic eruption. But hints of straight lines and mechanical movement implies it is something made by humans. Then the film segues to other human creations, particularly cities and the flow of endless traffic and crowds. When this motion is sped up, our urban world resembles a huge, pulsating organism. The highways and freeways are its veins and arteries. The vehicles and people are its corpuscles, pushed by the rhythmical heartbeat of traffic lights and some hidden imperative that makes its whole mechanical body throb with an inhuman intelligence.

As for the people, they are mesmerized by the power and demands of their cities – inanimate cogs and cells in a creation that has become bigger than the inventor. Remember that Koyaanisqatsi is an essay, with its particular interpretation. But the long, slow images of numbed people doggedly trudging endless sidewalks or obediently entering and exiting elevators like automatons is unsettling. Other people just stand, as if overcome by the impersonal demands of cities, waiting for instructions about what to do next. A worn and defeated man who seems to have stopped seeing anything wears a jaunty hat that says something like "Harbour and City Scenic Tours". A pallid and wrinkled woman with a dazed and distant expression takes out a cigarette, unsuccessfully attempts to ignite it several times with a faulty lighter – not even the stimulation of drugs are an antidote – and then returns to her expressionless and motionless waiting.

Maybe, in Coppola's imagination, the cigarette is supposed to become a rocket – perhaps a huge Saturn V – and eventually we see the source of the earlier explosion. The fuel has ignited and its great motors are silently launching a huge machine that is a strange blend of promise and disaster. The telephoto camera follows its sensational flight, a projectile with a blaze of white-hot fire that arches ever higher into an endless and crystal blue sky. But the strength of magnification stops any sense of travel, so the rocket sits almost motionless in its ascent to the heavens. Then, with the same intensity of its launch, it explodes.

The explosion curls and churns in the perfect clarity of the idyllically blue sky. Parts fly. And out of the raging cloud, the camera focuses on one large piece of machinery – perhaps a portion of a rocket engine – that begins its slow and eternal plunge back to Earth. In the fixed eye of the camera, it falls and falls and falls and falls, tumbling and burning, twisting and smoking as the passing air repeatedly extinguishes and then ignites the purifying fire.