Koyaanisqatsi

and the "Qatsi" Trilogy

Koyaanisqatsi, Life out of Balance, MGM, 1983;
Powaqqatsi, Life in Transformation, MGM, 1988;
Naqoyqatsi, Life as War, Miramax, 2002

When you know as well as me, you'd rather see me paralyzed
Why don't you just come out once and scream it.

Bob Dylan, "Positively 4th Street," 1965

The works that are being peddled about nowadays as the philosophy of National Socialism but have nothing whatever to do with the inner truth and greatness of this movement (namely the encounter between global technology and modern man) -- have all been written by men fishing in the troubled waters of "values" and "totalities."

Martin Heidegger, An Introduction to Metaphysics, p. 166, Anchor Books, 1961. Boldface added.

Koyaanisqatsi is a unique and classic movie of great beauty and power, conceived and directed by Godfrey Reggio and with memorable music by Philip Glass. It has no characters, dialogue, or story. It consists of almost nothing but images and music. The only spoken words are the title and a choral treatment of the Hopi "prophecies" that are given in a title at the end. Despite this beauty, the message of the movie, unfortunately, is absurd and even offensive.

The title of Koyaanisqatsi as well of the following members of the trilogy is said to be from the Hopi language. Koyaanisqatsi itself is supposed to mean "life out of balance," "crazy life," or a life that should be lived differently. In the movies, however, we never see the Hopi, hear anything about them, or even see the Mesas that are their home. Instead, Reggio uses their language for his own purposes, for nothing but symbolism. He wants to use a language, perhaps any language, that is unrelated to modern civilization, just as he himself is alienated from modern civilization. The same holds true for the Hopi "prophecies" that are featured at the end of Koyaanisqatsi. This is the only text, apart from the credits, in any of the movies, except for definitions of the titles of each. I am curious about the provenance of the "prophecies" since the Hopi are notoriously private and secretive about their religion. A fair amount of their mythology is public knowledge, but there is no Hopi equivalent of the Sibylline Books, whose message would be officially endorsed by the Hopi Nation. Some statements circulated as Hopi Prophecies have origins so obscure that they may have been manufactured by New Age enthusiasts. It would have given me more confidence in the authenticity of the Koyaanisqatsi "prophecies" if we were given a citation or reference.

What is going on with the movies we can explore by considering the first of the "prophecies," that "If we dig precious things from the land, we will invite disaster." This proposition is illustrated and reinforced at the beginning of the second movie, Powaqqatsi. There we see a large open-pit gold mine at Serra Pelada in Brazil, with what looks like hundreds of workers, covered in mud, hauling bags of ore up the steep sides of the pit. We do not know exactly what we are looking at from the movie, of course, which tells us nothing; but Reggio and Glass talk about the scene in the interviews that accompany the DVD of the movie. Part of what we see is one worker being carried out of the pit across the shoulders of two others. Reggio remarks that the sight reminded him of the Pietà, with the man, injured by a falling rock, draped across the others like Jesus in the lap of Mary. This tells us a lot about Reggio's view of the business, that the workers are being crucified by modern life and modern technology.

Unfortunately, if Reggio means to endorse the Hopi warning and to condemn modern technology, he is rather out of his reckoning. We are not seeing modern technology. We are seeing such a scene as might have been evident at the building of the pyramids. The great earth movers of modern open pit mining (with a few men in air-conditioned cabs) are nowhere in sight. Also, the mining of gold is something that all ancient civilizations practiced. If we must heed the prophecy and not "dig precious things from the land," then we must decide that this original sin of humanity began with the Egyptians and Sumerians, ancient India, China, and Scythia, and the New World civilizations of the Maya, Aztecs, Incas, and others, who all mined and worked gold and silver. We even know from Egyptian accounts that the mining was a terrible business, expensive in suffering and lives. The Hopi, to be sure, did no such mining, but then they possessed a relatively backward Neolithic culture. If Reggio valorizes this over all other civilization since Sumer and Egypt, his point of view is radically alienated, not just from modern technology, but from most human achievement since the inception of recorded history. Indeed, I believe that is his attitude.

The more I see of Godfrey Reggio on the special features that accompany the DVDs of his movies, the more disturbing and even repellent I find him. It did not surprise me to find that he had long served (for 14 years) as a member of the Roman Catholic "Christian Brothers" and had been engaged in various social and political activist programs in New Mexico during and after his membership. It is the sort of mix in which we otherwise find the popular Marxist "Liberation Theology" of Latin American Catholicism -- condemned by Pope John Paul II, who knew Marxism too well first hand. Reggio bears the stigmata of such a background, even as he voices the occasional leftist slogan, like refering to "the social injustice of the market." As such, he has preserved the holier-than-thou attitude, paternalism, and moralism that characterize the worst of Catholicism, together with the characteristic self-righteousness and ignorant moral indignation of Leftist politics. It is an ugly mixture.

That his movies are almost entirely images and music serves at least two important purposes in promoting Reggio's agenda. He does not need to explicitly voice his own opinions, which would expose their extreme, shocking, and absurd nature. This follows a long tradition of leftist dissimulation, just as today American Democrats deny (in public) the obvious socialism of their political program. Also, the movies obviously convey no opinions from the people who are shown in them. Denying people their "voice" ordinarily would be a grave faux pas in trendy academic criticism; but then it is unlikely that most people featured in the Qatsi movies would like to return to (or remain in) a pre-industrial way of life. Better not to hear from them at all than to find that the masses passing through Grand Central Station actually rather enjoy their lives and may even find the bustle of Manhattan exciting.

In Koyaanisqatsi the silence of people who are probably happy not to be down on the farm is a little silly, but in the second movie, Powaqqatsi, it becomes offensive:  about half of the whole movie is images of life and manual labor in the agricultural and other occupations of pre-industrial societies. In the interview included with the DVD of Powaqqatsi, Reggio mentions that he was accused by critics of romanticizing poverty. He denies he was doing this. He simply wants to endorse ways of life that are different from modern technological culture. Unfortunately, it amounts to the same thing. Without modern technological culture, as even Karl Marx understood well, the inevitable condition of most of humanity will be poverty. And if Reggio hates technology as it has developed all the way from the Egyptians, the result would be poverty indeed.

The irony of Reggio's project, of course, is that he, and his globe trotting and wealthy collaborators (including, not just Philip Glass, but Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas, who have contributed to the projects), use all the devices of modern technology in order to make beautiful movies to tell us how terrible modern technology is. He is not a hypocrite in this, since he admits that he is using "fire to fight fire" and so is turning the vile and wicked allure of technology against itself. If he is able to participate in bringing down the modern world in ruins, perhaps he will be content to engage in back-breaking subsistence agriculture, like many of the people in Powaqqatsi -- or he may expect that the peasants will maintain him in the style to which he has become accustomed, like the other wise and good of Ancient and Mediaeval civilizations. But if indeed "the medium is the message," Reggio's project is bound to subvert its own purpose. Pretty pictures and music, with obscure titles and "prophecies," will wash right over the MTV generation, perhaps eliciting the occasional "Cool," after which viewers surf off to a different diversion. Reggio will be left sputtering and fuming in frustration.

As often happens in documentaries, but is certain in ones without any narrative or subtitles, we are often left wondering what we are looking at. If we know what we are seeing in the Qatsi movies, this may actually subvert Reggio's message in a different and more substantial way. The best example of this is one of the best parts, with the best music, of Koyaanisqatsi, called "Pruit Igoe" (although it should be "Pruitt-Igoe"). Pruitt-Igoe was a post-War public housing project in St. Louis, Missouri. Its fate was the perfect storm of welfare state demoralization, bureaucratic bungling, and the inhuman utopianism of elite architectural theorizing. The "Pruit Igoe" segment of Koyaanisqatsi, however, after a quiet interval of watching the shadows of clouds cross Manhattan, begins with the view from a boat passing north up the East River, looking into Manhattan, with the Citibank building close by. The view then shifts to looking down a street of buildings, probably in Lower Manahattan, and then to some buildings that may be in Midtown. Suddenly, we are looking at something rather different, the sort of abandoned buildings that characterized areas of New York City, in the South Bronx, Harlem, and Bedford-Stuyvesant. Since the rent control laws of New York City, and the hostile attitude of the rent control boards that have enforced them, made it impossible for many landlords to make a living off of their rental units (but winked at tenants illegally subletting units at market rates), by the 1960's landlords began to just walk away from the buildings and land that they owned. This was illegal, but you can't get blood from a stone; and the attempts of rent control authorities to demand all the assets of landlords to support the buildings simply meant that flight to a different jurisdiction (perhaps as close as New Jersey) was warranted.

Reggio does a good job of displaying the horror of these areas, with the blank windows of empty buildings surrounded by debris and rubble. The music of Philip Glass here is truly great, showing us how well music can convey emotions like dread and pain. In another shot of abandoned buildings, the camera begins to pan around to the right -- which is very unusual camera work for any of the Qatsi movies. Passing by an abandoned building, we see that there are three men sitting on its shattered steps. Before them, we are looking down a grim street, flanked by empty buildings, with trash and water in the street, and even some children playing. Nothing green and growing is in the shot. It is a view that makes me feel a certain kind of horror, although I have sometimes had the same feeling looking down other streets in New York, with no trees or greenery, even where people are still-living and prosperous. In the distance of Reggio's shot, we see cars, people, water flowing from fire hydrants (this must be summer), and what must be a still living cross street. Reggio probably thinks that this whole sequence is chracteristic of modern life and technology, rather than the fruit of the sort of anti-capitalist animus that he himself exemplifies. But that is typical of the Left. By social engineering and political manipulation, some disaster is effected, whether the Depression created and perpetuated by Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt, or the politically engineered "sub-prime" housing credit bubble that collapsed in 2008, and then blame for these effects is not acknowledged and accepted. Instead, blame continues to be directed at a market system that may have simply been working as it should -- but of course was not allowed to work once political intervention began. It is a "heads I win, tails you lose" rhetorical strategy; and in terms of the deception of the public, it actually works rather well. Few academic historians have the courage to condemn Roosvelt for the obvious failure of the New Deal -- and they are also happy to join in the demonization of finance and Wall Street in both cases (as also with the "junk bond" pseudo-scandal and the collapse of the Savings and Loan system in the 1970's).

From the South Bronx (or wherever) Koyaanisqatsi shifts to Pruitt-Igoe, with its own abandoned buildings, rubble, vandalism, and broken windows. This is a different order of failure from what we saw in New York. It is a public housing project, an institution whose very name became synonymous with squalor. To the diseconomies and evils inherent in such institutions was added something else, a version of the crackpot utopianism of the French architect known as Le Corbusier (Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, d.1965). The actual designer of Pruitt-Igoe, Minoru Yamasaki, cannot entirely be blamed for the fiasco, since his original plan was partially overridden by bureaucratic fiat. The result, however, was a more strict instantiation of Le Corbusier's la Ville Radieuse, "the Radiant City," where great apartment towers represent self-contained communities, surrounded by open space. An excellent history and criticism of such ideas in modern architecture can be found in The Shock of the New, by art critic and historian Robert Hughes [McGraw-Hill, 1980, 1991, "Trouble in Utopia," p.164 -- Hughes did a very fine version of this on video, with specific discussion of Pruitt-Igoe, but this does not seem to be currently available]. "Self-contained," unfortunately, is more likely to mean "isolated," which contradicts any chance for community. Le Corbusier hated the idea of life on the streets and of people walking from shop to shop in their neighborhood. Pruitt-Igoe was never popular and never more than partially occupied. Buildings became homes for crime -- a tendency in all public housing but effectively promoted by the arrangements at Pruitt-Igoe. Eventually, the decision was made to demolish the whole project. As the music intensifies, this is what we see in Koyaanisqatsi, where the buildings collapse after controlled explosions.

Godfrey Reggio, of course, does not intend to condemn public housing like Pruitt-Igoe, social engineering, or the welfare state, but all of modern civilization. So, as we are not told what we are looking at, Koyaanisqatsi shifts to images of the demolition of various buildings and structures, with the implication, I suppose, that there is something bad about this. Perhaps nothing new should ever need to be built, as, mostly, it would not be in the sort of neolithic, traditional society apparently preferred by Reggio -- although even there, the selectiveness of his images is deceptive. Before the Hopi, Navajo, and Pueblo Indians were the Anasazi. Their descendants probably are the modern Pueblo Indians, but modern Pueblos generally do not impress like the vast brick and stone work of Anasazi cities, such as the great houses at Chaco Canyon in New Mexico or various cliff dwellings in Colorado. The Anasazi works were probably abandoned as the Southwestern desert became drier. Most Pueblos are in the Rio Grande Valley, closer to water. Reggio does not tell us that there used to be a higher level of civilization in the Southwest than we see subsequently, undermined by natural climate change. This would contradict the static vision of culture that he seems to promote. Thus, he does not compare the abandoned buildings of New York with the abandoned Pueblo Bonito of Chaco Canyon. The comparison, of course, would not be apt, but then Reggio makes other comparisons that are equally inappropriate.

Which brings me back to the first images in Koyaanisqatsi. We see some petroglyphs from Colorado, one of which looks to have a death's head, but these are not explained. Indeed, they are inexplicable, since the people who did them are gone and they had no writing. Then, as Philip Glass's great music changes, we shift to a modern rocket (probably a Saturn V Moon rocket) taking off, whose flight is abruptly left for a change of scene and of music. We begin to see images of nature in the Southwest. This is telling in its own way. We do not see the forests of the Rockies, or of the Adirondacks, but desert. This is a very beautiful but rather hostile land. Not many people can live here without water being brought in from outside -- as it is to Phoenix by aqueduct. One consequently may wonder if it isn't just that Reggio doesn't like modern life, or even technology going back to the Egyptians, perhaps he just doesn't like human beings all that much. Since this dislike is pretty open in much of the Environmental and Animal Rights movements, perhaps Reggio is toying with it. As with Liberation Theology, it is certainly part of the political mix of the trendy social circles he is likely to frequent -- maybe without even realizing what he is doing. The result is that many of his images of modern life come to look rather more like life, thriving organic life, than the sometimes sterile landscapes with which they are contrasted. This subverts Reggio's message in a way that does not call for any other knowledge of what is being seen. On the other hand, Reggio may dislike people in a different fashion, with the sort of Leninist attitude that presents itself as humanitarian and sympathetic but then displays brutal hostility when actual people might not want to get with the program. The Bolsheviks needed to kill many workers in order to create the workers' paradise. Workers in revolt against them got no sympathy from either Lenin or Trotsky. Heaven help you if the paradise doesn't look like paradise to you. I expect no less from Godfrey Reggio.

Powaqqatsi has the subtitle "Life in Transformation." This is deceptive, if the subtitle is intended to convey the meaning of the main title, as it is with Koyaanisqatsi and the third film, Naqoyqatsi. At the end of the movie powaq is translated as "sorcerer" and powaqqatsi is explained as a way of life whereby the sorcerer sucks life out of others. Reggio explains this in the interview material as the industrialized North of the earth sucking the life out of the pre-industrial South. Reggio may have in mind some Marxist notion of exploitation, or, what seems more likely, he is thinking that the very introduction of modernity in Third World countries sucks the life out of their traditional cultures. Of course, the North would derive no benefit from such a process, since sucking the life out of a culture may destroy it but otherwise provides no benefits for the ones doing the sucking. Instead, Third World people rather aspire to industrial development and the increase in wealth that goes with modernity. Perhaps Reggio thinks that they are deceived at the value of such a thing. Nevertheless, most leftist political discourse tends to use a Marxist paradigm that the North is wealthy because of the exploitation of the South, which means that wealth should simply be returned as unconditional foreign aid. This may already be beyond the level at which Reggio is thinking, so we needn't bother pointing out to him that countries that have received the most foreign aid have actually done the worst economically -- that the standard of living in much of Africa was higher under colonialism than it is now, or that countries that resisted "neo-colonialism" the most staunchly have fared the worst economically. To his way of thinking, impoverishment may be the best outcome.

No, it looks like what Godfrey Reggio hates the most is modern wealth of any sort. And if Marxism had actually been successful, this would have been just as bad, in destroying traditional cultures (the "idiocy of rural life," Marx said), as capitalism. When push comes to shove, I expect that Reggio would begin spouting Marxism truisms ("the social injustice of the market"), but this is inconsistent with the real focus of his thought, insofar as it is coherent at all.

As it happens, Powaqqatsi is not a very successful movie. My first impression was that it is terrible. Glass attempts to create music that reflects the culture of the places shown (South America, Africa, the Middle East, India, and a little of China), but this only serves to make the music less distinctive, or even recognizable as Glass's music -- which was unmistakably unique in Koyaanisqatsi. In the images of Third World people, we miss even more their own voices. What do they think about the urban life around them? Are they yearning for the simplicity, happiness, and authenticity of traditional rural life? None of this is explored or even asked. Certainly no sensible person wants to live in Calcutta. Therefore, all modern development in India is a mistake. I wonder if this is truly the level of Reggio's reasoning.

I expect that Powaqqatsi was unsuccessful enough (I don't remember noticing it at the time, while I had rushed out to see Koyaanisqatsi, because of the reviews, when it opened) that this explains it taking fourteen years to raise the money to make the third movie. Even the sympathy of Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas doesn't seem to have hurried the process along very much, or, if it did, Naqoyqatsi would otherwise not have been made at all. Naqoyqatsi is supposed to mean a life of war. At one level, this is a Leninist truism. Capitalism cannot survive without imperialism. Therefore a market economy is the war of all against all, a war against nature, and a war against traditional collectivist communities and all that is good.

This is a preposterous conceit. Perhaps Reggio has not noticed that war is a condition of all times and all cultures, while commercial culture has offered the best hope and the best examples of the alternative. The Pax Britannica of the 19th century and the Pax Americana of the 20th describe historical realities in which wealth is generated by peace and production rather than by war and looting -- although Marxism, to be sure, sees market exchanges as looting (as opposed to the slave labor defended by Trotsky in the Soviet Union). It is not all cultures that even regard war as an evil (a point on which Robert E. Lee and William Tecumseh Sherman were in full agreement), while those that see it as a good tend to fall within the group of the traditional and the Third World cultures that Reggio evidently prefers. Musically, Powaqqatsi ended with an arrangment of (part of) the Call to Prayer in Islam; yet if a nuclear war is in our future, as the Hopi "prophecies" portend, it is most likely to be launched by Iran or Pakistan in the name of Islam, within whose culture there seems to be little sense that war is an evil. Similarly, the valorization of war by the Germans, in both World War I and World War II, although something we can justly blame on European ideas, nevertheless was due specifically to the ideas of people like Friedrich Nietzsche, who despised the market and democracy and remains a darling of radical philosophers (e.g. Richard Rorty) and leftist ideology.

Reggio may just have his own notion of what "war" means. Naqoyqatsi is a better movie than Powaqqatsi. The beginning, with an abandoned train station, recalls the imagery of Koyaanisqatsi, but then the movie becomes much more abstract, with digitally altered and animated images of all sorts of things. Fighting fire with fire again, Reggio may think of this manipulation as "war" in its own way. We get a dose of mathematical imagery, and Reggio may be thinking, like Lewis Mumford, that modern culture is reducing all reality to a denatured and dehumanized collection of numbers. We also see some of the anthropomorphic robots that the Japanese have been making. Reggio himself says that simply watching television has made us part machine -- cyborgs. If so, Reggio should probably take to heart the "resistance is futile" motto of the cybernetic Borg in Star Trek.

In the end, Koyaanisqatsi has a power and even magic that Powaqqatsi and Naqoyqatsi lack. Godfrey Reggio's vision, however absurd, possesses an aesthetic force in Koyaanisqatsi that is lost in the later movies, where the ideology becomes more obvious and contemptible. It is an old but shallow proposition. Nature is good. Artifice is bad. Reggio must dress up nature as traditional cultures, but what this is going to mean is less coherent the further he goes with it. I wonder what he hates the most -- technology? modernity? people? life? From the voiceless movies it is hard to tell.

Philip Glass has a better excuse. He is an artist of sound, and no one expects him to be equally competent with ideas. In the panel discussion included with Naqoyqatsi, however, he says one thing that I found very striking. He remembered how, as a child (b.1937) growing up in New York City, people used to sleep in the parks on hot summer nights. Since the Sixties, of course, no one in their right minds would do anything of the sort. As it happens, we find an identical recollection by the economist Thomas Sowell (b.1930), who was born in North Carolina but spent much of his youth in New York. In the world of Koyaanisqatsi, I expect that the rise of crime in the Sixties must have been due to the "life out of balance" created by modernity and technology. Sowell, on the other hand, knows that the rise in crime in the Sixties was due to a political and legal ideology that viewed criminals as victims of society and unworthy of punishment. Indeed, their practice of crime was a rebellion against the slavery of capitalism, the market, etc. When released back into their communities, these criminals unfortunately then preyed on their fellow citizens, usually at the same social and economic level, and never got around to the revolution against the institutions supposedly victimizing them. Although they could spout some revolutionary rhetoric, like the Black Panthers, they were at heart simply predators -- encouraged and protected by the ideology of fools.

That folly, although exposed for decades, nevertheless has not died but at the moment threatens to come back as strongly as ever. Godfrey Reggio's program, whatever it is, may be muddled enough to be part of this, or maybe it isn't. He is not open or honest enough to make movies that really say what he thinks. He might as well. Michael Moore gets away with it. And I would say to him, as in the Bob Dylan song above, "Why don't you just come out once and scream it."

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Copyright (c) 2009 Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved