1980s

Pandemic-Era Prophecies of Godfrey Reggio’s ‘Koyaanisqatsi’

Koyaanisqatsi Documentary

Parents give up on their children. Computers are a false idol. Tragedies repeat throughout history, leaving one to wonder: are dark times here to stay? The world is in trouble. Signals, delusions and prophecies are all forms of magical thinking. Nearly 40 years after its release, Koyaanisqatsi continues to send signals. The cult experimental documentary is the product of a director who took a vow of silence as a teenage boy. That now-elderly man, Godfrey Reggio, meant for the film to be a subjective experience. While he has said in interviews that he does not want to deprive viewers of the pleasure they experience from the discovery of the meaning of the film on their own, what can objectively be stated is that Koyaanisqatsi’s theme is essentially Christ-like in that it wants to heal the sick. Yet the music documentary is Buddha-like in that it acknowledges that Desire is Suffering. Therefore, Koyaanisqatsi is a celebration in the belief of different gods, with the wisdom to know that it’s a movie one can turn off at any moment.

Healing from trauma is not easy. I began the year 2021 by deleting Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube from my smartphone. That wasn’t exactly a New Year’s Resolution, but I finally confronted the fact that these apps on my ever-present mobile device had taken control of my life. Throughout 2020, America was in utter chaos, and I spent most of the year compulsively checking my notifications for some hope or relief from the storm. The pandemic’s severe toll on my mental health, and the collective trauma I witnessed during a most difficult year, required a decades-old experimental film to cut through the noise and show me another way of living.  

The David Lynch Foundation, which advertises their life-saving transcendental meditation, hosted the Festival of Disruption in 2019 at the Ace Hotel in Downtown Los Angeles. That was the first time I saw Koyaanisqatsi on the big screen. I’ll never forget the sheer overwhelming experience that it was, with eye-popping time-lapse photography and Philip Glass’ trance-inducing musical score. While the film is an indelible progression of moods and feelings, the thematic significance of it didn’t hit me until I decided to revisit a blu-ray of Koyaanisqatsi to recapture the religious exhilaration I felt when I watched it on the big screen.

Reggio, the experimental filmmaker who collaborated with Glass on the three films that make up the Qatsi Trilogy, helped to create Koyaanisqatsi as a one-of-a-kind cinematic experience to convey “crazy life” or “a life that calls for another way of living.”  The title word comes from the language of the Hopi tribe of Native Americans, a people historically located in what is now Arizona. The Hopi belief that Koyaanisqatsi (aka Life That Calls For Another Way of Living) is a legitimate prophecy finally hit home for me during the final winter months of 2020. A prophecy can be defined as a “supposed ability to predict the future.” I consider Reggio’s film to be a prescient warning. The time has never been better to heed this warning.  

Koyaanisqatsi Documentary

Starting in the late 1970s, when Koyaanisqatsi was in production, the personal computer was becoming an inevitable reality. With the advance of computer technology coming out of California, Reggio concluded at the time that civilization had come out of the tradition of living from nature and become fully dependent on technology. Reggio’s prophetic statement that civilization is losing the ability to balance its relationship to technology found support in certain Hopi texts that he researched while doing non-profit work in New Mexico. Reggio’s central metaphor in his debut film is that the silicon computer chip resembles a tiny city, within which we now live. Politics, education, things of the financial structure, the nation state structure, language, the culture, religion — all of that exists within the host of technology. We no longer live with technology, we live through technology. (Hopi texts, as well as philosophy from several writers credited at the end of Koyaanisqatsi were other influences on Reggio’s direction.)  

When Reggio was a teenager, he took a 15-year vow of silence and lived as a monk in the Christian Brothers sector of the Roman Catholic Church. To say that he was warning the future audience of Koyaanisqatsi about living a life off balance is not magical thinking. Reggio developed the desire to address mankind’s consummation with technology back in 1972 when he worked at the Institute for Regional Education (IRE), in Albuquerque, New Mexico, on a media campaign sponsored by the American Civil Liberties Union. The campaign involved using billboards and TV commercials to address increased government surveillance on private citizens. Reggio saw how technology was being used to collect data on Americans, and he felt compelled to continue the success he had with IRE to the next most logical platform: a feature film. 

As Reggio lived in the American Southwest, he became aware of Hopi prophecies that were passed down verbally and are not written anywhere, unlike the Christian Bible or the Dharma. As Reggio began to film Koyaanisqatsi  over several years with cinematographer Ron Fricke, they came across a like-minded experimental film called Organism (1975) by Hilary Harris, which utilized time-lapse photography of Manhattan that emphasized the mechanical nature of how humans exist in a giant city. Harris’ film created a metaphor that people flow through the streets and sidewalks of the modern urban metropolis like blood flows through our veins. Without knowing exactly who knew what first, watching both films reveals some of the exact same scenes, such as time-lapse photography of Grand Central Station. Glass was brought into the production of Koyaanisqatsi to create music for scenes that Reggio had filmed. However, the composer discovered that Reggio would recut the film to fit the music in a different way.  

Koyaanisqatsi  reaches its climax during an 18-minute bravura sequence known as the Grid. The sequence clearly shows the imbalance of contemporary life in metropolitan cities like Los Angeles and New York City. After the Grid sequence reaches peak intensity with swirling Glass arpeggios and relentless time-lapse experiments, the bleeding urban light trails from the largest American cities abruptly stops. The expression to live “off the grid” means an abdication from the rat race, in fact living where the powers that be cannot find you. The Grid manages to overload our eyeball circuits to high intensity, and when Koyaanisqatsi  switches to slow motion images of people’s faces, it is a welcome panacea. Watching the blu-ray amidst the widespread turmoil of the winter holiday made me feel that this sequence was speaking directly to my frenzied state of technology absorption. The pace of life established by Silicon Valley must be contained and reined in. The elegiac shots of working citizens going about their lives seemed to be a statement that the will of the people shall stand firm. After so much imbalance and suffering, the ones bearing the burden of the economy will finally get their due — simply because they must, in order for society to continue.  As the U.S. currently self-isolates and lives through technology (to deliver our groceries, to communicate with loved ones, to work from home), consider the warning of Koyaanisqatsi as a signal to retain balance.  Working people are tire. The Pruitt Igoe housing projects that were built in St. Louis for low-income residents and later abandoned are seen and destroyed in Koyaanisqatsi. They get no backstory in the film; no explanation for how they fit into the rest.   

Koyaanisqatsi Documentary

Glass’s dominant pipe organ instrumentation lends the images a reverence that recalls a holy, church-like feeling. Reggio’s religious background informs what I consider to be a film that is a uniquely spiritual experience. The conclusion to Glass’ composition “Prophecies” is incredibly moving, in a way perhaps one can’t put their finger on.  The pseudo-church instrumentation of Glass’ composition moves hypnotically through time, swirling arpeggios that you would never hear in a Polish Catholic Mass, yet they are still holy and reverent. This is not your mother’s idea of worship, nor is it organized the way you would hear in Sunday school. Glass makes music. Reggio and Ron Fricke collaborate like a true brotherhood, and magic is made. Wait, I am projecting again. Let’s focus on the imagery itself.

A half-naked man squats in the window of an apartment building, his face contorted in an expression of tension and hardship. An elderly man, clearly at the age he should retire, stands on a street corner as a human billboard to advertise city tours. Most striking is the young black man who looks at the camera as it zooms in on his pensive gaze. With the Black Lives Matter movement in the forefront of everyone’s minds, this image reminds us that the suffering citizens of our major cities have been waiting for another way of living longer than many of us have been alive. Yet, in Koyaanisqatsi’s wide arms and utopian reach, it is not hard for me to envision Donald Trump in this post-Grid montage of troubled souls in pain, even though the former U.S. President’s inheritance gave him an inestimable advantage over those scraping by in “coastal elite” cities.  

Reggio’s prediction back in 1972 that surveillance of American citizens would eventually lead to an imbalanced way of life makes me place Trump in this category of citizens aggrieved by technology because of his complete absorption into Twitter, where throughout his presidency, he was found tweeting in the dead of night, when he should have been resting in preparation for his role as leader of the free world. Trump’s narcissism is clearly a front for a deeply wounded soul, which Twitter took advantage of to perpetuate Content, when many activists called on the company’s CEO to censor the one-term president.  

Critics of Koyaanisqatsi are quick to point out that Reggio has made an anti-technology film using the height of technology. This argument has about as much validity as to say left-wing activists who still participate in a capitalist system are somehow hypocrites. Making a film is a huge endeavor — to get something done, one must use the available channels. In a society like America, the retweet does not equal endorsement. In a democracy, we can critique and seek to improve our system and still remain devoted it.  

Koyaanisqatsi Documentary

The formal perfection of the visual motif that compares the microchip to the bustling city tells us everything we need to know about Reggio’s warning. When we live through the Grid, we are controlled by the Grid. In Koyaanisqatsi, repeated images of the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles are juxtaposed with circuit boards which cause us to consider how specific these prophecies really are. It is a fool’s errand to try and ruminate whether Reggio or the Hopi predicted the pandemic of 2020, but it is logical to see how Reggio’s work in the mid-70s with surveillance prepared him to envision a future where our time spent on internet-wired computer devices would result in targeted ads and loss of privacy. Computer enthusiasts from the early 1980s sought to have their devices in every home, in a bid for riches and influence. These Big Tech companies (four of which I deleted from my phone) are the richest corporations in the history of the world, and they are what Koyaanisqatsi warns us about. Despite the wealth surrounding the industry that the film asks us to contemplate, there is one image you don’t ever see in the film: the lives of the idle rich. They too, are in hell.  

The end of Koyaanisqatsi leaves the audience with some things to ponder. A rocket explodes against a blue sky. As a flaming fuselage plummets back to Earth as space junk, the camera follows its descent. Can we interpret this rocket imagery (and the lift-off footage from the beginning) as a further prophecy directed towards our impending Mars exploration? As Reggio told Scott McDonald in a 1988 interview, “[The rocket] is a metaphor for celebration of life and modernity, progress and development. Then I impose my own view, clearly, of the rocket exploding.” In 1986, less than four years after Koyaanisqatsi was released, the space shuttle Challenger exploded in the sky, killing all seven crew members on board. Koyaanisqatsi ends with multiple definitions of what that Hopi word means: crazy life, life out of balance and a life that calls for another way of living. With the global impact felt from the COVID-19 pandemic and Trump administration’s mishandling of the outbreak in America, another way of living is needed and on the way.  

Due to the elemental nature of Koyaanisqatsi’s communication, Reggio’s message is clear. He worked towards subverting language through the use of image and sound. In interviews, Reggio refuses to pigeonhole what Koyaanisqatsi is really about and repeats the line that it is meant to be about whatever you want it to be about. The filmmaker’s background as a monk informed his desire to create a film that was like “iconography that provided an experience of reality.” According to him, the English language had become so devalued that words did not mean anything anymore; although he found inspiration in the prophecies of the Hopi people.  

Pruitt Igoe may stick out like a sore thumb when it appears onscreen. When I see the massive concrete block apartments, all with broken windows and not a person in sight, the transmission I get is” failure of the system.” When more people of color appear during the ending sequence, I get “justice will prevail.” These New York City scenes come right on the heels of the alienating Grid sequence when the imbalance of life reaches its pinnacle. The words of the Hopi prophecy appear onscreen and combine with the mournful, ecclesiastical organ arpeggios to fill the audience’s ears:

  • “If we dig precious things from the land, we will invite disaster.”
  • “Near the day of Purification, there will be cobwebs spun back and forth in the sky.”
  • “A container of ashes might one day be thrown from the sky, which could burn the land and boil the oceans.

Koyaanisqatsi Documentary

Without seeming like a doomsday paranoiac, one could argue that the first prophecy is already coming true. The repeated fracking of our Earth to exploit fossil fuels causes problems with our water supply and air, which many politicians do not seem to mind. The third prophecy could be interpreted as climate change, with burning land and boiling oceans makes one recall 2020’s worst-ever season of wildfires in California. The container of ashes thrown from the sky may be one of Elon Musk’s spacecraft bound for the red planet. Hopi prophecies such as the Blue Star Kachina warn of the United States getting ripped apart by World War III, at which point the True White Brother would descend to Earth in search of uncorrupted souls.  

During the mass quarantine of 2020, the internet became a lifesaver for the millions of people working from home, ordering groceries online, video-calling loved ones or simply seeking an escape from boredom. The fact that a prediction has come true may not spell the end of the world, but it could certainly give us a reason to pause and examine ourselves. 

Since Koyaanisqatsi, surveillance has become ubiquitous with apps like Facebook, Google and TikTok harvesting our data to be collected by third parties. There are certainly many useful aspects to apps, but as with the most addictive, near-banned substances of the past — like sugar, soda, cigarettes, etc. — moderation must be exercised in order to recapture our balance. The year 2020 forced all of us to change our way of life, which resulted in fewer gas emissions due to the halt of car travel, and fewer mass shootings after near-weekly occurrences. I will never forget the imagery in Reggio’s film, where red rocks co-exist with shopping malls. The balance that Reggio spoke to in Koyaanisqatsi is the delicate relationship between nature and technology.  

As I distance myself from Big Tech, I find that the hardest one to give up is Google. It seems so benign, merely a search engine — yet one that never forgets who you are. As NYU professor Scott Galloway said in his genius TED lecture, Google has replaced the human tradition of prayer — or, to put in more laidback terms, the public library.

It was Google that I used to find out more information on the Hopi Native American tribe. For me, Google is the app that is most addictive of them all. As we live our lives online during this pandemic, the act of prayer and the desire to know turn us to the available channels. Technology itself is neither good nor evil, it is simply an object to be used by humankind. Just this week, I re-installed Instagram on my phone. It is a valuable networking tool for artists, like myself. Hopefully the change in me is that I let the app remain just that, a tool I am in control of, not a tail that wags the dog. I caution everyone not to let technology consume your humanness. We can still go out for a walk in the neighborhood. 

Philip Jozef Brubaker (@lens_itself) is a writer-filmmaker and has contributed video essays to Fandor and MUBI. He lives in Florida where he avoids stepping on lizards daily and draws inspiration from Spanish moss.

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