by Jessleen Loy
According to Bordwell and Thompson (2008) , “Associational formal systems suggest ideas and expressive qualities by grouping images that may not have any immediate logical connection. But the very fact that the images and sounds are juxtaposed prods us to look for some connection-an association that binds them together.” (2008: 363)
The format in which filmmakers follow when making experimental films in associational form summarises in three points. The first is to group the entire film in to chapters, with each chapter possessing a distinct style but still unites with the rest of the chapters. The second is to identify and create a motif within each chapter that will appear throughout the film, to connect the chapters together and reinforce the message the filmmaker is trying to bring across. And thirdly, it is to utilise the motifs in a way that causes the viewer to critically think about the relations between the motifs and how it relates to the film. Bordwell and Thompson (365) describe Godfrey Reggio’s purpose in Koyaanisqatsi (1982) as to “make a familiar emotion or concept vivid by means of new imagery and fresh juxtapositions.”
Because this type of form is very subjective, how the viewer interprets each film that falls under this form will differ from the next person. How each person sees the relations between each motif is subjected to their own experiences and viewpoints in life. As supported by Reggio (Stephens, 2010), “for some people, Koyaanisqatsi is an environmental film. For some, it is an ode to technology. To some people, it’s a piece of shit”.
In Koyaanisqatsi, the main motifs present within the film are the grid-like formations of the subjects in frame, how nature would be consumed by modern technology, and the four elements— earth, water, wind, and fire.
In the opening of the film, a single straight line of red blocks resembling the visuals in a retro arcade game appears, before eventually revealing to be the titles for the film. This acts as a form of fore shadowing the technological aspects that will appear in the film. Another clue that can be taken from the opening titles is the colour of the font. Red was used as the font colour, signifying power and at the same time danger, a clear metaphor for the relationship between the human society and technology.
The film starts out showing a cavemen drawing of a king and his subjects around him, with the image of the king highly resembling a modern building. This could act as a metaphor for how the human population worship technology and see it as a something that is larger than life. The cavemen drawings are then interrupted with a shot of a ball of a fiery explosion, which reveals to be the launching of a space shuttle. What can be inferred between the relations of the two shots is the beginning of Man’s discovery of technology. Similar to the colour red, the flames from the launching of the space shuttle suggest that Man’s launch in to technology is both useful but has the potential to destroy at the same time. Also, the sequence in which the shots appear, the cavemen drawing before the space shuttle, can also be viewed as the beginning of the downfall of the human society, where the flames destroy the image of the cavemen drawings. The music used in this opening sequence sounds like a chant, embodying primitive elements. This further supports the metaphor of the human society entering a new era in to technology. Additionally, the flames are also the beginning of the appearance of the four elements within the film, where in this case it is the element of fire that emerges.
The shot of the space shuttle fades in to shots of the canyons. The camera pans across vast areas of deserted canyons that never seem to end. The majestic looking canyons could symbolise the magnificent amount of power Mother Nature had before the age of technology came about. The music that accompanies this shot includes a horn-like sound that intrudes the sound track, evoking the attention of the viewer. Because of its uniform beat, it starts to resemble the sound of a heart rate monitor machine in the beginning, representing the “life” of Mother Nature. As it progresses on, it starts to take on a more siren-like form, almost exactly like the sirens of an ambulance. This siren, accompanied with the visuals of the canyons, suggest that Mother Nature is in trouble, or hurt, adding another foreshadow to what the age of technology brings.
The shots that follow include visuals of the canyons being overshadowed by clouds, smoke rising from volcanic rocks, clouds blocking the light from the sun, and bats flying out of a dark cave. Although there are no immediate relations between each of the shots, except that they are all works of nature, the associated meaning derived from the shots when they are grouped together can be thought to mean that something awful is about to happen. The darkness that fall on the majestic canyons starts to evoke fear within the viewer when compared to the same place in bright daylight. The smoke that rises from the volcanic rocks could mean the aftermath of a volcano eruption, or the coming of an eruption that is about to happen. The clouds that block the rays of the sun bring darkness, and darkness is often associated with unpleasant things. Bats, which are often associated with horror and dark elements, can also be inferred in the same manner for the shot. Within this chapter of the film, the element of earth can be seen throughout in the form of the canyons, rocks, and the caves. By putting the above-mentioned shots together, a viewer can associate the meaning of it to be the warning for a disaster that is about to come.
Following the dark clouds that overcast the sun, the shot transitions in to a sea of clouds rolling in the bright sky. The element present in here would be the element of wind, where although wind itself is not visible, one can recognise it from the movement that it creates, which in this case would be the movement of the clouds rolling in the sky. The way in which the clouds move closely resemble the movement of water, and just when the viewer starts to notice it, a shot of a waterfall comes in to view. At this point, the last of the four elements, water, enters. The music in this scene sounds more like an orchestra than compared to the previous compositions heard, this could reflect the grand scale of both the clouds and the seas that are shown.
By cutting between shots of the clouds and the seas, Reggio suggests a form of similarity between the two elements. Evidently, both the shots do in fact look similar in visual aspects. The clouds rolling in the sky looks like the waves crashing in the ocean. And the mist falling over the mountaintops closely resembles the cascading waterfall. Another relation between the clouds and the seas could be the life that forms out of it. In this scene, as the camera goes through the clouds, the viewer starts to see lush greenery in frame. As the camera advances forward, a large river comes in to frame, followed by fields of vegetations of various brilliant colours. Based on the arrangement of sequence up till this point, it could be suggested that Reggio wants to show the relation between the elements earth, water, wind, and the formation of life, shown in the form of the fields. Additionally, the various bright colours from the fields, accompanied by the stillness of the river water could also be a way to lift the solemn mood of the film. The rainbow-like colours of the field could bring out positive thoughts in the viewer’s minds, whereas the stillness of the river water could allow the viewer to relax after seeing the intense visuals previously. However, this speed in which the camera is travelling across the river and through the fields contradicts the soothing visual aspects of this shot. Accompanied by the music that is starting to speed up its tempo, instead of serving as a “calm before the storm” shot, a viewer could see this as the beginning of the “storm”.
The mine explosion in the next scene is where Reggio signals the birth of technology within the film. When the shot of the large truck appears, the music changes. It starts to sound similar to when the antagonists are introduced in fiction films. A viewer could thus infer from the music that the truck, and industrialisation that is represented by the truck, signifies trouble and danger. This is further supported by the visuals in which the black cloud of exhaust from the truck completely engulfs the truck, and eventually taking over the entire frame. The shot that follows is of a pipe that extends from the ground and all the way up the canyon. The pipe sticks out like a sore thumb in the frame, suggesting that industrialisation and technology is still in its early stage of taking over. However, the pipe is positioned in such a manner that it splits the canyon in two. This could be an explicit metaphor that technology would literally cause the Earth to fall apart.
Furthermore, the large amount of power line structures that invaded the once barren land also suggests that the human society is starting to show signs of worshipping the introduction of technology. The structures themselves bear resemblance to the shape of human beings, specifically the cavemen drawing of the king in the opening shot. The use of the power lines, which is to bring power to households and buildings, also supports this theory. The structures literally hold power within them and pass on the power to the rest of the people, much like the actions of a king. Hence, this suggests that the human society is starting to rely on technology as a higher being.
From the shot of the mining factory, it can be seen that it looks like a microchip. This is a foreshadow of how industrialisation will eventually cause the society to resemble robots, where the human society become slaves to technology. Additionally, this scene is also where Reggio starts to point out the devastating effects of industrialisation on Mother Nature. The smoke fumes pouring out of the chimneys, followed by the roads paved in between the pristine waters of the quarry. The large machinery that is causing the mine explosions, the countless amount of factory sites taking over the open areas all explicitly show the viewer the exhausting effects of industrialisation. Reggio also shows through implicit representation of the situation by the large machinery that is pounding on the red-hot block. In this case, the machine represents industrialisation and the block represents Mother Nature. When the machine comes in to contact with the block and subsequently compresses it, flames start to violently erupt from the block, almost like a mini explosion. This shows that the effects of industrialisation on nature are so drastic that it literally has an explosive effect, as shown in the shot that follows where there is an explosion in the desert. Reggio then holds the shot for a significant amount of time, possibly to let the viewer take in and understand the large scale of damage industrialisation has done to nature.
The next scene is where people are introduced in to the film. This scene is where people are first seen in the film, even in terms of the music where a choir is introduced. It starts off with people at the beach that is right beside a factory site. One could infer from this that the human society is getting comfortable with technology, and is living side by side with it. In the next shot, the viewer sees a group of Caucasians of older age group acting like tourists in a factory site, whilst looking up at something. The next shot that follows is of a large building shot from the bottom up. By applying the Kuleshov effect, it could be seen that the group of people are looking up at the high-rise building. Through the glass exterior of the building, the image of the sky is reflected. This is the start of another visual motif in the film where within the city, nature is only ever seen through the reflection of the cityscapes (Stephens, 2010).
The following shots consist of the long and winding roads overcrowded with cars. The expressionless drivers that are inside the vehicles are mostly by themselves, and dressed in mundane and almost identical office outfits. This shows that the human society is already trapped within the confinements of technology. Also, based on their facial expressions and outfit choices, it is also possible to infer that the people are starting to resemble robots, falling victim to technology.
By placing the shot of the neatly aligned cars and the shot of the war tanks after one another, Reggio forms a bridge of similarity between them in the form of the destruction they bring. This is further supported by the shots that follow. The fighter jets that flies above the open areas, the dropping of the bomb, the model of the atomic bomb, Fat Boy, and the ship that has “E=MC2” labelled on it, and finally various shots of different explosions. With the scientific term labelled on the ship, it is also possible to associate science with industrialisation, as it is the core of what pushes it forward. Thus, this whole scene shows the relation between technology and its destruction on nature.
In the city, the clean and modern buildings contrast the shots of the dirty and rundown slum areas. Stephens (2010) states “the syntax of the move from Wall Street to Bedford-Stuyvesant suggests that these are the conditions ‘extreme capitalism’ inevitably produces.” The more advanced technology a country has, the higher their standard of living would be. In relation to that, capitalism would also follow and grow accordingly to the rate and level of technology the country is at. Therefore, capitalism can be considered a form of, or a consequence of technology, which in this case also reflects devastating effects on not only nature but as shown, in people as well. The element of water reappears in this scene in the form of a fire hydrant spraying water. The residents of the slums use the water to clean out the trash that litters the roads. In this case, water is used to support life, instead of create it as shown in the earlier sequences.
The destruction of the slum buildings, the cranes crashing down, and the bridge collapsing can be used as evidence of the effects of technology. As shown explicitly, the falling of these structures signify the drastic measures applied when technology moves in. The fallen structures could also be a representation of the old civilisation, and the new era of technology is tearing it down to make way for the future.
The next shots of the city buildings are evidence of the motifs of the film. Firstly, the exterior glass surfaces of the buildings are aligned uniformly, following the motif of grid-like formations present throughout the film. Secondly, the reflection of the sky seen on the surface of the buildings is yet another motif that appears in this shot. The music that plays during this scene features a horn blaring that cuts through the rest of the instrumental track. This can be seen as a representation of the buildings, where they stand tall and on their own, with nothing that competes for the attention of the viewer in each frame. Stephens (2010) also adds that reflection of the sky on the buildings can be a metaphor for nature moving backwards as technology advances. The direction of which the clouds travel towards is mirrored in the reflection on the buildings. Thus, this could be an implicit reference that as technology advances, nature is forced to take a back seat, and is left behind.
The next scene focuses more on the human individuals more than any other scenes in the film. The music is slow, and carries a heavy weight to it. The speed of the people walking in each shot is slowed down, matching the pace of the music. Among the sea of people that crowd street, barely any individual stands out, all of the people look extremely stern or weary. This robotic like actions of the people is brought up yet again as previously seen in the shots of the drivers in their cars.
Additionally, the billboards and advertisements seen in this scene also help to strengthen the motifs within the film. In one billboard for Real cigarettes, it reads, “Taste the natural cigarette, low tar, nothing artificial added.” This supports the theory that the robotic like human society has succumbed to technology, and is unable to properly distinguish the difference between what is natural and what is artificial. In another billboard for a fast food restaurant shows a grinning young boy with the slogan, “Have a barrel of fun.” Fast food restaurants, one of the big players in the world of capitalism, along with the stream of expressionless people walking past the camera further show how technology has numbed the human society, making them almost as slaves to the technology. Furthermore, the van with the advertisement of uniform rentals on it also supports the statement. The uniform suggests the mask that technology has put on the people, rendering them as a whole cohort of robots that serve the master of technology.
The next scene of the cityscape in the night-time shows the advancement of technology. Similar to the grid-like formations in the daytime, the lights of the rooms in the buildings at night also form a grid-like visual. The building lights also resemble a microchip when viewed from a distance, enforcing the visual motif of the modern structures resembling microchips. The highlighting motif in this scene would be when the moon is blocked by yet another high-rise building in the city as it rises in to the night sky. This is another visual motif of nature being overshadowed by technology. It can be seen how nature has been thrown to a corner in light of the advancing technology. The large size of the moon can be covered entirely by merely one building, while the people inside the building are oblivious to the magnificent sight outside as they carry on with their work. Through this, Reggio shows the viewer how easy it is for technology to cast away nature, and how the human society will not notice the process of it.
As the next scene progresses, the music picks up its pace and sounds similar to retro video games. Visually, Reggio shows various shots where massive crowds of people are travelling in a uniformed manner. Stephens (2010) compares this with worker bees flying in and out of the beehive. This can describe the people in this scene as workers of technology, where there is no personal opinion and they serve solely to the queen bee of technology. Reggio compares these shots to shots of assembly lines, escalators, stacks of newspapers disappearing as it replenishes, and stacks of hundred dollar bills, and the Pac Man game. From this, one can derive that the human society has been rendered down to nothing but robots working on an assembly line. As quoted by Stephens (2010), “The film does not show human beings as masters of their fate, but as creatures…victimized…by their own gigantic and overpowering productions”.
The following scene allows the viewer to have a more personal view of the cityscape. A point of view of the drivers on the road is employed, where the viewers are taken on a car ride through the city. Whilst within the roads along the high-rise buildings, the cars seem to be trapped within a maze of the structures. Even after each turn, the car still ends up on a similar looking road with similar looking high-rise buildings. This gives the viewer the feeling of being trapped in a maze that one is unable to escape from, giving another metaphor to technology. In the shot of the overcrowded beach is another evidence of the visual motif of the microchip, where the people on the beach resemble a microchip when seen from a distance.
In the shot of the televisions stacks on top of each other, the visuals screening on the televisions are another sign of capitalism taking over the society. The commercials screening are made up of product advertising, bank commercials, and general entertainment. These suggests that the society is completely commercialised, a sign of technology taking over. Furthermore, when the televisions explode, the shot that follows is of a couple looking at something. Utilising the Kuleshov effect again, one can deduce that the couple is looking at the television sets exploding. The female in this shot reacts in a shocked manner, followed by a worried expression. This is the first time within the film that an individual has such an emotional expression, suggesting that elimination of technology can give back the life that it has sucked out of the human society. However, it can also be inferred that the lady is reacting this way because of the worry she experiences as she sees the technology that she, and the human society, relies so heavily on has been taken away.
Aerial shots of the city bring the viewer in to the next scene. These shots are then compared to close ups of the motherboards of computer devices. This explicitly shows the motif of how the city is similar to microchips, making a point that the human society has succumbed to the technology that it created. The music from the opening titles enters again, signalling the viewer that the film has gone full circle.
The viewer then sees shots of people that have been harmed. The middle aged lady trying to light up her cigarette, the unconscious man being carried to the stretcher, the slum neighbourhood covered in smoke, with a fireman walking around suggesting that the place suffered a fire, and the patients lying on the hospital beds. These are all forms in which people are either imposing self-harm, or have been harmed. The viewer can deduce that the effects of neglecting nature in favour of technology have finally caught up to the human society, and this is the result of how they have suffered in the hands of technology. It can also signify the start of the downfall of the human civilisation, experiencing the punishment from what they have created.
Finally, the film closes with shots of another space shuttle launching, this time the viewer follows the shuttle from its launch all the way to its destruction. As the camera follows the flaming rubble falling from the sky, the metaphors that follow it include the progress of technology from its rise to its downfall, as well as the fate of the human civilisation after technology invades. Apart from establishing that the film has gone full circle by matching the opening sequence with the closing, one can also infer that what goes up, must come down. In the opening, the space shuttle is only shown to be launching, however in the closing a similar space shuttle is shown from its launch until its failure and falls from the sky. This is another metaphor that despite how far technology has come, there will come a day in which it will fail and experience a downfall. A similar looking cavemen drawing is then shown in the film’s final frame, but with a different set of drawings. The chant that opens the film starts again. The drawings are now of not one, but many kings that also resemble modern buildings, as the opening sequence did as well. This also symbolises that technology has completely taken over the human civilisation, as the drawing does not show any followers to the kings.
To conclude, Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi (1982) is a warning to the human society. It shows how the human population has become victims to the advancing technology that they have created with their own hands. It also shows how the once grand and pristine nature has been left to suffer and be destroyed as technology takes over this era of time. Our discovery has in turn led to the start of our downfall. However, Koyaanisqatsi can also be viewed as an ode to technology. By comparing the large machinery and what it can do to visuals of the breathtaking creations of Mother Nature, one can choose to believe that instead of the visuals contrasting each other, they are in fact supporting each other and reflecting one another’s strengths.
Jessleen Loy, is a Level Two student. This essay was submitted as part of an academic research of the Critical Film Studies module, Film Form.
Bordwell, D. and Thompson, K., 2008. Film art: an introduction. 8th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill
Stephens, G. 2010. Koyaanisqatsi and the Visual Narrative of Environmental Film, [online]. Available at: < http://www.latrobe.edu.au/screeningthepast/28/koyaanisqatsi-visual-narrative-of-environmental-film.html#fnB48> [Accessed November 5, 2011].
Koyaanisqatsi, 1982. [Film] Directed by : Godfrey Reggio. USA: Island Alive & New Cinema