I recently saw Koyaanisqatsi for the first time. This was initially prompted from an excellent blog post over on Verbomania, suggesting words to describe our current crisis. I had never heard of the movie before. In case you’re in that same jolly boat, Koyaanisqatsi is a feature-length film from 1982 with no plot and no spoken lines. A score by Philip Glass underlies, and sometimes dominates, images of an earth beautiful in desolation (the Badlands, Monument Valley, Grand Canyon) juxtaposed with technology. The images are fascinating and disturbing. The title translates to something like “life out of balance” and the images of sausages being mass produced cross-cut with humans being lifted by escalators speaks volumes. The long, slow footage of 747s on the ground was enough to make me wonder if they really can fly.
Frenetic is perhaps the word that best captures images of life in the early 1980s. The images of Grand Central during rush hour show just how like ants we are. On the other hand, some of the scenes of people waiting for trains show a high percentage of them reading—we have perhaps lost ground in the last four decades. The mechanized, technologized way of life has perhaps made us something less than we could be. There are people in the movie, but not many of them look happy. Back when I commuted into New York I can’t think of any reason I would’ve been smiling on my way too or from work. Crowded streets, often smelling bad. Harried and harassed even before I reached the revolving door to my building. I watched the movie that was a slice of my life and wondered if so much of my time commuting couldn’t have been better spent.
Of course, I did read on the bus. On average I was able to finish about forty books more per year than I do now. Even home owning participates in koyaanisqatsi. It’s spring during an epidemic. Cold, yet rainy, the grass continues to grow and there’s no sunny time off work to mow it. It’s now May and it feels like we haven’t moved since March. Watching Koyaanisqatsi during the pandemic was itself a haunting experience. All those crowds. So many people bunched so closely together. I don’t miss the crowds. The cross-cut images of computer chips and city layouts made me wonder just what it’s all about. The SARS-CoV-2 reality has plunged me into a philosophical mood. I’m hoping when the crisis is over we might strive for a better sense of balance.