Tomorrow, April 28th, marks the 30th anniversary of the world premiere of Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance. A stunning, wordless, 86 minute visual collage featuring images of natural beauty, urban decay and renewal, pollution, nuclear proliferation, and the abstraction, alienation, and wonder of modern life, the film received critical acclaim and has demonstrated an enduring appeal over the last three decades.
But why the appearance on Off the Grid?Koyaanisqatsi was directed and conceived by Godfrey Reggio, and filmed between 1975 and 1982. According to its website, the film is “an apocalyptic vision of the collision of two different worlds — urban life and technology versus the environment.”
We usually perceive our world, our way of living, as beautiful because there is nothing else to perceive. If one lives in this world, the globalized world of high technology, all one can see is one layer of commodity piled upon another. In our world the “original” is the proliferation of the standardized. Copies are copies of copies. There seems to be no ability to see beyond, to see that we have encased ourselves in an artificial environment that has remarkably replaced the original, nature itself. We do not live with nature any longer; we live above it, off of it as it were. Nature has become the resource to keep this artificial or new nature alive.
The film utilizes some particularly striking images of New York from the late 1970’s and early 1980’s to illustrate these concepts — from seemingly endless crowds moving along Fifth Avenue as if a single borderless organism, to the blank faces of abandoned tenements in the South Bronx; from the shadow of clouds crossing the Manhattan skyline, to the faces of individual New Yorkers surrounded by urban hub-bub or disconcerting stillness. One of the first images shot (though it does not appear until midway through the film) is the massive and notorious Pruitt Igoe housing project in St. Louis, Missouri, first in a state of eerie abandon, and then as it is being imploded and demolished, an event considered at the time an admission of the failure of the grand urban renewal schemes of the 1950’s and 1960’s and watershed in moving cities away from Robert Moses-type planning.
While it would probably be wrong to try to project a particular meaning or perspective onto the wordless film (the filmmaker himself has said that it has no “specific meaning or value”), there can be no denying that the questions the film raises about the abstraction and alienation of modern life and its built environment are particularly resonant in Off the Grid land, among the neighborhoods and communities which struggle to assert an individual identity and resist the push towards homogenization and standardization.
Beyond these more abstract connections, however, the entire film is undergirded by a stirring soundtrack by Philip Glass, considered perhaps the world’s foremost living modern classical composer, and a long-time resident of and fixture in the East Village.
You can watch the original theatrical trailer for the film here:
You can watch the full length, 86-minute film here: