Friday, January 17, 2014

Koyaanisqatsi

If we associate landscape with slow cinema it is partly because we are used to seeing scenery framed statically, like a photograph, focusing our attention on small movements or gradual change.  Speeding things up by using time-lapse photography would feel inauthentic, like nature on fast forward, a concession to our diminishing attention spans.  We have all now seen footage of clouds chasing over a landscape or a city of lights flickering off and on as day follows night, they have become visual clich├ęs.  And yet I wonder if there are still unexplored possibilities in what may seem a rather over-used technique?  There are certainly moments in Godfrey Reggio's Koyaanisqatsi, filmed in the late seventies and released in 1982, that still look extraordinary.  Every kind of sublime is explored - natural, industrial, digital - and time-lapse sequences include shadows lengthening over a desert wilderness, rivers of cars heading into Los Angeles and the constant motion of factory production lines.  I think it would be interesting to see similar techniques deployed more often on a modest scale by contemporary landscape filmmakers (see for example my earlier post on Jeffrey Blondes' Length of Days).  

 

Koyaanisqatsi may be best known for its Philip Glass score (at the time minimalism and time-lapse must have felt right together as Michael Nyman composed a piece called 'Time Lapse' for Peter Greenaway's A Zed & Two Noughts).  Glass's music for Reggio captured 'both the calm of nature and the ferocity of technology run amok', as K. Robert Schwarz writes in his book on the minimalist composers.  However, their sequel Powaqqatsi (which I've not seen) was less successful according to Schwarz - 'a simplistic comparison of idealized third-world agrarian societies with dehumanized Western urban ones, accompanied by a score overburdened with exotic instruments of every variety'. Glass and Reggio have recently collaborated again on a film called Visitors.  Introducing this in September at the Toronto International Film Festival, Steven Soderbergh said (according to Filmmaker Magazine) that “if, 500 years ago, monks could sit on a beach and make a movie, this is what it would look like.”  Meanwhile the Philip Glass title music for Koyaanisqatsi was used in the opening sequence of another film released last year: Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa.

1 comment:

Mike C. said...

It's odd, and perhaps a side-effect of ageing, that the "experimental" work I saw and heard in the 70s, of which this is an example (but I also think of Greenaway, "Powers of Ten", Herzog & Co., early David Lynch, the gallery work of Richard Long and Hamish Fulton) still feels "adventurous and contemporary" forty years on, despite the way it set up so many cliches.

It's also odd how few, if any, of these people got very far beyond their early work. In some ways, avant garde culture seems to have been stopped in its tracks by whatever it was that happened in the 1980s/90s... (State funding? End of unemployment benefits?)

Mike