It starts with an explosion in reverse - a subtle mimicry of birth, perhaps. And as the rocket re-assembles on its way to the ground, human entropy seems ever nearer. It is turmoil and tranquility, suspense in spirituality - it is Koyaanisqatsi; or, life out of balance.
“If we dig precious things from the land, great disturbances will develop in the balance of nature, and we invite disaster.”
Long ago, in the depths of the Nevada desert, a hole opened in the earth and the Hopi people emerged. They quickly established the village of Pivanhonkyapi, where peace and harmony reigned, till one day, amidst growing boredom, they were introduced to the game of Totolopsi. Soon, everyone was consumed by gambling; all responsibilities were abandoned, and unity fell apart.
Thus, the state of Koyaanisqatsi, or life out of balance, was reached. As it encompassed the whole community, the only solution was a new beginning. In a bid to rid the village of its corruption, the village leader, with the help of the Wind God, unleashed the fire of purification. The villagers were so concerned with their game that they refused to flee and were swallowed by the blaze. And this marks the end of Pivanhonkyapi.
The film only ever suggests modern-day parallels, preferring a probing ambiguity. Yet, its panoramic aloofness, fuelled by a constant toying with reversals, accelerations, and slow motion, presents modern reality as an equally potent myth-maker. The viewer becomes part of a production line, of a place outside of time, transcending their humanity to see the self and our world, spring forth into existence. Society takes on the determinism of choreography, and yet, the brief glimpses of eye contact, a mother and child sunbathing with a power plant in the background, serve to remind us these are people, each on an incalculable trajectory.
From the cave paintings of Horse Canyon to the bustle of the New York City subway, its detached mode is simultaneously an ode to and an indictment of the human condition. The juxtaposition of humanity, nature, and technology constantly teases the intangibility of entangled connections. A retrospective manifesto might claim ancestry to Latour’s Actor-Network Theory. Or perhaps it would claim nothing at all, preferring the ambiguity it so clearly supposes.
"A gourd of ashes might one day be thrown from the sky, which could burn the land and boil the oceans, where no grass can grow for many years, causing a disease that no medicine can cure."
From yet another perspective, it might suggest that life is permanently out of balance, not progressing or improving, merely changing. While culture, as shown in Koyaanisqatsi, is monolithic, the imagery hints at a process of disintegration and reintegration constantly emanating across temporal and spatial scales. Time has moved on, the great fire has not yet come, but imbalance has remained a permanent feature. Koyaanisqatsi now has the feel of a historical document, a beautiful moment to pinpoint as the start of a new era.