“If we dig precious things from the land, we will invite disaster.”
If you undercrank stock footage of a city it looks frantic, and if you put peaceful music over a natural landscape it looks calm. That’s Koyaanisqatsi: an emotionally moving but intellectually casuistic tale of a supposed clash between modern man and nature.
Director Godfrey Reggio seeks to show the world we live in, but he relies heavily, too heavily, on audiovisual effect, and the film ends up feeling artificial and manipulated, a staged ballet pretending to be honest documentation.
I’m reminded of Luis Buñuel’s 1933 “documentary” of Spain’s remote Las Hurdes mountains, Land Without Bread. The film’s theme – Las Hurdes is a harsh land, where life is cheap – is sold by a powerful shot of a goat climbing a steep cliff and slipping and tumbling to its death. When you learn that the scene was staged (the goat was shot with a rifle) you feel a little cheated.
Godfrey Reggio’s film isn’t deceptive in the same way, but why contrast bustling cities with the Grand Canyon? Is this a logical or obvious comparison? Why not compare a city with a raging ocean? The Antarctic Circumpolar Current carries a million times as many tonnes of water through the Drake Passage as Times Square does cars. There is peacefulness in civilization, and instability in nature.
“Koyaanisqatsi” is a Hopi word, defined (according to Wikipedia) as “life of moral corruption and turmoil” or “life out of balance”. The film ends with Hopi prophecies portending our doom. The film’s reverence toward primitive man is of a piece with most environmentalist scare programming on TV: white people are bad, capitalism is bad, technology and industry are bad. Instead, we should take a moment to learn from beautiful primitive people, who have so much to teach us. It’s funny that most of the people promulgating this regressive message are politically left wing. Nostalgia for the 1950s makes you a conservative dinosaur, but nostalgia for 10000 BC makes you an enlightened child of the earth-spirit.
I don’t argue that modern society is perfect, but our greedy hyper-capitalist “life out of balance” has brought us good things, too: medicine, global communications, global transport, and the ability to make a film such as Koyaanisqatsi. We have created problems (such as climate change), but we can also create solutions. By contrast, the primitive people deified in the film are largely helpless against desertification, disease, ecological collapse, and so on. Any glamor the pre-technological life possesses probably lasts until your first toothache.
While I dislike Koyaanisqatsi‘s theme, I like almost everything else about it. It’s an extremely clever folding of sound over image (and vice versa), demonstrating how one can enhance and illuminate the other.
The visuals are powerful. Clouds slide in reflection across glass skyscrapers, time-lapsed so that they ripple and pulsate like gaseous alien creatures. Streams of traffic flow along streets, accelerated into rivers of pure light. Koyaanisqatsi was a microbudget production and contains a lot of stock footage, but the way this footage is cut together is clever and interesting.
Popular culture was influenced by Reggio’s style. The “sped-up urban footage” motif endemic to 90s music videos started here, for example. Near the end of the movie there’s an extended sequence where the camera tracks a person in the street…until they look up, notice they’re being filmed, and we cut to another person. To be honest, I’m not sure what the point is, but it’s a striking trick, and I’ve seen it imitated since.
Philip Glass’s music is the equivalent of a pointillistic painting, thousands of self-referential cycles of dying notes that seem to melt inside the ear like icicles. The soundtrack is complex yet paradoxically simple. Brian Eno’s pioneering ambient music in the 1970s attempted to reward any level of listener attention (whether you’re focusing intently or listening with half an ear, the music should be enjoyable), and Glass’s work achieves this with even more beauty and concision.
The film was released and the world kept turning. Reggio tried to reignite the fire of Koyaanisqatsi twice, with 1988’s Powaqqatsi (which was about third world exploitation), and Naqoyqatsi (which was about futurism and accelerationism).
The later films had bigger budgets but smaller impacts: they were like bombs landing on a target already blown to rubble. The trouble with making sequels to an experimental film is that, by definition, you’re no longer experimenting: you’re adding to a tradition. And even though Naqoyqatsi (in particular) tried to differentiate itself by amping up the digital editing to ridiculous and obnoxious levels, the Koyaanisqatsi approach had soaked into popular culture, and no longer seemed new or interesting. Hard to be impressed by time-lapse footage when you see the same stuff in Nike ads and Madonna music videos.
Koyaanisqatsi is an awkward beast. Its strongest element is its craft…the craft that subtly works against it at every turn, because it adds distance between the viewer and the reality on the screen. This is one of those films that might be better if it was less competently made, because then we might the truth, instead of a farrago of editing tricks.
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In this 1933 novel, a young woman called Doris gets laid. Too bad that’s only half the sentence, and the second half is “off from work”.
Wearing a stolen fur coat, she journeys to Berlin, intending to make it big as a Glanz – a film star.
“I want to become a star. I want to be at the top. With a white car and bubble bath that smells of perfume, and everything just like in Paris. And people have a great deal of respect for me because I’m glamorous.”
Her plans fail, and she ends up increasingly far from the high life, working as a maid, a pickpocket, and eventually a “girlfriend experience” (to use a modern euphemism). She’s following her dreams, but they’re leading her backwards: like a riptide where swimming harder means drowning faster. All she has is the fur coat, reminding her of the possibility of dreams. But the coat doesn’t belong to her. It’s someone else’s.
Keun writes a character who is stupid and smart at the same time: given to psychological monologues worthy of a tenured psychiatrist while completely unaware of how and when she’s being manipulated by others – men, institutions, and society. Being an actor is hard. You need to be focused, hard-working, very, very lucky, and at the end of the day you either have “it” or you don’t. Before coronavirus hit, Hollywood and West LA were stacked tens of thousands deep with aspiring actors, bussing tables and mowing lawns and firing out headshots like despairing messages in bottles. They won’t all succeed. Supply outstrips demand a hundredfold. “Why does New York have lots of garbage and Los Angeles have lots of actors? Because New York got to pick first.”
The Artificial Silk Girl is a kind of Grecian tragedy – a narrative that moves on towards an inevitable unhappy conclusion, while having a bitchy, funny air that makes it readable ninety years later. It’s seldom depressing or sad: Doris has a bulldog’s tenacity, and never gets kicked down for long. This, ironically, makes her into her own worst enemy: a more realistic girl would have gone home long ago.
The period setting is as much a character in the book as any of the people. Germany’s Weimar years (1918 to 1933) are often viewed as a kind of modern-day Flood parable: an orgy of decadence preceding disaster. There’s hints of political events unfolding, but Doris is blind to them: she’s trying to hustle rich men and get film roles.
She herself is apolitical, but the author wasn’t. When the NSDAP came to power, books The Artificial Silk Girl became unacceptable, and were burned on massive bonfires. Irmgard Keun (living dangerously, one thinks) actually attempted to sue the Gestapo for loss of income.
But Das Kunstseidene Mädchen is most successful not as a political or feminist polemic, but a cautionary tale of the dangers of following a dream. Sometimes ideas are just bad, and it’s almost better for them to fail immediately than to continue on: just as it’s better for a jet plane engine to break down on the runway than at an altitude of 5,000 feet.
Doris’s momentary successes seem almost cruel, because they perpetuate a fantasy. Just when she’s at the end of everything, a ray of light appears…just enough so that she keeps chasing her dream, and remains impoverished, starving, and wearing stolen clothes.
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And now we speak of a defining trend in 20th century literature, the Animal Book. They’re earnest and naturalistic accounts of an animal’s life, usually set in rural England.
You can’t push a pendulum without having it swing back the other way, and the industrial revolution (and World War I) also provoked a renewed interest in pastoralism, naturalism, and the simple way of life.
Animals were seen as the noblest savages: unspoiled by civilization. Books about them flooded the market, even as the animals inspiring them became fewer, and were driven to the edge of extinction. It’s as if the books were absorbing the souls of animals falling slain on fen and veldt and savannah. Was this the Victorian English version of mind uploading? “The African elephant is dead, but we have preserved its immortal essence in Babar.”
Nearly everyone tried their hand at at an Animal Book, and soon all the cool ones were taken. Wolves? White Fang. Horses? Black Beauty. Deer? Bambi. Dogs? The Call of the Wild. Tigers? The Jungle Book. Sheep? Who wants to read a book about sheep? The Decennary Brits got greedy and burned through all the good animals in a few short years, Peak Animal occurred around 1930, and now authors are left with options like An Earwig’s Life and Odyssey of the Tardigrade. The future looks bleak for the genre.
Tarka the Otter by Henry Williamson is in the middle of the pack. It’s readable, if not incandescently so, and it’s frequently moving in its evocation of the English countryside. It’s probably the best book you can write about an otter.
The story is simple and not very consequential. Tarka is born in Devonshire, learns to swim, feed, and clean himself, makes some friends, goes on adventures, and battles repeatedly with the hound Deadlock, who has a Terminator-esque fixation upon him.
Tarka dies at the end. Don’t feel bad: he lived a very full life. Animal Book authors were never afraid of downer endings: it’s the circle of life, and so forth. Many of them were almost indecently eager for you to know that the animal dies: this novel’s full title is Tarka the Otter: His Joyful Water-Life and Death in the Country of the Two Rivers.
What will stay with you is the descriptions, which immerse you in sights, scents, and sounds.
Time flowed with the sunlight of the still green place. The summer drakeflies, whose wings were as the most delicate transparent leaves, hatched from their cases on the water and danced over the shadowed surface. Scarlet and blue and emerald dragonflies caught them with rustle and click of bright whirring wings. It was peaceful for the otters in the back-water, ring-rippled with the rises of fish, a waving mirror of trees and the sky, of grey doves among green ash-sprays, of voles nibbling sweet roots on the banks. The moorhen paddling with her first brood croaked from under an arch of streamside hawthorn, where the sun-shafts slanting into the pool lit the old year’s leafdust drifting like smoke underwater. The otter heard every wild sound as she lay unsleeping, thinking of her lost one. The cubs breathed softly, but sometimes their nostrils worked and their legs moved, as though they were running.
The countryside is pretty, but also deadly. The giant otters of South America are apex predators, but European otters such as Tarka are not, and there are a lot of things in Devonshire trying to eat him.
I’ve often felt that the success of Animal Books rely on fear: convincing human readers to be scared of things an animal is scared of. A slithering movement at the water’s edge. An unexpected shadow darkening the sun. Tarka handles this better than most. There’s a vivid scene where otters have to cross a brightly-lit field like soldiers storming an enemy position, hugging shade, because the sunlight will catch on their glossy coats and turn them into a flashing light for predators. Richard Adams’ rabbits have a thousand enemies, but Henry Williamson’s otters have a couple hundred of their own.
By the way, “drakefly” is an archaic term for “mayfly”. The book is written using old and odd words, and my copy includes a dictionary. “Appledrane” is a wasp that has burrowed into an apple. “Oolypuggers” means bulrushes (I’m a bit skeptical that this is a real world – Google has no record of anyone using that word outside of Tarka).“Aerymouse” is a common British bat, and frankly, I rather like that word. Why did we stop calling bats aerymouses?
Also, why Animal Books? This reverence to nature has sinister undertones today, because it reminds of certain parts of fascism (organic state, blood and soil, etc). Tarka the Otter is one of many books that seems to be disappearing from public memory. After I read Henry Williamson’s Wikipedia page (“He had a ‘well-known belief that Hitler was essentially a good man who wanted only to build a new and better Germany.'”) it occurred to me that it’s deliberately being forgotten, and with a quickness.
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