On October 4, 1982, “more than 5,000 people filled the Radio City Music Hall to experience a remarkable event. That event was the world premiere of Koyaanisqatsi.” So says the poster for the wide release of that film, an experimental documentary without spoken words on the natural and manmade environment that neither looked nor sounded — nor felt — like anything many of its viewers had ever experienced in a movie theater before.
Unable to muster any of their standard reactions, they had no choice but to sit and observe as, in slow motion and fast motion and every speed in between, waterfalls thundered, chasms yawned, skyscrapers soared, commuters scurried, and rockets launched before their eyes — all to the music of Philip Glass. You might say that Koyaanisqatsi (see trailer below), as well as its formally similar sequels Powaqqatsi and Naqoyqatsi, puts its viewers in an altered state of mind.
The trilogy’s director, a former monk-in-training named Godfrey Reggio, might say the same thing about television, whose flickering blueish presence emerges from time to time in his work, but he wouldn’t mean it in a good way. In 1995, between Powaqqatsi and Naqoyqatsi, he made a short called Evidence which, in the words of koyaanisqatsi.org, “looks into the eyes of children watching television — in this case Walt Disney’s Dumbo. Though engaged in a daily routine, they appear drugged, retarded, like the patients of a mental hospital.”
Accompanying and in a sense commenting on their glazed, often slack-jawed expressions, we once again, as in Reggio’s transfixing feature documentaries, have a Glass-composed score. Unlike moviegoers in a theater, “television viewers become prey to the television’s own light impulses, they go into an altered state — a transfixed condition where the eyes, the mind, the breathing of the subject is clearly under the control of an outside force. In a poetic sense and without exaggerating one might say that the television technology is eating the subjects who sit before its gaze.”
In the more than two decades since, this kind of criticism of television has given way to a more general criticism of electronic media, most of whose currently popular forms didn’t exist in 1995; Reggio and Glass’ most recent collaboration, 2013’s Visitors, deals with “humanity’s trancelike relationship with technology.” You and your children may have escaped the “tractor beam that holds its subjects in total control” as Evidence depicts it, but in the 21st century the number of tractor beams has greatly multiplied. And so the question remains worth asking: which ones have you under their control?
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.