How TV Addles Kids’ Brains: A Short Film Directed by Godfrey Reggio (Maker of Koyaanisqatsi) & Scored by Philip Glass

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, “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?

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Koy­aanisqat­si at 1552% Speed

Ray Brad­bury Reveals the True Mean­ing of Fahren­heit 451: It’s Not About Cen­sor­ship, But Peo­ple “Being Turned Into Morons by TV”

Mar­shall McLuhan Explains Why We’re Blind to How Tech­nol­o­gy Changes Us, Rais­ing the Ques­tion: What Have the Inter­net & Social Media Done to Us?

The Case for Delet­ing Your Social Media Accounts & Doing Valu­able “Deep Work” Instead, Accord­ing to Prof. Cal New­port

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.

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