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December 15 2011

My favourite film: Koyaanisqatsi

In the latest of our writers' favourite film series, Leo Hickman is bowled over by the elemental force of Godfrey Reggio and Philip Glass's 1982 environmental masterpiece

Want to set the world to rights? Have your say in the comments section below – or write your own review

It's a film without any characters, plot or narrative structure. And its title is notoriously hard to pronounce. What's not to love about Koyaanisqatsi?

I came to Godfrey Reggio's 1982 masterpiece very late. It was actually during a Google search a few years back when looking for timelapse footage of urban traffic (for work rather than pleasure!) that I came across a "cult film", as some online reviewers were calling it. This meant I first watched it as all its loyal fans say not to: on DVD, on a small screen. If ever a film was destined for watching in a cinema, this is it. But, even without the luxury of full immersion, I was still truly captivated by it and, without any exaggeration, I still think about it every day.

Koyaanisqatsi's formula is simple: combine the epic, remarkable cinematography of Ron Fricke with the swelling intensity and repeating motifs of Philip Glass's celebrated original score. There's your mood bomb, right there. But Reggio's directorial vision is key, too. He was the one who drove the project for six years on a small budget as he travelled with Fricke across the US in the mid-to-late 1970s, filming its natural and urban wonders with such originality.

Personally, I view the film as the quintessential environmental movie – a transformative meditation on the current imbalance between humans and the wider world that supports them (in the Hopi language, "Koyanaanis" means turmoil and "qatsi" means life). But Reggio has rightly refused to define the film's specific meaning; he even fought unsuccessfully with the distributor for the film to have no title. (Incidentally, it was only Francis Ford Coppola's last-minute support that helped push it into mainstream cinemas.)

"It's meant to offer an experience, rather than an idea," said Reggio in a 2002 interview (included with the DVD as a special feature). "For some people, it's an environmental film. For some, it's an ode to technology. For some people, it's a piece of shit. Or it moves people deeply. It depends on who you ask. It is the journey that is the objective."

It's the sort of answer you might expect from someone who was a resident member of the Christian Brothers teaching order from the age of 14 to 28. He also cites Luis Buñuel's Los Olvidados as one of his most moving spiritual experiences. But it was his time spent making shorts for the Institute for Regional Education in the early 70s that sparked Koyaanisqatsi. The New Mexico-based institute provided $40,000 of funding after he made them a series of campaign films aimed at raising public awareness about how technology and surveillance were being used to "control behaviour".

The first section of Koyaanisqatsi begins with long, aerial shots of the natural world – cloudscapes, ocean waves, the desert scenery of Monument Valley made so famous by 1950s westerns. Slowly, the presence of mankind drips into the film: we see power lines, mines and atomic explosions. Then, after half an hour or so – yes, this film demands commitment, concentration and utter capitulation – the pace and visual intensity picks up, as some transfixing footage of derelict housing estates being demolished feeds into urban scenes of traffic, shown in either slow motion or rapid timelapse. We see hotdogs and Twinkies being made in a food factory, people spilling out and on to trains and elevators, and jumbo jets taxiing at LAX. And then it climaxes perfectly with archive footage of a Nasa test rocket exploding during takeoff in 1962, with the camera tracking the final flaming piece of debris as it falls back to earth.

It may look hackneyed now, as we've become so used to Koyaanisqatsi's much-imitated techniques – Madonna's Ray of Light video, high-definition slow-motion footage of sport, Adam Curtis documentaries. Our minds have been seared by images of the Twin Towers falling and the Challenger and Columbia space shuttles exploding – both prophetically foreshadowed in the film. But still, 30 years on, Koyaanisqatsi can connect with us, perhaps more than ever. And you can't overstate how much Glass's score sets the tone and rhythm for the film's rolling, relentless cycle of imagery.

"I didn't want to show the obviousness of injustice, social deprivation, war, etc," said Reggio. "I wanted to show that which we're most proud of: our shining beast, our way of life. So [the film] is about the beauty of this beast." He clearly thought he might partially disguise his concerns about the direction of mankind within the film. But other statements reveal his true feelings:

"What I tried to show is that the main event today is not seen by those who live in it. We see the surface of the newspapers and the obviousness of conflict, social injustice, the market, the welling up of culture. But for me, the greatest and most important event of perhaps our entire history has fundamentally gone unnoticed: the transiting from old nature – or the natural environment as our host of life for human habitation – into a technological milieu, into mass technology, as the environment of life."

The New York Times, in its original 1982 review, was somewhat ambivalent about the film: "Koyaanisqatsi is an oddball and – if one is willing to put up with a certain amount of solemn picturesqueness – entertaining trip." But the film, which is actually the first part of a (long-delayed and, in my view, far less successful) trilogy, has since been added to the National Film Registry by the US Library of Congress due to it being "culturally, historically and aesthetically" significant.

My one regret with the film is that I have yet to see it on the big screen. I missed it last year at the Brighton festival – where the Philip Glass Ensemble played the soundtrack live – and again at Edinburgh earlier this year. I am determined not to waste such a chance again. © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

June 13 2011

Venice in Peril: tribute to a drowning city

In pictures: A group of leading international artists have created a haunting photographic profile of Venice, to raise awareness of the city's rising water levels

April 09 2010

Emissions make joke of Orbit tower

Is a tower sponsored by a steel empire with emissions matching that of the Czech Republic appropriate as a lasting monument to the 'world's first sustainable Olympics'?

I'm a fan of oversized structures open to the public with fantastic views across cities, from the Eiffel Tower to the Rockfeller Centre. I'm even a fan of Anish Kapoor's work. (Isn't it time the Queen created a new post of artist laureate specially for Kapoor?)

But the decision to embrace ArcelorMittal, the world's largest steelmaker, as the sponsor for the £19m Kapoor-designed Orbit tower – or Boris's Olympic folly as it is becoming known – is one that really sends me into a spin.

I don't care that the tower resembles a 115m helterskelter tangled in Wembley stadium's arch. But during London's bid for the Olympics, sustainability was the buzzword. The London games would "set an example for how sustainable events and urban planning take place around the world in future."

Is the Orbit the type of landmark the organisers of the 2012 Olympics – who have some impressive green achievements under their belt – really had in mind when it said London would host the world's "first sustainable Olympic and Paralympic Games"?

The commission was agreed by the London mayor, Boris Johnson, and the Olympic minister, Tessa Jowell. But the choice of ArcelorMittal appears to have been thanks to a chance encounter between Johnson and the steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal "in a Davos cloakroom".

But for Johnson to make his mark on London 2012 and its legacy with thousands of tonnes of steel, one of the world's most carbon-intensive materials, appears at odds with the sustainable values of the Olympic Delivery Authority and the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games (LOCOG) – and the spirit of the times.

ArcelorMittal's court challenge to Europe's cap-and-trade scheme, recently reported by PointCarbon, is its most recent act of resistance against the EU emissions trading scheme (ETS), the main mechanism for driving down CO2 levels in industry. ArcelorMittal's action brought before the European general court sought damages for being forced to pay for its greenhouse gas emissions because the company claimed the scheme threatened its business unfairly. The court dismissed the challenge last month.

Although ArcelorMittal is cagey about its own figures for allocation of carbon credits, climate campaigners have been hard at work poring over data for the EU ETS. Sandbag which campaigns to restrict the number of credits traded on the ETS, last year published a report with the help of Carbon Market Data claiming that by 2012 the company would have 80m carbon credits that it does not need, and was given for free. If sold, the company stands to make £1bn in windfall profits, says Sandbag. A tidy profit for doing, well not much, made by a company led by Mittal, who also happens to be Europe's richest man.

But this prospect hasn't prevented the company – along with the rest of the industry – from whingeing about its obligations under the EU ETS and demanding special treatment from the European commission by warning of "carbon leakage", that they claim would force factories to relocate to regions which have no cap-and-trade scheme.

In its corporate responsibility report, How will we achieve safe sustainable steel, ArcelorMittal admits its emissions are high. Every year it produces around 220m tonnes of carbon w – equivalent to the whole output of the Czech Republic or just under half of the UK's total emissions in 2009.

ArcelorMittal aims to reduce emissions from steel manufacture by 8% in 10 years' time and is already the world's largest recycler of scrap steel – to the tune of 25m tonnes a year – which it claims saves 35m tonnes of CO2 annually. ArcelorMittal has already won one of the first gold medals of the games with this PR coup to sponsor the Orbit. But it has missed an added opportunity to extra shine to its steel business with a commitment to using at least a large proportion of recycled steel in its construction.

But when I asked ArcelorMittal and the mayor's office to explain what makes the steel giant an appropriate sponsor of the lasting monument to the "world's first sustainable Olympic games", both refused to comment directly.

They referred me to a press release by the London mayor's office in which the only mention of sustainability comes in the notes at the bottom:

ArcelorMittal recognises that it has a significant responsibility to tackle the global climate change challenge; it takes a leading role in the industry's efforts to develop breakthrough steelmaking technologies and is actively researching and developing steel-based technologies and solutions that contribute to combat climate change.

Bryony Worthington from Sandbag says: "Boris really should have done his homework. While on the surface ArcelorMittal like to appear a responsible company they have been very active opponents of climate change regulations in Europe. They have also been amassing a small fortune in spare CO2 emissions permits as a result of lobbying for generous allocations. They now have more control over emissions trading in Europe than some countries."

As a Londoner and a sports fan, I wish he'd bumped into someone else in the cloakroom at Davos. But who, one of the other sponsors such as British Airways or BP? Last year ArcelorMittal had revenues of $65.1bn (£42.4bn). What other company would have £16m spare right now? In these straitened times, would London be better off without such a monolith to a steel empire with CO2 emissions equivalent to that of the Czech Republic? © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

November 06 2009

Win a Picasso - and save the planet

Signed linocut by Picasso offered in 10:10 competition

Ever fancied owning an original Picasso? How about a signed one? And what if it was also something that helped the fight against global warming? Well, the dreams of one art-loving environmentalist will soon come true.

The 10:10 campaign plans to give away an original, signed linocut made by Pablo Picasso in 1956. Vallauris is a linocut printed in five colours, each made from a separate block.

Picasso produced a series of linocuts from 1951 to 1964, which were used as posters for an annual exhibition of ceramics in the southern French town of Vallauris, where the Catalan artist had settled in 1948. The town is famed for its ceramics, arts and crafts exhibitions and bullfighting. Picasso made many of his ceramic artworks near Vallauris, in the local Madoura pottery.

Now the Vallauris linocut will enter history in a new role — raising money to fight climate change. To win the artwork, entrants can buy as many tickets as they wish to enter (each priced at £10.10) and answer a question about Picasso's work. Correct entries will be drawn from a proverbial hat on 31 January next year and all proceeds go to the 10:10 campaign.

"Short of robbing a gallery, this is the best chance that us ordinary mortals have of getting our hands on a Picasso. And you'll be saving the planet at the same time," said Franny Armstrong, founder of the 10:10 campaign. "If we could sell 100,000 tickets, we could run the whole campaign for another 18 months."

The 65cm by 54cm artwork, valued at around £4,500, is one of a few printer's proofs made by Impremerie Arnera in 1956 and printed on Arches paper by the Association des potiers de Vallauris. It was donated to the 10:10 campaign by art dealer and philanthropist Fred Mulder. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2009 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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