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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

December 10 2011

Exhibitionist: The week's art shows in pictures

From Kapoor's quiet redemption in Nottingham to a thunderous Anselm Kiefer show in London, find out what's happening in art around the country

December 09 2011

Hokusai makes waves; George Shaw curates Graham Sutherland – the week in art

The legendary Japanese printmaker earns a closer look at the British Museum, while Turner nominee Shaw pays homage to a 20th-century great in Oxford – all in your weekly art newsletter

Jonathan Jones's top shows to see this week

Hokusai's Great Wave
This free exhibition offers a close look at a masterpiece of power, energy and awe. In about 1831, while Turner was relishing the grandeur of the sea in the European Romantic age, Katsushika Hokusai created this scintillating vision of nature unbound.
• At the British Museum until 8 January 2012

Graham Sutherland, curated by George Shaw
This survey of drawings by the British artist Graham Sutherland, whose spiky romantic reinterpretation of Picasso was a powerful force in British modern art in the 1940s, has been curated by painter George Shaw. Most of Shaw's paintings deal with the Tile Hill estate in Coventry where he spent his childhood and adolescence, and Sutherland's most famous work today is his tapestry Christ in Glory in Coventry Cathedral – so it seems his interest in this artist is both personal and local.
• At Modern Art Oxford from 10 December until 18 March 2012

United Enemies
Britain is becoming obsessed with its modern art history. As contemporary art roots itself in the national imagination, the history of 20th-century British art is increasingly popular. While Sutherland is in Oxford, the British sculptors of the 1960s and 70s are revisited here.
• At Henry Moore Institute, Leeds, until 11 March 2012

Dara Birnbaum
A new work about the music of Clara and Robert Schumann shows alongside early classics by this video art pioneer.
• At South London Gallery, SE5, until 12 February 2012

Asier Mendizabal
The biggest show so far outside Spain for a highly rated upcoming artist.
• At Raven Row, London E1, until 12 February 2012

Up close: artworks in detail

John Singer Sargent, Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose, 1885-6
Tired of the cold weather already? This lovely painting transports you back to long ago summers and Victorian childhood. The light in Sargent's garden scene is rapturous in its subtle emotional glow. Never has beauty seemed more vulnerable and transient and needing to be cherished at all costs.
• At Tate Britain, London SW1P

Camera obscura
Did artists in the past such as Caravaggio and Vermeer use a camera obscura to map their absorbing visions of reality? This optical wonder at the Royal Observatory lets you see what they might have seen. Light focused through a tiny hole casts a pale cinematic image of people in the park on to a flat surface. There's something magical about it, like trapping souls in a darkened chamber. This is just one of the ways art and science meet at the observatory where Wren and Halley once pushed back the boundaries of knowledge.
• At Royal Observatory, Greenwich

Caravaggio, Boy Bitten by a Lizard, 1595-1600
The boy's fingers are dirty, as the hands and feet of Caravaggio's people always are. It roots him in the low life of the Baroque city. Reflections of the studio glance and dazzle in the vase. Fruits are painted with a mesmerising realism. But the bite of the lizard hidden in the bounty warns of the dangers of sensual delight.
• At National Gallery, London WC2N

Piero di Cosimo, The Forest Fire, c1505
This tremendous vision of the primitive ages of the world is a rolling landscape that blazes at its heart. A forest is in flames, a dense hot nest of darkness and light at the centre of the scene. Beasts and humans and monsters flee. Piero went deep into mythology – it was said he was a misanthrope who lived on boiled eggs and was scared of church bells. Here he is in his element: the world of imagination.
• At Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

Willem Kalf, Still Life: Fruit, Goblet and Salver, 1660s
This Dutch artist casts a cool and steady eye on the pleasures of the physical world.
• At Manchester Art Gallery

What we learned this week

What happened when Freud asked Bacon to unzip his trousers

Why a band of academics are up in arms about some drilling in Florence

How William Hogarth dealt with the frosty glances of passers by

Why slow burners are wont to triumph in the Turner prize

Why Jeremy Deller believes "it's human nature to want to see when you've fucked up"

Image of the week

Your Art Weekly

Have you seen any of these shows? What have you enjoyed this week? Give your review in the comments below or tweet us your verdict using #artweekly.

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