I recently screened Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi (1982) for the first time as part of a spate of documentaries that I’d been meaning to get through and which I unfortunately won’t be writing much about here (though it’s largely been great stuff. How is it that Errol Morris’ shattering Abu Ghraib doc Standard Operating Procedure  came and went so quietly?). Koyaanisqatsi is one of those films that have been on my radar for the better part of fifteen years but that I’d never actually seen; I can even recall reading capsule descriptions of it as a kid while paging through my first movie books (ex. VideoHound’s Golden Movie Retriever) and thinking, “this sounds weird/cool,” and then later hearing that one of my parents’ co-workers had a copy of the Philip Glass soundtrack. It occurs to me that when I first came upon it I had been browsing around for films that were unusual or off-beat in some way or another (my eye was probably caught by that confounding title), and that Koyaanisqatsi qualifies as a cult film in some ways, not least because of its resistance to categorization.
Is it a documentary? An avant-garde film? I would say it’s both, and also that, more specifically, it belongs to a cinematic subgenre that hasn’t been utilized much these last fifty years, the “city symphony” film. City symphony films were big in the 20s, before the advent of sound: think Vertov’s Man with the Movie Camera (1929), or Ruttman’s Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927), or Cavalcanti’s Rien que les heures (1926), or Paul Strand’s Manhatta (1921). (The phrase “city symphony” may have even inspired Disney’s “Silly Symphonies” of the late 20s/early 30s, and the “Rhapsody in Blue” segment of Disney’s Fantasia 2000, set over the course of a single day in New York City, may be a jokey attempt to close the circle.) Tellingly, Koyaanisqatsi is not tethered to a particular city, nor is it even tethered to an urban milieu; one of its “points,” such as they are, is that we have entered an age of the global city, the world-as-city, and that the distinction between industrial culture and non-industrial culture is wider—and therefore more significant—than the difference between one urban center and another.
It’s a dazzling film in a lot of ways: visually, musically (how is it that Philip Glass has never won an Oscar for his film work?), structurally. Its influence can be felt not only in more recent nature documentaries (“global symphonies”?) such as BBC’s Planet Earth (2006) and the Glenn Close-narrated Home (dir. Yann Arthus-Bertrand, 2009), with their epic landscape shots, but also in, say, Kino’s 2003 DVD of Man with the Movie Camera, in which Michael Nyman’s excellent score for the film, set to the hustle and flow of modern Moscow, recalls the churning rhythms of Glass. Rumor has it that Criterion will be releasing a definitive edition of this in the year to come.