Koyaanisqatsi (1982): Forced harmony

Akis Lalos
5 min readJun 14, 2020

This should have been ideal for me. I am always on the lookout for transcendent vision, and second to the real journey is only the cinematic ritual. Herzog does it for me, Tarkovsky and his meditations about time inside time. And I firmly believe it has done quite a bit of harm to think the universe is telling some sort of story, it has misled us to devise arcs and expect story-answers, so I welcome any attempt that aspires to push against the boundaries of thought and narrative. That is always the essential ritual, only the tool that allows the dancer to submerge himself beyond description, to where he can be one with dance that means itself.

I will not deny the man the powerful dance of his images, or the dedicated craft, but the ending reveals him to be shallow in the reach and depth of his meditation (if you were on the fence before). And it matters that this narrows the world by so much (as opposed to, say, a new Marvel film), because a lot of people are coming to it for a worldview and are willing to open up.

His “life out of balance”(Koyaanisqatsi) is “a state of life that calls for another way of living”.

I’m all for any way of living that does not take our world for granted. But it’s a small view to contrast natural ‘purity’ with the evils and violence of man-made technology.

Isn’t it revealing here, that human-attempted control over the elements is criticized, by filmmakers who used some of the best film technology had to offer, in order to manipulate the elements and even time itself to enhance impressions of natural purity?

Worse, it is every bit as idealized and un-natural as seeking out panoramas of skies for their extraordinariness. You can suspect that the filmmakers had to sift through a lot of unexciting shots of nature until they could settle on images that were nature as they wanted it to be, more ‘natural’ than others.

And passing that as spiritual vision narrows the world, because it forces harmony where actual nature has turbulence built into it, stochastic chaos, and that forces a story of something originally pure and stable — paradise — that we are separate from and uprooting, and this sort of religious thinking only further separates us from the natural world. It also ignores fundamental dynamics of the real thing.

For one, “life out of balance” is the natural way, it is why everything exists in the first place; planets are in position, because universal space exploded in that first minute of creation. I wonder if he was blind to it in his own images of swirling clouds and sand-particles.

Moreover, we are indeed, doing a lot of destructively rapid, short-sighted terraforming of our own next to nature’s, and a lot of our contraptions break, but wouldn’t it be much more agreeable to counterpoint that with some of the many wonderful advances we have made on the backs of failure? Being able to separate now poisonous from edible and medicinal plants, means people died in the discovery, brave and curious explorers.

And this guy is just not a very curious explorer to me. He has traveled far and captured amazing things on tape. But, it seems as if all has to fit into that one image, instead of one image splintering to reveal a multitude of reflections.

His craft reveals as much; it strives for controlled perfection, omniscience, monumental depiction, clean boundaries, in every bit the same way as Riefenstahl fought in her films to choreograph the world into her own image of idealized sensuality — confused for spiritual.

It’s no wonder Coppola was so smitten by this he put his name and money on it, a similarly over-zealous man enthralled (at one point) by ‘mystical’ nature.

Both, by their overly zealous approach to freeze transcendence, reveal in a roundabout way the limitations of the human model criticized here: we are at odds with this being an imperfect, chaotic world, so when the film ends with footage of burning space rocket debris cascading from the skies, the notion is not acceptance of the inevitable end of things, but a cautionary lament: if only we lived another way, things wouldn’t blow up in our face. And there is simply no such way to live, not without skiing on imbalance, which is why life is worth it in the first place.

And we all have to live with the fact every single day. The energy world has to daily spend a large amount simply to make-up for turbulent energy loss, because that is nature’s way.

I wrote the above several years ago, at a time when the challenges we face could be dimly seen whereas now they must be obvious to all. It seemed like as a good a place as any to begin again.

As our world becomes smaller and more turbulent with every new means to interconnect with each other, and the challenges of how to best use all the new available tools sometimes seems insurmountable, it’s worth remembering there was never any ‘purer’, more innocent past, outside the stories we tell ourselves about it. Pining for any version of it, we turn our back to the work we have ahead of us.

The world is changing faster and more deeply than at any time in the past a hundred years. The last time it did, women got the right to vote, workers got the 8-hour workday, bank savings were guaranteed for the first time, child labor was abolished, environmental and food safety standards were first introduced. Common sense now that they are established horizon behind us, but they were radical propositions for a long time, unthinkable until they happened. Still more changes would come in later, such as social security, and others are even now incomplete.

Friends, it’s the turbulent motion of a changing world where we learn to balance, right in the midst of it. It’s always been what inspires the ingenious human self who has come up with crafty solutions to so much hardship and injustice. Having heat and running water in your home were products of the most radical technology once. The right to vote, and to free speech as abstract agreements of how we amongst ourselves decided things should be from now on; they did not fall from the sky on our lap one day, we came up with them.

It always falls on ourselves only to say what shape the world is going to take.



Akis Lalos

writer on structured narrative and the changing world