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 rituals 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 thought and 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, because a lot of people are coming to it for a worldview and willing to open up.
His “life out of balance”(Koyaanisqatsi) is “a state of life that calls for another way of living”.
It is just small view to contrast natural ‘purity’ with the evils and violence of man-made technology.
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.
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.
And isn’t it just weird but so revealing at the same time, 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 time to enhance impressions of natural purity?
I give this a 5.
What say you Mubi?
Let me see if I understand your criticisms:
1. You seem to be saying that the film’s views are too simplistic and narrow (and maybe overly-romantic)—i.e., nature is good/balanced, the man-made world is bad/out of balance. You believe that technology and other man-made contraptions actually have done some good. So characterizing man-made objects in an unambiguously bad light is simplistic and misleading.
My response: I agree with this criticism (if my memory serves me right). I did find the “message” a little simplistic.
2. You object to the assertion that balance or harmony are accurate descriptors of nature, pointing out that chaos and destruction are integral parts of nature, too. Therefore, the idea that harmony and balance accurately describe nature is misleading and wrong.
My response: This might be a semantic problem. Chaos and destruction are a part of nature, but I think the film is saying that nature includes these processes in a way that ultimately leads to balance and harmony. The chaos and destruction caused by people, on the other hand, could just lead to total chaos and destruction—i.e., it’s not being used to create and maintain harmony, balance and life in general.
3. You find the filmmakers highly selective and organized approach to be highly ironic given the film’s ostensible premise—i.e., that nature is, well, natural and diametrically opposed to what is man-made (which is characterized by meticulous organizing).
My response: But the fact that the film is organized is inescapable—or at least not easily avoided. I guess you could say that the film is too organized and structured—in a way that undermines the film’s point and depiction of nature. I’m not sure I buy that, but I’m willing to listen to an argument for that.
Finally, I wanted to comment on one section:
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 rituals 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 thought and description, to where he can be one with dance that means itself.
I’m not entirely sure what you mean here. But I have a few comments:
1. Rituals derive from human organization of symbols, ideas, including some from stories. So if you’re saying that rituals are significantly different from stories, I don’t think I agree with that.
2. If you’re objecting to simplistic and pat answers, I think this is a valid criticism, but that’s something different from the ordering and organization of reality—i.e., the type of the thing that artists and human beings in general tend to do to understand reality.
Maybe it is a problem of human-scope, this notion of a harmonious nature. You may casually look up from going about your business, and for an entire lifetime that mountain over there is going to be the same. Rivers flow from the same place, and so forth. But, species go extinct, stars explode, the center of our galaxy is a black hole.
The human effort for artificial nature is indeed something else, as I said, short-sighted and rapid, but we also in our way strive for balance in the long run.
An argument on organization: Herzog shoots footage of Tibetan monks lost in ritual preparation of the Great Sand Mandala for his Wheel of Time, but the footage is ordinary and mundane, craftsmen absorbed at work. We see mountains, but a capricious camera doesn’t swirl around to find the most evocative and exciting angle that will present nature as it ought to be.
I agree that you organize the moment you insert a camera, but there is letting go so the thing can at least partially shape itself into what it has potential to become, and there is Reggio’s despotic control of even time to conform to the Ideal depiction. In my view, he is much more in line with Riefenstahl than say, Buddhism.
The last part..
Stories are in a sense rituals, I can get behind that. But there is a world of difference between the way we reason with stories and Hopi indians of several hundred years ago did. There is a overbearing reliance in the West in logical storytelling devices, and you can see that in the very common response to films like Marienbad or Inland Empire: what does it mean? what is the story?
And the point of a ritual is it confounds the thinking mind, which is a tool of very limited usage. Which is why you are going to see in rituals self-induced hallucinatory states of mind, from repetitive dance to consumption of substances, and that is mirrored in what many viewers describe when a film is a life-changing experience as ‘hypnotic’.
Symbols in a ritual are not there to be reasonably decoded, that’s a disastrous line of thought we have in the West. They are signposts for concentration in a general direction. Everything in a ritual is there to support that state of concentrated mind, from the environment to the music to the code of silence.
We have lost the significance of this, because we can look back at an obviously hypocritic and corrupt religion, so we can safely wave the whole thing off as a charade: soothing bed-time stories.
The story is soothing, because you are directed from the narrow confines of reason to something else, and yes, a good story is like a ritual, only the tool that pries you open.
But more often than not in my view, that’s not the case.
“And isn’t it just weird but so revealing at the same time, 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 time to enhance impressions of natural purity?”
No, unless you think the film=anti-technology, which would be extreme reductionism.
It focusses on the dangers of the use of technology in certain areas of life. The fact that there are chaotic forces in nature does not invalidate the claim that there is a degree of harmony to nature, when respected. Wouldn’t the most logical choice be to live in a way that minimizes the damage caused to the natural world?
Seems reasonable to me.
“Symbols in a ritual are not there to be reasonably decoded, that’s a disastrous line of thought we have in the West. They are signposts for concentration in a general direction. Everything in a ritual is there to support that state of concentrated mind, from the environment to the music to the code of silence.”
But rituals serve a function, so rationalisation is therefore unavoidable.
i agree with you that there are problems understanding the oral world from the point of view of a literature though, but rituals in the ancient world served a practical function, even if it’s debatable whether they actually possessed ‘knowledge’ in the sense that we understand that word today.
Yes, a ritual functions. Its function is that it sidesteps you rationalizing what it’s all about. You can later come up with some description of its mechanism, but it simply doesn’t work if you’re thinking about it.
In Western religion, we know – and mock it – it as faith, you need faith in prayer.
The same is much more purely preserved in Buddhism, which is a much more sophisticated ‘religion’ in general: meditation is avoiding rationalization, thought, description, which is all the ego, let’s say the unreliable film noir narrator, that presents the story to you.
“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.”
This is an important point. ‘Nature’ photography follows more often the same rules that constitute architecture (and photography of architecture). I also get really annoyed when people do things like this:
OMGWTFBBQ!!! A digital artist’s rendition of a nebula graphically matches a digital artist’s rendition of an atomic cluster…. a galaxy is merely a cell in a giant’s body, man!
Somewhere along the line, digital artist renditions meant to LITERALLY ILLUSTRATE physical phenomena have become perceived as what mostly invisible things actually ‘look like’. The image has become the thing, the render its territory.
Now. I love those images too because the universe is fucking rad and shit. But this attachment to graphic matches show that we tend to recreate nature in our own image, and then get profoundly moved by the fact that it all looks familiar to us….
These aesthetic issues have interesting consequences as to how nature photography affects our conclusions about nature.
“He has traveled far and captured amazing things on tape.”
To be fair, I believe Koyaanisqatsi was shot on film.
Now I like the movie, but mostly agree with your criticisms.
Having freshly seen Samsara, I really love the aesthetic qualities of Ron Fricke’s cinematography. His films are simply amazing to look at. Maybe I value those aesthetics a little higher than the rest of you do, so I have a better impression of films like this.
It is true as well that his observations are kind of pat and simplistic. He shows some sped up film of people shopping at BJs, eating fast food, then cuts to an obese man having a line down drawn his stomach for what’s implied to be weight control surgery. Great, we consume out of control then have surgery to manage our appearance instead of managing our health naturally. But you’re examining that fact with all the subtlety and nuance of a Hollywood issue film, that’s not interesting. It’s something you either agree with or not and that’s that, not something that spawns a conversation.
These films are great for beautiful images and amazing cinematography, but they’re sure as heck not persuasive.
“Maybe I value those aesthetics a little higher than the rest of you do, so I have a better impression of films like this.”
When it comes down to it, these films are very pretty. I’m willing to indulge in pretty art, whereas these days people take it as some sort of affront if the art isn’t beautiful.
“But you’re examining that fact with all the subtlety and nuance of a Hollywood issue film, that’s not interesting.”
How should it be examined Jirin? That everything is good in balance/moderation? Isn’t the point of that kind of argument/impression that it suggests something about the lack of balance that exists in contemporary culture, and therefore works in the general rather than the absolute or universal?
I don’t see the problem in presenting nature ideally. esp if it’s navigating the space between the potential and the actual.
The only issue i have with this idealistic way of how humans ought to live in relation to nature is that i’m sure most of its proponents are not willing to accept that to live according to ’nature’s design’ means they would die a lot earlier than they would probably like, and have to give up many of their creature comforts ;-)
Qualifying my comment of above before people get too attached to it, I don’t think that Chaos-Rampart is considering Koyaanisqatsi as an affront. I’m just saying that a lot of what he points out re: Riefenstahl and careful choice of majestic landscapes and so on is what makes this movie fun to watch, and yes the themes are simplistic, but they are presented in an enjoyable way.
The message doesn’t have to be moderation. But there are more convincing, more interesting ways to argue the same thing. What they have is an outrage film, just one that’s visual instead of narrative.
Thanks for posting those, Polaris. I got a chuckle out of those mountains chillin there.
“The image has become the thing”, there’s something to talk about. Cool observation.
And both this and Riefenstahl are immensely watchable to me, very easy to get into, but when it comes down to it, it’s simply bad taste, this sensual ‘spirituality’ and grandiose vision, and at least in Reggio’s case, complacent as hell. In fact, I think Riefenstahl was a more genuine soul.
Re: Samsara, reading up on it elsewhere, it seems to go against the grain of what it means for Tibetans to construct their sand mandala.
If by “balance,” you mean that humans contain or use destructive forces creatively—that is, it will benefit life and not wipe it out—I don’t find this a compelling argument. My sense is that it’s a struggle to make sure we don’t unleash forces that will cause massive destruction and not in a way that can be seen as positive (not to human beings anyway). Nature isn’t like that. Destructive, chaos, waste all can be used productively and without putting life at risk. I can’t say the same for human beings.
I think I know what you’re saying. You think Reggio is too controlling of the images and the structure he uses is too, well, structured, in a way that seems antithetical to the nature. That might be a valid point.
I’m not sure comparing his films to Wheel of Time is entirely fair, though. (I haven’t seen WoT, but given what I know about Herzog’s docs., his films are closer to traditional documentaries than what Reggio is up to—which is more like a classical music video. The films seem to want to synthesize music and images to convey ideas—sans dialogue, narrative or characters. So given those objectives, I’m not sure if your criticism is compelling; I’m not sure if he could have been successful using the approach you’re advocating. (I really don’t know.)
By the way, are these films supposed to have been Buddhist?
But there is a world of difference between the way we reason with stories and Hopi indians of several hundred years ago did. There is a overbearing reliance in the West in logical storytelling devices, and you can see that in the very common response to films like Marienbad or Inland Empire: what does it mean? what is the story?
The differences are fuzzy to me. Are you saying that the Hopi Indians don’t ask or derive meaning from the narratives in their culture? I’m willing to admit the modern people may use or think of stories in different ways from more “primitive” cultures, but I don’t have a clear notion of this.
This seems like an over-generalization to me. All rituals are not like this. The Lord’s Supper or Communion can be understood and explained on some level. There is certainly a mystical element, but it’s not like we can’t speak about the ritual in an intelligible way. The bread represents Christ’s body. Eating the bread represents taking Christ into one’s life; the wine represents Christ’s blood, and drinking it signifies the same thing. There is more to it than that, but you get the idea.
From my own understanding and experience with religious rituals, I do believe that they’re designed to help you think think about God or spiritual matters. Sometimes people use rituals and it helps them do this; sometimes it doesn’t. It depends on the individual and the circumstances. Rituals, imo, are tools to help people turn their attention and tap into spiritual matters.
Haha good OP, Chaos! I hadn’t thought of the ironic disparity between Reggio’s methods and message.
But yeah, I totally agree. The film’s message is pretty simplistic, but it’s really cool and fun to watch. And, yeah, we can afford to hurt the earth a heck of a lot less, but that doesn’t make Koyaanisqatsi any less simplistic.
Chaos – did you give it 5/5 or 5/10?
“Are you saying that the Hopi Indians don’t ask or derive meaning from the narratives in their culture?”
The theory goes jazz that ancient cultures did not have ‘knowledge’ as such, at least not as we understand it today. They recreated their social conditions and way of life via rituals, because this was the only way to preserve them, and it had to be done constantly, without ‘thought’. It was almost automatic.
They supposedly were not able to distinguish symbols, representation etc, because these are products of literacy.
We assign meaning to the structure of rituals because we live in a literate and rational culture. Chaos seems to arguing that this is a mistake. Whether it’s a mistake or not is irrelevant to me, because it’s just inevitable. There is no going back.
The theory goes jazz that ancient cultures did not have ‘knowledge’ as such, at least not as we understand it today.
I not clear on the difference between their way of knowing and the way we understand stories and rituals now. I’m not an expert, but my sense is that they may not have a sophisticated conceptual awareness and understanding of their rituals and narratives, but I have trouble they didn’t have some level of understanding of the way rituals and narratives functioned—that is to say I think the rituals and narratives functioned for them in a similar way it functions for modern people who also use rituals and narratives seriously. They may not have be able to articulate and discuss conceptual/structural elements of the rituals and narratives, getting into the nuts-and-bolts of these things, but I tend to believe that the narratives and rituals helped them understand the world and helped them turn their attention away from the physical world to the spiritual one.
“They may not have be able to articulate and discuss conceptual/structural elements of the rituals and narratives, getting into the nuts-and-bolts of these things, but I tend to believe that the narratives and rituals helped them understand the world and helped them turn their attention away from the physical world to the spiritual one”
Yes, but they weren’t capable of abstraction, and it’s abstraction that arguably leads to significant cultural and technological change. I guess that’s at least part of the reason why oral cultures evolved gradually, over long periods, because they lacked what you refer to as a ‘conceptual awareness’.
There are other things i’d like to add to this discussion but unfortunately most of what i wanted to share is in 2-3 books that are now locked away in storage. :-(
Yes, but they weren’t capable of abstraction, and it’s abstraction that arguably leads to significant cultural and technological change.
Well, I didn’t think we were talking about technological and cultural change. I thought Chaos was talking about the way ancient civilizations understood and used rituals and religious narratives versus the way we use and understand them now. The main difference I can see is that we might have a more elaborate language to talk about the structures and concepts—i.e., the capability for philosophical discussion—about the narratives and rituals. But I do believe they looked for and found meaning in their stories and rituals. They may not have analyzed their rituals and stories the way we analyze Last Year at Marienbad, but their stories were probably extremely different from that one.
I guess that’s at least part of the reason why oral cultures evolved gradually, over long periods, because they lacked what you refer to as a ‘conceptual awareness’.
Whoo boy, that’s another can of worms. It’s an interesting topic, but I’m not sure I’m up to discussing that.
“Well, I didn’t think we were talking about technological and cultural change.”
Loosely speaking, writing is a form of early ‘technology’. It was the advent of writing that enabled us to think more in terms of abstraction. How we think, and how we apply knowledge, is absolutely related to levels of cultural change and ‘technological advancement’.
So i think it’s connected to the way these rituals and narratives played out in largely oral cultures, and even transitional cultures with limited writing skills.
Loosely speaking, writing is a form of early ‘technology’.
Right, but how does that relate to Chaos’ quote that I commented on?
^^Because it’s related to how we use knowledge vs how they do. We are informed by a literate culture, they are not. which makes it difficult for us to really understand what they ‘believed’ as we are too far removed from that way of living.
Rituals served a more essential function in their cultures because they had little to no methods for documenting these processes. They had to rely on memory.
There is a heck of a lot of overthinking going on here. I mean no offense with this. I do think it clouds a simple thing.
To illustrate what I mean, there is the story – possibly anecdotal – of American students of the Burmese teacher Saya Gyi U Ba Khin visiting a well known molecular scientist in the States.
In Ba Khin’s school, there is this notion of kalapas, tiny energy-particles that arise in very deep meditation and become observable through the senses. You should know this goes back to some of the first Buddhist texts. Being able to move from observation in the early stages of thoughts and more crude sensations – cramps, blocked muscles, itches, changes of temperature on your skin – to observation of the flow of these as they arise and vanish again, means you have finetuned the senses to the most subtle changes going on in your body – which is tangible, first-hand proof of the transience of things and so forth.
For what it’s worth, I can report here that I have in a few occasions experienced something akin to this – it is in the form of sudden goosebumps like currents running through the body. It doesn’t mean anything, it doesn’t have to be called by a ‘mystical’ name. It is just something that happens, like wind rustles leaves.
Anyway, those guys figured it would be interesting to meet with someone who actually studies particles and has actual in-sight of the finer processes. They met the same ordinary human being as you and me, trapped in the same mundane anxieties. No enlightenment there.
Which is to say, that guy had studied deeply and was able to rationally explain all sorts of things, but on strictly the practical level of becoming a better human being, he was the same as everyone else.
My point is that knowledge is not insight, not necessarily.
You can reasonably know and analyze a lot about a lot of things, but still be crude, insensitive, superficial in your touch. And this brings to mind the way many approach film viewing. They watch those wonderful films about time, love, memory, but it’s not something they use to cultivate and in-form how they approach the real thing, it’s just something they do, hence my distate for cinematic academia – bookworms collecting stamps.
And you can be wholly inarticulate but live in deep, passionate connection with the universe, inarticulately grasping the essence of what it means. This is the subject of Zorba the Greek, among other things. That is what rituals enable, the ones that matter and are not simple ceremonies of pomp and costume.
The ‘mystical’ atmosphere and trinkets, are mere tools that shut up the constantly nagging mind.
You can later come up with an intelligible description of the ritual, but that is what it is: a description of what you have embodied in actual practice of seeing and everything else.
It’s what the better filmmakers do when they film love, say Wong kar Wai. And that’s what the real thing is, isn’t it?
I think the difference between religious rituals in ancient civilization and religious rituals now is that in ancient civilizations, they believed the rituals had practical purpose. There is a rain god, I want it to rain, I will dance to please the rain god. The gods decide whether I win the battle, the gods like goats, so I will sacrifice them some goats. They were literal attempts to curry favor from utilitarian gods.
Modern religious rituals are more symbolic, to create a connection between yourself and God, without any expectation of practical gain.
When you see religious rituals in these sorts of films, I get less the impression that the director is spiritually connected to the exercise, and more the impression that he thinks it’s really cool. He likes the idea of people moving together in harmony to create a larger vision, and he likes collectivism.