Thursday, June 21, 2007

Mind out of balance

Like a number of other rural people and/or antisocial shut-in types I belong to one of those DVD- by- mail services that deliver movies to the house two or three times a week. It's a simple concept: for a flat rate, you get to watch a certain number of DVDs at a time, and keep them for as long as you like. Instead of getting exactly what you want when you want it, though, you have to go to the company's website and assemble a list of things you'd like to see someday, and they'll send along to you whichever of those is available at the moment. Being a voracious cinephile my own list has gone wildly out of control and is now approaching 800 titles. Consequently I often get the surprise, sometimes pleasant and sometimes not, of receiving a movie in the mail whose title I don't recognize, and in which I can't remember ever having expressed an interest. Still, it's somehow strangely comforting to know that if I were to drop dead of a heart attack tomorrow these DVDs would continue arriving at the house for another three or four years.

I didn't recall having requested Koyaanisqatsi: Life out of Balance when it arrived a few days ago, but I was at least familiar with the title, having seen it about twenty years ago on TV. At that time it just seemed like a random collection of hypnotic images depicting various aspects of urban civilization, speeded up using time-lapse photography and set to the bleak, repetitive music of Philip Glass; the kind of movie you'd ideally want to watch in college while smoking a bowl in the dorm room. Watching it the second time, though, left me with an entirely different impression.

It's not very often that a film leaves me feeling physically tainted, as if I needed to right away jump in the shower and wash it off somehow, but that's exactly the reaction I had after seeing Koyaanisqatsi. A film that demonized a particular group of people such as Jews or blacks would not even have been so repulsive as one that, like this, demonizes humanity as a whole. The rapid- motion shots of people commuting, eating, playing games -- engaging in normal human activity, in other words -- are intended to make them look like teeming insects, infesting the face of an earth which (as the movie clearly implies) would be much better off without them.

The title is a Hopi word meaning "life out of balance", and we get to hear noble savages chanting their prophecies at various intervals. The sort of people who would scoff at a Biblical prophecy as the purest form of ignorance are apparently meant to be awed by the same sort of inspired guesswork when it emerges from the mouth of an exotic brown person. The prophecies themselves are conveniently of a sort to flatter the deepest anxieties of a white liberal audience: that Mother Earth is screaming when we dig stuff out of her and will eventually give us our comeuppance; and that burning ash will fall from the sky and scorch the earth (the film was made in 1983, at the height of the hysteria over nuclear winter). There's a further, third prophecy included, something about "cobwebs" being spun on "the day of purification", but it makes little sense either on its own or in relation to the film; presumably its hidden wisdom is lost on palefaces like me.

The cinematographic technique is pure agitprop: by showing one thing and then another, apparently different thing, you prove that those two things are connected. Brilliant! So a shot of Wall Street leads us right to a panorama of what looks to be the devastated South Bronx, proving that it is callous bond-traders who burn down impoverished neighbourhoods (rather than, say, local arsonists and vandals.) Masses of cars arrayed in a parking lot are juxtaposed with masses of tanks in formation, proving that war is the ultimate expression of industralized society. People shown moving quickly up escalators (once again using time-lapse) are followed by rows of wieners moving quickly down conveyor belts, proving that people (at least the non-Hopi ones) are really just mass-produced, undifferentiated tubes of meat. And so on. This is adolescent emotionalism at its best, a kind of political posturing no more sophisticated than that you would expect from, say, a whiny, self-pitying Goth kid in the suburbs.

And like most such posturing it is not only shallow but hypocritical, too. Spectators are shown swilling popcorn in a movie theatre; OK, so where was Koyaanisqatsi shown? Against a cliff-face or adobe wall in New Mexico? Cars are portrayed as choking the planet, but Philip Glass owns a summer home in Cape Breton; does he use teleportation to get there? Environmentalists may well have a hatred of humanity -- that much is evident from the film, and especially from the close-up shots of ordinary people (often visibly reluctant to be filmed) whom we are meant to find repulsive and inauthentic -- but they don't hate themselves, and they certainly don't expect to have to live up to the same standards they would like to set for everyone else. In our own day we have Al Gore telling us to reduce our "carbon footprint" while using twenty times the normal amount of electricity to run his own home, Prince Charles chartering a private flight across the Atlantic to pick up an award for his green sensibilities, and celebrities with private jets and multiple homes -- whose film and TV appearances use untold amounts of energy to produce -- hectoring us on the need to use less toilet paper or take the bus to work. This is a modern-day religion in which faith is an adequate substitute for works, and as in any other religion there is a priestly class which is happy to preach to the laity in return for special exemptions and amenities of its own.

Civilization as we know it would be inconceivable without industrialization. There is a terrible amount of waste in our society, but since a perfect balance between over- abundance and scarcity is nearly impossible to achieve, we should be grateful if we are erring on the side of the former rather than the latter. If we were to go back to living as the Hopi did before the arrival of Europeans in North America, we would find ourselves returning to a time of high infant mortality and low life expectancy, alternating periods of sufficiency and famine, and constant vulnerability to attacks from other tribes. Life would be a constant and unremitting struggle against hardship, want, and oppression. If this is what we want then we should at least have the decency to say so openly. Self- righteous preening, easy and agreeable as it might be, makes no difference to the planet at all.

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