Monday, December 17, 2012

'Philip Glass at 75: Koyaanisqatsi' at the Barbican, 14th December 2012

Taken during the show, Philip Glass is seated on keyboard near the bottom right.
I've been looking forward to this concert/screening for what seems like forever.  'Koyaanisqatsi' is my favourite film of all time, and ever since I first watched it in 2006 I've been desperate to see one of the rare orchestral performances of the score performed in sync with the film.  So when I found out last February that Philip Glass himself would be performing it 5 minutes from my front door I snapped up a ticket right away.  Since then the ticket has been gently yellowing from age, tucked safely up on a high shelf for 10 months, the concert always too far off in the future to let myself get truly excited for it.  But on Friday the day finally arrived.

I hate the idea of having a singular 'favourite' film that sits above all others, but if I did have to pick one 'Koyaanisqatsi' would probably be it.  It's a piece of 'pure cinema', minimalist in construction, composed entirely of beautiful images and music.  There is no plot, no characters and no dialogue.  The only problem with it is that the general response when you say it's your favourite film is for people to go "Koyana-what?" It's almost impossible to describe the film without coming across as a pretentious arsehole, especially if you begin using (perfectly accurate) phrases like 'visual tone poem' or, for that matter, 'pure cinema'.  

Ironically, even though a description can make the film sound utterly inaccessible, 'Koyaanisqatsi' is a film that any human being can appreciate on some level.  By eliminating language the director, Godfrey Reggio, created something that can be appreciated anywhere in the world.  Similarly, culturally specific elements like plot and characters can be enormous barriers, invisible to audiences accustomed to Western story-telling, but potentially alienating to anyone outside of that sphere.  I genuinely believe that every single human being on the planet, can get at least something out of this film.  Sure, they might be bored or confused by it, but 'Koyaanisqatsi' is constructed in a way that highlights certain universal human experiences and emotions.

So, if the film is pared down so much, how does it communicate?  The division is split 50/50, between the beautiful cinematography of Ron Fricke and the score composed by Philip Glass.  The score is famous in its own right, being appropriated for video game trailers or superhero films but for my money it's so intrinsically connected with the images in this film that it doesn't properly work anywhere else. 

Walking into the Barbican auditorium to a stage full of empty seats immediately impresses upon me how many people it takes to bring this music to life.  We have the Britten Sinfonia, the Philip Glass Ensemble and the Trinity Laban Chamber Choir, all in all meaning there's about 60 or so people on stage at any one time.  We also have Philip Glass in attendance on keyboards, although as far as I can see he doesn't do a huge amount himself, leaving the complex arpeggios to Mick Ross.  Still, I think he's earned the right to sit back a bit and take the co-pilot's seat tonight.  

I've seen this film many times, and I know pretty much every shot in it by heart, but I was anticipating what the live musical accompaniment would add to the experience.  From the moment Jeremy Birchall stepped up and began singing the word 'Koyaanisqatsi' in an impossibly deep bass tone I knew we were in safe hands.  Throughout this performance, the sheer abundance of incredibly talented musicians on stage breathed new life into the film. 

'Koyaanisqatsi' begins very slowly, with majestic shots of deserts, lakes and mountains.  The pacing here is deliberate and stately, underlining the permanence of this geography.  Some of the shots of the desert seem deliberately framed to be reminiscent of shots of Mars; alien landscapes utterly indifferent to human life.  This tactic of transforming the familiar into something abstract runs throughout the film.  As we progress through the film we see the first signs of human life, miners carving their way through this pristine landscape.  The final progression is an extended examination of a city, the processes that support it and the lives of the people living within it.  

There are a number of clever and subtle contrasts in this film, and the impressing upon us of the timelessness of the natural world is inversely mirrored in the impermanence of our man-made world.  The human equivalent of these majestic landscapes are our skyscrapers and urban environments.  'Koyaanisqatsi' shows up these as something transitory.  We're shown the Pruitt Igoe housing project being demolished, row after row of huge blocks collapsing into dust.  Skyscrapes bloom grey clouds from their bases as the TNT explodes, and then seem to be sucked into the earth.  Again and again the film urges us to consider our environments and behaviour from different perspectives.

The film uses various artistic tools to shift our viewpoint, forcing us to view a familiar world with an outsider's eyes.  Probably the most famous is the time shifted photography.  In the most intense sequence,  'The Grid', we see the processes of a city hugely sped up.  Traffic becomes abstract red lines, electronic dots chasing each other around a maze.  People become frantic blurs, jittering their way through mechanised turnstiles and office doors.  Here, the crowd becomes dehumanised, notions of individuality are squashed.  There is a an inescapable futility here, thousands of people rushing around madly to no apparent end, running as fast as they can to stay in the same place.

During 'The Grid' we examine the life support systems that keep this crazy system running smoothly.  We see food mass production, conveyor belts teeming with food sorted by robotic, emotionless workers, television after television being bolted together or computers being assembled.  These shots echo the machines we've seen people travelling through.  One shot of sausage production directly quotes footage of commuters pouring off escalators.  You inescapably begin to feel like a piece of meat yourself, a tiny pointless cog in a bigger machine.

You're somewhere in that crowd!
As this sequence ends the music drops away and we cut to high above the city.  The camera floats serenely, reminiscent of an out-of-body experience.  This is a transition from the small-scale to the large and the silence allows us a moment of contemplation and decompression after all the thundering noise and energy.  After maybe 40 seconds of this, there's a series of spectacular match cuts which show us the city from above as circuit board, manufactured and logical, humans mere electrons blustering around components.

Throughout 'The Grid' the music builds and builds to a frantic pace.  The rhythmic chanting of the choir seems to match the arpeggios of the keyboards.  As it gets faster and more frantic so do the visuals, as if they're racing each other and matching speeds.  This onslaught of imagery and sound had a profound physical effect on me.  I found myself pressed back into my seat, my muscles tense, my jaw locked in a grimace.  I felt a bit like David Bowman in 2001 being passed through the star gate.  Seeing the film projected large, with an orchestra thundering beneath it elicits an actual physical response, suddenly 'Koyaanisqatsi' is not a nearly 30 year old film, it is something happening here and now.

Though this is a film that gets a clearer view than most of the bigger picture, there are repeated smaller and personal moments that always affect me.  One shot shows an faintly simian looking man sitting, smoking in the bowels of a power station.  He looks competent and in control, emanating some kind of confidence in his role, as if he's shouldering the responsibility of keeping the city running.  Another is an old homeless man who, as the choir starts singing, turns his head to look directly at the camera, staring dully and faintly accusingly at us, his sunken eyelids seamy and red.  

By far the most affecting, for me is simply a shot of an elderly withered hand weakly searching for human contact in a hospital.  Film is ultimately a manipulative medium, exploiting a basic human love of melodrama to make us feel emotions.  But when a nurse walks over out of shot and takes that person's hand and comforts them, it feels genuine; a true glimpse of kindness.  The contrast between seeing tightly regimented humanity moving marching robotically through the city, and dazed, wandering, injured people of this sequence couldn't be greater.  We're seeing the people who've been spat out of the machine, broken gears that society has no further need for.  

Watching this woman trying to light her cigarette showcases the misery of the mundane.
'Koyaanisqati' is a wonderful film, something that achieves what few films ever can: a positive change in the viewer.  Rather than preach a message it trusts us to reach our own conclusions and to actually think about the images and sound before us.  The film allows us to explore the perspective of the outsider, to see the world with new eyes.  It's the kind of film that stays with you for the rest of your life.  Heading onto the tube in London in rush hour you inescapably begin to consider yourself as a mere electron, just another insignificant face in the crowd.  It's not a pleasant feeling, but it is, perhaps, the truth.

It was an absolutely wonderful concert, and I think maybe the best single screening of a film I've ever attended.  'Koyaanisqatsi' is an outstanding piece of cinema, and is only uplifted by hearing its score live and loud.  An experience to treasure forever.  If you ever get the chance to see this film with an orchestra behind it - jump at the chance!

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