This article examines Godfrey Reggio’s experimental documentary film Koyaanisqatsi in the contexts of: Posthumanism, militarized society, and Ecocinema. The article argues that Koyaanisqatsi’s environmentalism is marked by much more complexity than a simple “back-to-nature” ethos. The article concludes by considering what Koyaanisqatsi offers as a warning about drone films.

A Belabored World

Once, cinema celebrated the vivacious outpouring of “Workers Leaving the Factory.” The Lumière brothers’ famous film, according to Sean Cubitt’s rhapsodic description in The Cinema Effect set cinema onto a course of leisure, imbuing the cinema with a radically non-productive origin:

[It] is significant that, unlike Marey’s chronophotography, the Lumière cinematograph was not turned immediately to anthropometric time and motion studies, aimed at optimal mechanization of gesture in the factory, but to leisure, to the immediately accessible utopia of time off...[To] have placed at the instigation of cinema’s dialectic of difference and repetition not a story but an event that is at once an end—of work—and a beginning—of leisure—neither of which is visible and neither of which is composable as an equilibrium. In place of closure, we have only commotion, a document not of truth but of the space between truths.[1]

Cinema begins, in other words, concurrently with leisure—that is, when work stops. And for Cubitt, the documentary quality of the Lumières’ film lies between the opposed activities of work and leisure, showing neither, but simultaneously conveying both. Godfrey Reggio’s 1983 documentary, Koyaanisqatsi, tragically repeats and updates the effects Cubitt sees and celebrates in the Lumieres’ famous film. But whereas Cubitt sees in “Workers Leaving the Factory” a utopic potential for cinema’s future, I see in Koyaanisqatsi a dystopic present.

Unlike the Lumières, Reggio documents not workers leaving the workplace, but mere shift changes. Koyaanisqatsi evacuates all sense of leisure and down time, in exchange for constant business and occupation. Workers in Koyaanisqatsi are not permitted leisure; they mostly seem to toggle between on or off (-duty) positions. But unlike the idiosyncratic and chaotic movements of the workers in the Lumières’ film, Reggio’s subjects move about in a kind of controlled hysteria. In one revealing sequence, the speed of the images showing people fleeing into and out of the Lockheed building encapsulates this feeling of controlled hysteria particularly well. The hurry to begin work appears to be mirrored by a panic to leave it. And so Koyaanisqatsi puts on screen a life temporally out of balance where the work-leisure rhythms of modern life have ceased to alternate. Workers never leave the factory in the world of Koyaanisqatsi; there are only shift changes.

Figure 1.: Workers leave the factory in the Lumières’ film.
Figure 1.
Workers leave the factory in the Lumières’ film.
Figures 2 and 3.: Workers enter and leave work in Koyaanisqatsi
Figures 2 and 3.
Workers enter and leave work in Koyaanisqatsi

In addition to the Lockheed section, Koyaanisqatsi’s images of labor confront viewers with workers operating un-appetizing assembly lines where Twinkies and hot dogs roll off the production line as rapidly as people file off an escalator. One montage moves from a busy and illuminated city-scape to a single man working the night-shift in an anonymous control room. On-the-clock, but not really working, the man sits on-duty without apparent duties to carry out, but equally unfree to pursue leisure. He slumps backward in a chair idly smoking a cigarette—a gesture that often in films suggests leisure, but is here subsumed by work. The question, then, is what these brief but memorable sequences concerning labor are doing in a film that is often read as a plea to get “back to nature” and to emulate Native American ways of living. Although Koyaanisqatsi comes up only briefly in David Ingram’s book, Environmentalism and Hollywood Cinema, Ingram sums up perhaps the most expected or conventional Ecocritical response to Koyaanisqatsi: “[Reggio]...combines in a non-narrative mode the cult of pristine, ‘empty’ natural landscapes, and their representation as a spectacle of different speeds, as well as the cult of the ecological Indian living, unlike urban dwellers, in ‘balance’ with nature.”[2] The context in which this note arises for Ingram has to do with tracking shots that render “nature as movement” and this idea begins to approach another popular ecological interpretation of Reggio’s film.[3] Scott MacDonald, for example, sees Koyaanisqatsi as part of the “city symphony” film tradition dating back at least to 1927 with Berlin: Symphony of a Big City. As a city symphony film, MacDonald argues, Koyaanisqatsi “[depicts] urban spaces as parts of a broader survey of human experience...the representative day in the life of a city [is] merely a cell within larger cinematic organisms.”[4] These two popular responses to Koyaanisqatsi are both valuable in their own right, but as Francesco Casetti argues, “cinema can do even more: it can in fact, embody the logic of the ‘mechanism’ in which we are caught up.”[5] And it is in this context that the images of labor recontextualize what the film achieves ecologically. The images of labor introduce and highlight the ways in which the modern Western world is marked by an increasingly mechanical disposition that is inextricably linked to the militarization of society. These ominous inclinations toward mechanization and militarization raise important questions about the environment from the literal point of view of a machine, conferred onto viewers through a particular kind of defamiliarization.

Mechanical Stare

Some of Koyaanisqatsi’s most memorable images are of clouds, pedestrians, and cars. And although these are commonplace sights, the film’s effect is utterly extraordinary. The intensity of the images, particularly toward the film’s end, is profound. Koyaanisqatsi‘s bracing rhythms, repetitions, and juxtapositions actually transform the experience of ordinary, commonplace objects into something disorienting and extraordinary. Part of the reason these ordinary subjects become extraordinary is due to art’s general capacity for defamiliarization. The Russian formalist Victor Shklovsky explains that “art removes objects from the automatism of perception” and “makes the familiar seem strange”[6]. Koyaanisqatsi’s images of everyday scenes and subjects acquire a severe measure of strangeness, however, because the camera images them through nonhuman eyes. And so is it both ironic and a testament to the film’s power that Koyaanisqatsi achieves its defamiliarzing effects not from wresting its subjects away from an automaton’s perception, but by radically subjecting them to a mechanical stare. Graham Cairns notes in his book Architecture of the Screen, that Koyaanisqatsi “us[es] the natural characteristics of the landscape to play with viewer perception” and this “play with viewer perception” is indeed one of the most fascinating aspects of Reggio’s film; Koyaanisqatsi raises questions about the human, the machine, the ecological, and the cinematic, forming a single constellation that disrupts our assumptions about how we perceive the world.[7]

Reggio’s camera is the best place to begin exploring the ways in which the film disrupts perception. From the outset, Koyaanisqatsi is wholly indifferent to narrative, and this indifference helps to underline the effects of Reggio’s camerawork. As a point of contrast from narrative filmmaking, Alfred Hitchcock’s camera is demonstrative, helping to tell a film’s story. There are moments when Hitchcock’s camera seems to insist “ Hey! Make sure you see and remember this!” as in Psycho when the camera moves in on Marion’s motel room nightstand, where she has folded a newspaper over stolen money. Godfrey Reggio’s camera, on the other hand, is unnervingly impassive. It stares at city traffic for twenty-four hours without blinking. And when it moves, it moves not to point something out to viewers but to intensify its stare. In one memorable instance, the camera fixes upon a wooden-faced pilot, whose unfeeling expression perfectly matches the camera’s own. But as the camera approaches the pilot, it is not at all like the camera’s approach to Marion’s nightstand. Reggio’s camera seems to want to get closer in the same way a poker player with a winning hand wants to raise a bet; if it’s a staring contest this pilot wants, it’s a staring contest he will certainly get from Reggio’s camera. And the camera will win—it actually seems to look through the pilot as much as it looks at him.

Figure 4.: Human and Nonhuman visual registers consider one another
Figure 4.
Human and Nonhuman visual registers consider one another

And so in this moment of intense staring, Koyaanisqatsi sets mechanical and human vision against one another, quite literally face-to-lens. This moment, roughly halfway through Reggio’s film, where two visual registers encounter one another, is a crucial moment: the point at which the human becomes an unknowable alien. Although the mechanical vision Koyaanisqatsi bestows upon its viewers reaches a kind of pinnacle while tracking in on the pilot, the camera’s mechanical, impartial demeanor is clearly established in the film’s first twenty or so minutes, where the camera is content to linger in vast desert spaces, hover over seemingly endless oceans, and drift in between clouds.

In another essay, concerned with how humans perceive and picture climate change, Sean Cubitt has argued that “Global events like climate change do not occur in humanly perceptible scales or time-frames. They demand forms of representation that can capture massive but slow change. Godfrey Reggio, for example, pioneered the use of time-lapse photography in his trilogy Koyaanisqatsi (1982), Powaqqatsi (1988), and Naqoyqatsi (2002).” And although it is not exactly climate change that Koyaanisqatsi images, the ecological and posthuman effects of its time-lapse aesthetics absolutely concern the relationship between humans, machines and the environment.

Rudolph Arnheim’s famous book Film as Art provides a helpful touchstone to investigate Reggio’s aesthetics. Discussing a hypothetical image of a boat seen from high above, Arnheim says “the result is a view very seldom seen in real life. The interest is thereby diverted from the subject [the boat] to the form [the boat’s presentation]...The spectator is thus brought to see something familiar as something new. At this moment [the spectator] becomes capable of true observation...the objects themselves become more vivid and therefore more capable of effect.”[8] Koyaanisqatsi‘s methodical surveying of the desert achieves exactly this effect. The camera peers a little “too slowly” around rock formations, and it lingers on a scene in which “nothing” happens long enough that the deliberate pacing dares viewers to expect something to happen, or to impose upon the scene expectations learned from narrative cinema. I say too slowly and nothing not as negative comments on the film’s first half but in order to highlight the pacing of Reggio’s camera as a distinct and uncomfortable break with the ways we have been trained to view the natural world off-screen. In other words, Koyaanisqatsi will make no concessions to eyes habituated by the very behaviors that the film critiques: Reggio radically challenges the limits of postmodern spectatorship insofar as these limits are marked by ever-shortened attention spans and the features belonging to a “life out of balance.”

The film’s early sequences are a dare: Reggio’s deliberate camera—unconcerned with narrative—lingers on cave walls, it mockingly dares its human spectators to be bored by the beauty of the American southwest, and by Reggio’s generously lengthy presentation of it. Koyaanisqatsi recalibrates human eyes; spectators adapt to Koyaanisqatsi’s radical defamiliarization and “true observation” by aligning their visual sensibilities with the camera’s.[9] Of course the argument could be made that all films require such a recalibration. Un Chien Andalou is perhaps tolerable only if one sees it with dada eyes; Brakhage’s rough and painted films require some other visual adaptation. But Koyaanisqatsi is a little different because its adjustments require human spectators to see like a machine. Spectators accustomed to Hollywood and narrative filmmaking pass through a sense of something like boredom, feeling it, and then troubleshooting it, the eyes of the human spectator begin to adopt the perceptual patience of a machine. The film’s ability to give mechanical eyes to a human viewer by transforming boredom into patience marks what I will call mechanical, nonhuman vision.

As specators come to accept the slow and impassive camera, they begin to see the desert unnaturally—in such a way that we would not see it with their eyes alone. Rudolph Arnheim’s explicit suggestion for understanding or engaging with a film is for a viewer to “abandon himself to a mental attitude which is to some extent unnatural”.[10] As a point of clarification, writers such as Donna Haraway and Bruno Latour have persuasively dismantled the barriers that set our understandings of “nature” apart from “culture”, and I do not intend to imply that there is some abstract or ableist “natural” human vision. I use “unnatural” here in order to carry Arnheim’s idiom into this Posthuman and ecological discussion, and to register the effects of Reggio’s cold and mechanical camera on the human eye. This kind of language, if dubious now, is actually in keeping with the spirit of Arnheim’s original argument that when we watch a film, we want to see something we would not see in our everyday life—something unreal or more than real—in a sense, something unnatural.

Arnheim locates the power of this idea in two iconic film defamiliarizations. Arnheim’s first example is of a train rushing toward the camera, a reference to the Lumières’ famous “L’arrivée d’un train en la gare de La Ciotat”: “The nearer the engine comes the larger it appears, the dark mass on the screen spreads in every direction at a tremendous pace” until it appears far larger than its actual, “real”, off-screen size.[11] Arnheim’s second example of how reduced depth creates “unnatural” cinematic views in order to create an effect is of the monks in Carl Th. Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, leaping toward the camera to make them seem all-the-more imposing for both the viewer and Joan. The temperament of Arnheim’s ideas, which are rooted in the idea that the cinema admirably distorts what it images, rescues the “unnatural” mental attitude and vision I’m describing from accusations of ableism or of ignoring the breaking down of the nature-culture divide.

As Koyaanisqatsi leaves behind the vast expanses of desert and sky and begins to study urban spaces, the film’s images continue to achieve the effect Arnheim describes but in new ways, most obviously through the intensification of time-lapse that pervades the scenes that folow the opening desert scenes. Through time-lapse, clouds and oceans come to resemble one another by virtue of the shape and rhythms of their movement. These shapes and rhythms are, of course, inaccessible to the human eye alone, off-screen, a continuation of the unnatural, mechanical vision established in the film’s opening sequences. We see clouds and oceans move off-screen, but never in the ways that they do in Koyaanisqatsi. The images are manipulated and wholly unnatural in the sense that seeing what Koyaanisqatsi offers requires a camera and editing. What I want to highlight here is that Arnheim describes the results of “unnatural” or more-than-real images as “true observation.” Counter-intuitively—especially within a documentary context—images acquire a certain truth for Arnheim when they do not exactly resemble reality. Koyaanisqatsi offers a concrete example of this paradox as the film calls such marked attention to its unnatural presentation of familiar subjects. This, I think, approaches something crucial for the scholarship that comes under the heading of Posthumanism: because these images are inaccessible to the naked human eye, the machine that makes them accessible (cinema) disrupts the default settings of human experience, and this disruption is revelatory. The question, then, is what Koyaanisqatsi reveals along these lines. Ironically, it’s during the film’s middle and latter sections, where the City and its human inhabitants come to the fore, that the film most clearly disrupts the default settings of human experience in order to reveal a few of its sad truths.

Militarization and Koyaanisqatsi’s Resistance

As Koyaanisqatsi transitions from being fixated on landscape to entering into urban spaces, the intrusion of machinery, construction, and traffic initially comes as a shock. The arresting images of human activity might initially suggest that the film maintains a natural-cultural divide by emphasizing the tranquility and stillness of the desert in stark contrast to the hustle and bustle of the city. I would argue, however, that Koyaanisqatsi is more complicated than that, given the ideas within Arnheim’s film theory which emphasize the fundamental idea that an image’s form is no less important than its content. And while Koyaanisqatsi’s content shifts dramatically, its form does not. The unnatural vision produced by time-lapse remains consistent regardless of what fixes the camera’s attention. In the film’s second half, foot and car traffic are presented to viewers no differently than the movement of ocean or clouds. Koyaanisqatsi’s form is not interested in a rift between the natural and the cultural. The utter stillness of the camera as it stares at people on a Las Vegas sidewalk, and at nighttime traffic is perhaps as unnerving and captivating as the desert scenes are meditative and sedate. In a particularly striking sequence, the camera accommodates both the activity within the office building and the peregrination of the moon, without giving preference to either.

Before this arrangement begins to sound too harmonious, it’s important to recall the meaning of the film’s title. As the film’s final images explain, Koyaanisqatsi is the Hopi word that translates to “crazy life; life out of balance; life in turmoil; life disintegrating; a state of life that calls for another way of living.”[12] It is easy to affix an ecological message to the film’s title, reinforced by the film’s images of human encroachment upon the environment that borders on hubris. This ecological message, however, acquires new significance if one considers the film’s disruption of default human vision: in complete accordance with the ecological register, life out of balance also comes too mean life too human, an imbalance that Koyaanisqatsi works to correct through its mechanical stare and posthuman vision. In nearly every frame where humans appear, they move only in the most regimented, habitual, and even controlled ways. Koyaanisqatsi’s form makes ordinary patterns of human behavior look mechanical by imaging them through nonhuman vision. As Arnheim instructs, an unnatural presentation of familiar objects permits “true observation” of the objects themselves. If we were actually walking around Times Square, driving Los Angeles’ freeways, or turning out the lights of our office, we probably would not observe the rigid and mechanical patterns of behavior that we experience on-screen, through Koyaanisqatsi’s nonhuman eyes.

This cinematic experience, informed by Arnheim, anachronistically answers a challenge by Cary Wolfe in the introduction to his book What Is Posthumanism? to rethink and recontextualize the visual modalities that belong to the domain of the human. Wolfe’s sense of the posthuman entails a disruption the ways in which we come to understand the world through sensory experiences that are limited to the domain of the human. Discussing the bizarre and somewhat alarming work of biocybernetic artist Eduardo Kac, Wolfe admires the way GFP Bunny “appeals to specifically human visual habits and conventions for the purposes of making the point that the visual as we traditionally think of it can precisely no longer be indexed to those conventions and habits at all.”[13] In the same spirit, Koyaanisqatsi slows down visual perception processes in its first thirty minutes, and speeds them up thereafter, sensitizing spectators to their off-screen (and on-other-screen) visual habits. These visual disruptions announce, that visual perception will be indexed differently, beyond the domain of the human, and beyond the expectations viewers bring to narrative and commercial cinema, for the duration of the film. In order to experience Koyaanisqatsi’s first thirty minutes as something other than slow or boring, viewers must abandon their “taken-for-granted mode of human experience.”[14]

Indeed Koyaanisqatsi’s mechanical stare comprises exactly the kind of disruption Wolfe describes by giving human viewers posthuman eyes. Reggio’s camera affords them the “true observation” of various ways in which military and civilian spheres have become indistinguishable from one another. This revelation joins the questions concerning labor and leisure at the outset of this essay with the film’s ecological themes: Koyaanisqatsi is interested in work because it illustrates one arena in which the civilian and military spheres are no longer cordoned off from one another. And although the appearance of the Lockheed building is emblematic, Koyaanisqatsi registers this collapse in several ways. Certainly the film invites viewers to consider what in means for Lockheed’s presence to be included in the film (in much the same way the film ironically includes a Kentucky Fried Chicken ad encouraging patrons to “Have a Barrel of Fun.”) Part of Lockheed’s significance within the film is to put the questions of labor and cultural militarization into the context of how we interact with and relate to the environment. And this combination does not bode well for the future of the environment.

Describing the action of Koyaanisqatsi’s second half, Michael Dempsey calls the activity and business on display as “soul-annihilating regimentation inflicted on the planet in the name of civilization, progress, and modernity”.[15] What is crucial in Dempsey’s description is the way in which his language sets regimentation—the becoming-military of civilian life—against ecological prosperity. Paul Virilio’s book Popular Defense & Ecological Struggles takes up this very question of ecology within the context of a militarized society. Beginning with historical examples of the erosion of distinct military and civilian spheres, citing specifically the creation of “the army as social class”, Virilio argues that “from the beginning, military intelligence has struggled against...the chaos of the natural environment and the spontaneous movements that can occur within it.”[16] Not only does Virilio’s analysis align ecology with spontaneity, one could also read in it an implicit alignment of militarization with habituation, and this casts a particularly concerning light upon the habits associated with vision Cary Wolfe challenges Posthumanism to confront. The humanist vision Wolfe wants to disrupt is simultaneously a militarized vision in Virilio’s idiom. The implications here for understanding and responding to the complexity of Koyaanisqatsi are that we must see the utterly mechanical behavior of human activity in the film as a graph or index of the population’s militarization. In a few of the film’s sequences, the militarization of public life is put on full view, particularly when bridges and empty apartment buildings are bombed as though they were on a battlefield, and when a cut from rows of cars to rows of tanks links military and civilian transport. But even where the connection is not so obvious, we must recognize the intrusion of military priorities into the behavior of civilians.

The movement of militarization away from spontaneity (and spontaneity is a term which Virilio closely aligns with ecology) and toward predictable control marks nearly every image of human populations in Koyaanisqatsi. Flatly rejecting the American mythos surrounding the automobile as access to particular kinds of freedom, cars in Koyaanisqatsi are unfailingly under control. In fact what is truly shocking about the volume of traffic we see in Koyaanisqatsi is that we never see a collision or hiccup in the unrelenting flow of cars. I do not mean to suggest that a car crash is a viable answer to the question of where Koyaanisqatsi locates liberation. What I want to suggest is that the uniformity of the automotive behavior the film puts on screen is an example of the ways in which militarized mentalities seep into even the most banal activities.

Figures 5 and 6.: Traffic flows in Koyaanisqatsi
Figures 5 and 6.
Traffic flows in Koyaanisqatsi

Human behavior in Koyaanisqatsi always demonstrates a military impulse toward predictable control and obedience that stems from a becoming-machine of the human itself. Virilio specifies the relationship between mechanization and militarization as: “The dialectic of war, delivered from passivity, demands of the military engineer an increased effort in the technical domain, an effort centered on the suppression or replacement of the human factor in the machine’s overall workings.[17] And so Virilio’s comments show that as humans increasingly come to resemble machines—as they do throughout Koyaanisqatsi—they become increasingly militarized. For Virilio, then, militarization and environmentalism comprise two opposed impulses marked by mechanization on the one side, and by spontaneity on the other.

And so an apparent contradiction needs to be addressed: on the one hand, Koyaanisqatsi reproaches mechanical behavior because it amounts to the increasing militarization of society at the environment’s expense. On the other hand, Reggio images every subject of his documentary through a mechanical stare that extends human visual perception into the domain of the posthuman. What resolves this contradiction, and also prevents the mechanical stare of Reggio’s camera from being merely ironic, is the effect of what Arnheim calls “true observation” resulting from the mechanical stare, and also that the presence of the camera occasionally disrupts the mechanical world it documents; it is as though cinema itself short-circuits militarization by introducing spontaneity to Koyaanisqatsi’s inhabitants. Perhaps the clearest example of the camera’s presence introducing spontaneity into the world of the film is when a man walking in Times Square—which even in 1983 hosts countless distractions to the eye—actually turns around to get a second look at the camera; for this man, cinema’s intrusion into the world completely disrupts the routine and predictable flow of traffic and advertisements in one of the most famous tourist sites in the world.

Figure 7.: A man turns around to get a second look at Reggio’s camera
Figure 7.
A man turns around to get a second look at Reggio’s camera

At this moment in the film, a disruption of the impulses toward mechanization occurs across two planes: the camera disrupts one man’s walk, causing him to look backward, to look twice, and to look squarely at the camera—and this happens within a scene where most of the people walk as though there is literally nothing to see behind them. Secondly, spectators observe this moment, and others like it, through the posthuman eyes of Koyaanisqatsi’s mechanical stare. The “true observation” that Koyaanisqatsi’s mechanical stare initiates is not common to all camera-enabled machines. Surveillance footage or the films made by camera-mounted drones do very little if anything to allow viewers the kind of revelatory posthuman vision that underlies Koyaanisqatsi’s aesthetics.

What makes the drone film particularly worrying is its dismissal of editing. Eisenstein once located “the essence of cinema not in the shots but in the relationship between the shots”[18]—or in other words, in editing. Even the most conventional and uninspired Hollywood action picture abides Eisenstein’s proclamation as the intensity of action sequences often results from the rapidity and rhythm of cuts, and certainly Reggio’s montage is an inheritor of the Soviets. Perhaps it is unfair to measure drone films against Eisenstein’s standards; one could argue for their cinematic merit as an unexpected revival of the long take. However, drone films also disappoint the ideas of André Bazin, champion of the long take as an improvement on montage. Bazin argues that the technical requirements for filming long takes with a large depth of field (he cites Wyler and Welles as models) “affects the relationships of the minds of spectators to the image, and in consequence it influences the interpretation of the spectacle.”[19] These results, however, seem to be more lofty than what we can expect from a drone film, where viewers’ attention inevitably gets turned back onto the novelty of the drone itself. In other words, the advent of depth of field and the long take in the 1940’s allowed viewers access to new ways to experience motion pictures; drones on the other hand allow viewers only access to new applications of drones. The visual and aesthetic similarities between drone films and the soaring aerial shots in Koyaanisqatsi only adds to the relevance of Reggio’s film nearly two decades into the twenty-first century, as we become more and more romanced by drones. But the similarity is only fruitful in that drones’ comparative disengagement from what they film and their co-optation by the military highlights everything vital and radical about Koyaanisqatsi.

Koyaanisqatsi relentlessly challenges viewers to interrogate their inclinations toward mechanical and therefore militarized behavior. As the film specifically recalls The Lumière Brothers’ seminal “Workers Leaving the Factory” it suggests that this modern tendency presents an affront to leisure. For students of film theory, this threat extends to the very foundations of cinema itself, per Sean Cubitt’s analysis of “Workers Leaving the Factory”, and indeed with the exception of Reggio’s camera, there seems to be little space for cinema in the world Koyaanisqatsi documents. For students of Posthumanism, Koyaanisqatsi poses a crucially important question: how does one become posthuman without becoming a tool for military manipulation? And although workable answers to this question undoubtedly require book-length explorations, we can conclude here that at the very least, the aesthetics and apparatus of the cinema have become an unlikely site of resistance where the lessons of Koyaanisqatsi, in the face of threats posed by drones, have acquired an urgency that is even more potent today than when the film originally left audiences spellbound in the 1980’s.

Author Biography

Gary Matthew Varner completed a Ph.D. at Purdue University in December 2015. His research concerns relationships between film and the natural world that go beyond questions surrounding representation. Matthew’s previous work has appeared in Short Film Studies. His research interests include Film Studies, Animal Studies, Ecocriticism, Disability, and the novels of Thomas Pynchon. He writes the blog: silvermorningblog.wordpress.com.


    1. Sean Cubitt. The Cinema Effect. (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2004), 20-2.return to text

    2. David Ingram. Green Screen: Environmentalism and Hollywood Cinema. (Exeter, GBR: Exeter UP, 2008), 189.return to text

    3. Ibid., 30.return to text

    4. Scott MacDonald. The Garden in the Machine: A Field Guide to Independent Films about Place. (Berkeley: California UP, 2001), 209.return to text

    5. Francesco Casetti. Eye of the Century: Film, Experience, Modernity. Trans. Erin Larkin with Jennifer Pranolo. (New York: Columbia UP, 2008), 85.return to text

    6. Victor Shklovsky. “Art as Technique”. Trans. Lee T. Lemon and Marion Reis. The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends. Ed. David H. Richter. (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2007), 779.return to text

    7. Graham Cairns. Architecture of the Screen: Essays in Cinematographic Space. (Bristol, GBR: Intellect Ltd., 2014), 78.return to text

    8. Rudolph Arnheim. Film as Art. (Berkeley: California UP, 1957), 43-4.return to text

    9. Ibid.return to text

    10. Ibid.return to text

    11. Ibid., 61return to text

    12. Koyaanisqatsi. Dir. Godfrey Reggio. MGM, 1983. Film.return to text

    13. Cary Wolfe. What Is Posthumanism? (Minneapolis: Minnesota UP, 2010) 164.return to text

    14. Ibid., xxv.return to text

    15. Michael Dempsey, “Quatsi [sic] Means Life: The Films of Godfrey Reggio,” Film Quarterly 42, no. 3 (1989): 2.return to text

    16. Paul Virilio. Popular Defense & Ecological Struggles. Trans Mark Polizzotti. (New York: Semiotext(e), 1990), 12, 14.return to text

    17. Ibid., 28-9.return to text

    18. Sergei Eisenstein. “Béla Forgets the Scissors”. Trans. Richard Taylor and William Powell. The Eisenstein Reader. Ed. Richard Taylor. (London: BFI, 1998), 69.return to text

    19. André Bazin. “The Evolution of the Language of Cinema”. What is Cinema? Vol. 1. Ed. and Trans. Hugh Gray. (Berkeley: California UP, 2005), 35.return to text