Monday, March 3, 2008


One of the blogs I follow on Google Reader is Smashing Telly, a collection of videos, generally long-form, that have found their way to the internet. Today featured a clip from the art film Koyaanisqatsi centered on St. Louis' own failed Pruitt-Igoe housing complex. I'd seen this before, though I haven't yet had the chance to watch all of Koyaanisqatsi, and the more I watch it, the more I'm fascinated by it.

The film takes its name from the Hopi word meaning life out of balance, as I continue to view this section of the film, I come to realize just how out of balance city living can be. Yes, living in a city has innumerable advantages. Yes, city living gives us access to public transportation and other simply ways to address environmental change. Yes, the city gives us culture (symphonies, ballet, theatre, etc.) that is hard to find in rural areas. But the honest truth is we didn't evolve to live in cities. Cities remain foreign to our genetic makeup. And sometimes, the city upends our life and throws it out of balance. Consider:

0:00 - 0:38 (Aerial time lapse view of Manhattan) The city is a grid. The city brings order, gives structure.
0:39 - 0:56 (City view along water) Nature bows to the city's order. The water seems a part of the grid. The trees, the only green shown so far, is planted by man and is not part of nature.
0:57 - 1:18 (Panning shot from building to city street, still of two buildings) The growing bass line in the music gives a sense of foreboding, the city seems to press in on us; the order is claustrophobic and stifling.
1:19 - 2:38 (Zoom out and stills from buildings, panning shot to street) The first of several arresting shots. Order in the grid begins to break down. Structure becomes a ruin. When the camera pans, we expect more ruins, like a bombed out Nuremberg, but instead have our first shot of people. These people live among ruin and chaos, but why? The main theme for this piece, a disorienting, dizzying arpeggio is heard for the first time.
2:39 - 2:41 (Girl in window) Perhaps the saddest shot in the piece, a girl leans out of a window, eating a banana. The film implies she's surveying what we have just seen. She receives none of the benefit urban life is supposed to bring.
2:42 - 2:58 (Toilet paper blowing in the wind, interior of Pruitt-Igoe community room, playground) The city is supposed to be a place of action, of excitement. To this point, the only action we have seen are signs of decay and people among the chaos. The vibrant urban landscape is revealed as unmoving except in decay.
2:59 - 3:10 (Broken streetlight, shattered windows) The theme begins a transition to measured repetition, as though order is coming. However, juxtaposed with the shots of urban blight, the scene becomes more oppressive.
3:11 - 3:15 (Circling birds) The circling birds along with the swelling music suggest foreboding. Something monstrous is coming.
3:16 - 4:20 (Pruitt-Igoe aerials) I find the buildings in this shot terrifying. They are the monster. They lack soul. Pruitt-Igoe failed on so many levels, but by trying to plan a "perfect community", rejection and chaos only came sooner. The aerial shot frames the buildings as though they are marching straight at you. Any green we see, any vestige of nature, is dead. A trumpet scale mimics an evacuation siren.
4:21 - 4:35 (Formal window shots) The formal, geometric shots of shattered windows suggest a fundamental design. This decay is not random. For whatever reason, this was unavoidable.
4:36 - 5:16 (Pruitt-Igoe aerials) The menace continues its march toward you. If the order was claustrophobic, chaos is attacking and oppressive. The fact that the shots are not steadied almost makes the buildings appear to be lurching and stumbling, as if in a drunken stupor.
5:17 - 5:42 (Pruitt-Igoe demolition shots) Chaos leads to decay, which in turn leads to destruction. Such is the fate of a failed housing project.
5:43 - 6:32 (Building demolitions) So far, the close up building shots have been of decrepit housing projects for poor minorities. No longer. It's easy to turn a blind eye when you think chaos and decay are side-effects of poverty, a problem that isn't yours. But chaos is shown everywhere. This is your problem, because this is humanity's problem. This is not part of being poor, it's part of being us. To borrow a phrase, things fall apart; the center cannot hold.
6:33 - 6:49 (Explosion) The smoke that had been rushing towards the camera is no longer a primary concern. Shrapnel assaults the viewer, with a piece of metal appearing to strike the camera.
6:50 - 8:11 (Time lapse thunderstorm) Why attempt to build a system that seems destined for chaos? Why live in a city? To escape nature. But nature cannot be escaped, and can overwhelm a city. Nature is moving. Nature is vibrant. The city is stagnant and imobile.
8:12 - 9:30 (Formal glass skyscraper shots) The city tries to hide its chaotic nature in reflective glass. The effect is of nature moving in reverse, suggesting a perversion of the natural order as imposed order looms down on us.
9:31 - 9:43 (Building moves into shadow) One building causes an unnatural solar eclipse with another building. We descend into darkness of our own making.

This piece is haunting on a number of levels. It was made in the 1980's but calls to mind modern occurrences, like 9/11 (building demolitions) and Katrina (nature overwhelms city @ 6:50). It says that if we are the change we've been waiting for, we are also our own worst enemy. If we seek to escape chaos and create a vibrant environment, we escape the very vibrancy we seek. If there is hope, it is in returning to balance. No deity will save us; we must save ourselves.

P.S. These are my thoughts after viewing "Pruitt-Igoe" four or five times. I make no claim to their being the end all of filmic interpretation. I'd love to hear your thoughts.

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