“Koyaanisqatsi,” a pioneering art film on the contrasts between human civilization and the natural world, and a performance of the original score are featured in the Atkinson Forum in American Studies this fall.
Co-presented by Cornell Cinema, the film will be accompanied by the Philip Glass Ensemble, Friday, Nov. 3, at 7:30 p.m. in Bailey Hall. Advance tickets for “‘Koyaanisqatsi’ Live!” are $18 general, $12 for students, available at BaileyTickets.com. Tickets at the door will be $24 general, $18 for students.
Integrating images, music and ideas, “Koyaanisqatsi” (the title is a Hopi word meaning “life out of balance”) is a nonverbal meditation on that theme, a visual montage contrasting scenes from America’s natural and urban landscapes. Released in 1982, the film became a cult sensation that still resonates with viewers today.
“For its time, it’s an incredible technical achievement,” said professor of natural resources and Atkinson Center fellow Steven Wolf, who has used the film in his Environmental Governance course and will make introductory remarks at the event.
Cornell Cinema Director Mary Fessenden said: “When I began looking into this as our Atkinson Forum event, I contacted Steven Wolf to ask whether he’d send his students, and he was very excited about the opportunity.”
The screening is included in the syllabuses for Wolf’s Sustainability Science (co-taught with Rachel Bezner Kerr) and Environmental Governance courses. “We expect about 100 students from these two courses,” Fessenden said. The Department of Natural Resources is subsidizing their ticket cost.
“I’ve been showing this to my class for 10 or 12 years and renting Cornell Cinema for private showings, and this is going to scale it up, for a broad audience,” Wolf said. “My teaching is all about social science and a rational, analytical approach to understanding the causes and responses to unsustainability. We try to make sense of how we got in this mess and then think about how we can get out of this mess.”
After “thinking about economics, politics and property rights” in class, he said, “we then put all that aside and turn to the movie as a chance to think about affect, and emotions, and purpose and intention. You’re using a totally different part of your brain. We explore a different hypothesis about social and ecological relations and how we are alienated from one another and from nature.”
Director Godfrey Reggio made two companion films, “Powaqqatsi” and “Naqoyqatsi,” to form the Qatsi Trilogy. Composer Philip Glass scored all three; “Koyaanisqatsi” features “one of the most startling and original soundtracks ever written,” according to The New York Times.
“I think the music stands alone, and together with the images there’s an incredible synergy that makes it a great piece of cinema,” Wolf said. “In the director’s cut … interview with Reggio, he says he has no message. I think he’s being disingenuous. It’s impossible not to see that the movie is about alienation. He says it’s abstract art and it’s up to the viewer to bring their own reading and perspective to it.”
Glass and the Philip Glass Ensemble, established in 1969, are touring extensively this year and next, performing several different projects in celebration of the composer’s 80th birthday. Glass will not be appearing with the group in Ithaca; he is touring with the Kronos Quartet accompanying the 1931 film “Dracula.”
The ensemble includes music director Michael Riesman and Lisa Bielawa on keyboards, founding member Jon Gibson on woodwinds, additional musicians on woodwinds and keyboards and two sound engineers.
Sponsored by David R. Atkinson ’60 and Patricia D. Atkinson, the Atkinson Forum in American Studies has brought programming to campus since 2003 to enrich the American Studies Program curriculum and the cultural life of the university.
“It’s super cool that they’re making this investment,” Wolf said. “I think there’s strong and growing recognition that the humanities have an important role to play in complementing the bio-physical and social sciences as they relate to sustainability.”