Watch This Great Environmentalist Stoner Movie

Slate's Culture Blog
Nov. 4 2011 3:02 PM

The Ultimate Stoner Movie, Scored by Philip Glass

Koyaanisqatsi
A still from 'Koyaanisqatsi'.

I think I first heard the word “Koyaanisqatsi” from a dorm-mate in the fall of my freshman year at college. It was not long after that I was introduced to the joys of watching this 1982 film on grainy VHS, pulling a bong hit every 20 minutes or so. When I saw that the New York Philharmonic would be screening the movie at Lincoln Center—with soundtrack-composer Philip Glass recreating the score live, aided by the orchestra and a choir—I could not resist revisiting the hazy days of yore.

For various reasons, I didn’t manage to pregame the concert. (Many in the crowd last night did. The lobby of Avery Fisher Hall actually reeked of weed. I’m guessing this is less true prior to the start of your average Mahler program.) No matter, though. The moment the lights dimmed, the chanting commenced, and images of Hopi cave art faded in above the stage, I felt like I was sucking on a vaporizer at my seat.

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Vincent Canby’s original New York Times review of Koyaanisqatsi called it “a slick, naïve, maddening, sometimes very beautiful movie that, if it were a book, would look great on a coffee table.” All true. Whatever director Godfrey Reggio’s aims may have been—there are some nods at an environmentalist agenda; the title is roughly-translated Hopi for “life out of balance”—they are at best muddled and at worst ham-handed (as when a shot of sunbathing families pans up to reveal the nuclear reactor looming behind the beach). 

Yet there are utterly transcendent moments amid this 87-minute music video. It’s all about that pumping, hypnotic, emotionally-gripping Philip Glass vibe. We’re helpless to fight those flurries of synth arpeggios, wave after wave, as a helicopter shot swoops us low over the asphalt spaghetti of Los Angeles, or a time-lapse sequence shows us commuters zooming up an escalator by the thousands, or the film hits the brakes for an arresting slo-mo instant in which some sad-eyed pedestrian makes fleeting eye contact with the camera. The movie feels simultaneously like an ode to and an indictment of humanity. And it inspired an entire genre of TV commercial—the kind where oil companies and software service providers pay vague tribute to globalism and diversity.

If there are any college freshmen out there reading this: Call your dealer, fire up the full-length flick on YouTube, and enjoy your Friday night. You can thank me later.

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.

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