Sunday, November 29, 2009

City as Fast-Flowing Stream

The rush of people at transit stations, busy intersections, stairwells, movie theatres, classrooms, always seems so chaotic and unformed to me while I am in the midst of all those jostling bodies, scrambling for purchase, elbows tucked in—or thrust out, depending on the person—everyone attempting to just get the hell out of there and to wherever they’re going. It feels at these moments as if humans should have evolved with retractable arms, as I always find myself spinning this way and that, ducking my body and weaving like a drunken boxer in an attempt to slip my way through the crowd without accidentally punching or elbowing someone in the head.

But, these moments are not as chaotic as they appear to be at first. Perhaps in slow speeds, when you are stuck in the middle of them, they feel like they have no form, no poetry, just a bunch of random molecules bouncing off each other; however, when these scenes are sped up, they reveal an intricate and highly choreographed dance that we are all participating at all moments of the day, but to which we are very nearly always never aware of until it is shown to us through the lens of a camera, or we have a moment to stand up somewhere far above the fray and just watch for a good hour or two.

There are numerous examples of what I mean, but I think now to the film Koyaanisqatsi, the first of the Qatsi Trilogy by director Godfrey Reggio with music composed by Philip Glass. Koyaanisqatsi contains many scenes of these high volume human traffic locations at their peak—these same places that seem so awful and slow and formless at the time—but which is revealed, through running the film back at high speed, to actually have a beautiful flow to them, an organization, a structure almost akin to that of a fast-flowing stream, curving and bending itself around rocks and logs and other obstacles placed in its midst in the symbiotic way that only nature seems to be able to pull off so well.

What is revealed in those time-lapse scenes of high volume human traffic is a vision of order, as if we are all performing a dance practiced months in advance. And it’s not just people that reveal this ordered choreography at high speeds, it’s other scenes in the city as well. Busy traffic intersections—which at normal speeds consist of yelling drivers, honking horns, nudging cars, red lights, and crossing pedestrians—also unfurl like a beautiful flower when we rewatch those scenes at high speeds. The tail lights blur into a single line, the traffic that seemed just a moment ago so chaotic and unordered, suddenly takes on the appearance of an assembly line of lights, stopping here, going there, continuing on and out of the factory.

There’s something comforting to me in knowing this; that while I might be experiencing frustration, I am in fact participating at that very moment in a complicated dance and ordered routine, one that is anything but chaotic. I think we even recognize this orderliness in the moment, if perhaps only in the back of our minds, in the way we move through the dense scene, the way we pull our shoulders this way and that, the way our concentration is broken and the whole machine stutters to a halt when we actually collide with someone, jolting us out of our choreography (but then again, slow-motion accidents and crash tests also seem to have a certain poetry to them).

Mostly, however--car accidents, pedestrian collisions, tripping on a curb--these are aberrations in the choreographed dance of the city, perhaps even caused by the fact that we are so subconsciously comfortable with this dance, know it so well, that we don’t pay attention, turn on autopilot and let the fast-flowing water guide us down the stream, around obstacles in our path and on to wherever our destination may be.

1 comment:

  1. I can't help but think of this video: