by Matt Levine
Over the last thirty-two years, little has changed for either the state of the globe or Godfrey Reggio’s filmmaking style: the earth is still beset by a panoply of mounting crises, providing continually haunting subject matter for Reggio’s thoughtfully drifting camera. In 1982, with the backing of Francis Ford Coppola, Reggio made Koyaanisqatsi, a dazzling, freeform tone poem amounting to a vague but compelling treatise on the nature of humanity. While the film’s aesthetic of magisterial nature confronting the rapid chaos of modern life—epitomized by sped-up scenes of drifting clouds and whirring traffic set to minimalist Philip Glass scores—has since been imitated by countless music-video and ad directors, Reggio’s return to these recurring motifs feels like a fresh take on his signature style. With Visitors, Reggio offers another free-association pageant of beautiful, ponderous imagery and enlists Glass to provide another cyclical soundtrack—though the razor-sharp black-and-white photography and focus on the human body seem like unique developments. The film may ultimately be a familiar symphony, but it’s conducted and performed extremely well.
Director: Godfrey Reggio
Producers: Mara Campione, Phoebe Greenberg, Jon Kane, Penny Mancuso, Godfrey Reggio, Lawrence Taub
Writer: Godfrey Reggio
Cinematographers: Graham Berry, Trish Govoni, Tom Lowe
Editors: Chris Besecker, Jon Kane
Music: Philip Glass
Cast: Jeff Pope, Rob Tunstall
Premiere: September 8, 2013 – Toronto International Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: January 24, 2014
US Distributor: Cinedigm
The dulcet woodwinds and ominous bass of Glass’s soundtrack set the mood immediately: light and dark, hope and despair, humanity at its best and worst. The pair of eyes that dimly emerge from the darkness in the film’s first shot, however, are revealed to be a gorilla’s, though they seem to stare back at us with the relatable complexity of human emotion. This lowland gorilla will make several more appearances during the film, often interspersed with footage of humans going about their daily lives—a juxtaposition which asks the disconcerting question of how far we’ve really evolved from our primate ancestors.
The stately yet imposing manmade structures featured in Visitors provide an ambivalent answer: whether grand, gleaming skyscrapers or dilapidated amusement parks, such human creations could be signs of either advancement or futility. A detour to an enormous landfill, festering with mountains of trash avalanching through the frame in beautified slow-motion, would seem to reaffirm humanity’s wastefulness—the appearance of civilization disguising petty quests for power and greed. However, much of the film is comprised of fascinating close-ups of diverse groups of people laughing, talking, staring, being—their faces expressing a multitude of unknowable thoughts. Visitors certainly recalls the doomsday depictions of destruction and pollution featured in Reggio’s Qatsi trilogy (which also included 1988’s Powaqqatsi and 2002’s Naqoyqatsi), but it also revels in the eternal ambiguity of human thought and expression, at times becoming a fascinating deconstruction of gesture and behavior. (According to Reggio, the numerous scenes of people laughing and reacting to something off camera was filmed while the subjects watched television or played video games—a fact which makes their reactions somehow more and less interesting.)
The question “what does it all mean?” sometimes seems too reductive when applied to movies (an art form with such tremendous capability for the abstract and oneiric), but it inevitably comes to mind when watching Visitors. Though Reggio often claims that his films are intended to be “experiences” more than ideas, he’s clearly alleging some hypothesis about human industry and an indomitable natural world, though the exact nature of that philosophy remains somewhat inscrutable. But even if Visitors’ themes remain willfully elusive (and, at times, crudely expressed, as with close-ups of human fingers clicking incessantly over cell phones and keyboards), more interesting are the metaphysical questions posed by the movie’s title. We’re all visitors, of course, spending a comparatively brief amount of time on this planet until we’re taken to some alien, incomprehensible place. Yet repeated shots of the moon's terrain with Earth beckoning in the distance suggest that the entire film is seen through the eyes of visiting extra-terrestrials, bemused and dismayed and charmed by the civilization they witness.
These are ponderous interpretations, maybe, but Visitors encourages us to enter such a contemplative headspace. Reggio’s unwillingness (or inability) to clearly convey his attitudes towards this subject matter is actually a blessing—the audience is left to their own devices, drawing associations and conclusions that are free to roam beyond a director’s “intentions.” The gorgeous, austere compositions by Reggio and a trio of cinematographers (Graham Berry, Trish Govoni, and Tom Lowe) coax us into a pensive state of mind, with the seemingly infinite shades of gray lending the images an uncanny vividness. To put it snippily, we could describe Visitors’ sleek profundity as coffee-table cinema—though that would be an injustice to the evocative and mysterious tone that the film achieves.
It should go without saying that moviegoers craving a well-told story with strong characters should avoid Visitors. They would have plenty of other options at local multiplexes anyway—cinematic narratives are not difficult to find. For audiences hoping to find what else movies can offer—astounding imagery, the freedom to think, a visceral reaction that’s inexpressible in words--Visitors is one of the few opportunities to see such non-narrative works on the big screen. (The opportunity is especially fortunate in this case, as the Uptown’s projection can take advantage of the film’s 4K digital photography.) If you’ve seen any previous Reggio film—or, for that matter, anything by his acolyte and former cameraman Ron Fricke, including Baraka (1992) and Samsara (2011)—you know what you’re getting, but it’s a well I take particular pleasure in returning to. In eschewing narrative altogether, Visitors reminds us of another (possibly more significant) reason why we go to movies in the first place: to see something we could never witness otherwise.