By the director of Koyaanisqatsi, Godfrey Reggio’s Visitors is a visually stunning, black-and-white wordless portrait of modern life with music by Philip Glass.
Beasts Of The Southern Wild by Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Visitors would not be out of place in an art gallery – it could almost be an avant-garde installation. Its director Godfrey Reggio made the iconic Koyaanisqatsi in 1983 (part of the Qatsi trilogy) and his Visitors, too, has no dialogue and specially composed music by Philip Glass. It was filmed in black and white for 4K projection, in a post-Katrina New Orleans and New York, and it comprises only 74 long takes, the cuts coming every 70 or so seconds. The combination of its images and Glass’s repetitive music, varying in intensity and prompting differing reactions to them, creates a meditative context out of which the audience can draw its own meaning.
The first shot is of Triska, a magnificent silver-backed gorilla. She stares at us, unblinking, thinking, and hers is also the last inscrutable face we see. Are we supposed to meditate on the connection between her and the Homo sapiens who follow? Then a parade of close-ups, as individual faces are spotlit emerging out of black backgrounds. Old people stare fixedly at the camera; young people too, though their faces are more mobile; children; people of different ages and ethnicities, maybe blank faced, yawning, screaming, sometimes with a smile.
There are groups of people who seem to be an audience reacting to something we cannot see. Crowds walking filmed in slow motion, perhaps the morning rush hour. A pock-marked moonscape as the earth rises behind it. An imposing Art Deco building filmed from unusual angles so it appears like a piece of pure geometry, with, over a door, ‘Visitors’ carved in stone. A derelict amusement park with a motionless Ferris wheel. A vast swamp, ancient trees sunk in water as we drift past and the camera moves between the branches of a mighty tree. Rows of tombs. Speeded up, clouds race across the sky as the earth turns. Flocks of gulls fly in slow motion, the movement of the wings like poetry. And at the end, the camera demonstrates that all this is an illusion, as it pulls back, showing that the intimate image we think we are watching is a cinema screen and it has an audience.
The film could be seen as three movements – the individuals, the groups, the landscapes – and the music, recorded by the Bruckner Orchester Linz, closely mirrors the changes of imagery, from insistent, repetitive patterns, to deep, solemn cello to portentous brass. But in some ways the most fascinating thing about the film is what we perhaps can’t divine from simply watching it – the incredible technical ingenuity which went into creating it and the significance of some of the locations. The triptych of faces who turn to look at each other were all shot individually and in different places. Triska, the gorilla, was shot in her zoo behind glass through a complicated set-up of mirrors, yet she looks as though she was shot in close up in studio lighting. The people who seem to be reacting to something invisible, gesturing in mid-air, were shot through two-way mirrors and are in fact playing games on a computer, but the surroundings, the mouse, have been digitally removed, leaving them reacting in a void. The shots, as if from the moon, started with stock footage and Google maps. The abandoned amusement park is the Six Flags franchise, built up on platforms above the swamp, with big cement-slab sidewalks. “When the hurricane came across, the water swamped the park and now it’s full of alligators and snakes. It has a ghostlike feel,” Reggio says.
The swamp is the famous Atchafalaya Basin, near where Reggio grew up – “That place was like a holy place for me and my family.” He used to play as a child under the spectacular tree whose branches the camera moves through. The monolithic Art Deco building in New Orleans has Novus Ordo Seclorum (New Order of the Ages, the seal of the United States) digitally engraved on it by the filmmakers and perhaps therein lies a clue to the meaning of the film, but also Reggio says, “It had a ‘Visitors’ sign embedded in the wall, and we were really keen on shooting it – and that ended up as our title. It’s not important that the audience knows this, but tattooed on the masonry that makes up ‘Visitors’ are at least six bullet holes. I came to feel that that’s really what we were, and are – ‘visitors’, and I liked the ubiquity of the word because you can interpret it in any way you wish.” He adds, “That monolithic building has a real presence. I thought it could stand in for modernity itself. Its voice fills the frame.”
Visitors is not a film for everyone. It is slow moving, dark and enigmatic, and there were some snores in the screening room. It is also breathtakingly beautiful in places, both visually and musically. But, ultimately, despite its technical accomplishments, it does not seem to reach the same heights as Reggio’s earlier work. It may provoke in the audience either a lasting meditation on humanity’s transient relationship to the modern world or leave it still searching for a meaning. Perhaps the fact that it makes you curious for a story behind the images, for something representational, could mean either that it is has not succeeded as pure abstract expression, or that you just haven’t got what it’s trying to achieve.
Visitors is released on 4th April 2014 in the UK