With ‘Visitors,’ filmmaker Godfrey Reggio encourages a mesmerizing stare


Still image from Godfrey Reggio’s “Visitors.” (Cinedigm)
February 27

By meticulous design, the meaning of the new film “Visitors” is left to each individual who takes in its 87 minutes of wordless abstraction. Most of its scenes unfold in slow motion, a stately gallery of everyday human faces — bookended by that of a female lowland gorilla named Triska — whose eyes turn to the camera out of an infinite pool of high-definition blackness, every impulse and emotion tracked in split-second ripples of expression. Mesmerizing as spectacle, the outward gazes are an existential puzzle. Who’s watching who?

You could spend some time unpacking this thing.

Which only seems fair. After all, it took Godfrey Reggio eight years to envision and create “Visitors,” his first new film since the completion of his widely influential “Qatsi Trilogy” in 2002. The series began two decades earlier with “Koyaanisqatsi,” a meditation on global upheaval in the technological age that dazzled with time-lapse photography and the minimalist glimmer of its Philip Glass score, illustrating the theme of its Hopi title: “life out of balance.” The film was a cult sensation. Not unlike “2001: A Space Odyssey” for a previous generation, it became a trippy touchstone for an audience that applied its inspiration to everything from advertising to spirituality. “Visitors,” however, is something new.

“He sort of rebuilt his aesthetic,” said Steven Soderbergh, the film’s executive producer, who has described the project as a kind of phenomenon. “If, 500 years ago, monks could sit at a bench and make a movie, this is what it would look like.”

On a recent morning in New York, Reggio comes off less like a monk — which, in fact, he once was — than an avuncular old-school counterculture guy, a wiry 6-foot-8 giant with a quiet charisma and a way with hand-coined aphorisms. “I feel like my job is to midwife something that is already inside of me,” he said. About the time that Hurricane Katrina wrecked his native New Orleans, ideas for what would become Reggio’s new film began to coalesce around a series of fascinations. A list would include: the concept of the reciprocal gaze; the play of human emotion across the face — inspired, in part, by the work of the comic actor John Cleese and Koko, the famous gorilla; humankind’s evolution into “cyborgs”; and the creation of what he calls the blackground, which became the fundamental aspect of “Visitors.”

“Let’s take Caravaggio, many of his paintings are on the blackground, so that the face becomes most vibrant, so that it’s inescapable,” he said, referring to the Baroque painter’s use of rich, indelible black backgrounds, a direct influence on the film’s monochrome palette. “Black-and-white takes it out of the [contemporary] world and puts it in the emotive world. This is aimed not at the cerebellum but the solar plexus.” The effect, achieved through painstaking deployment of digital technology — the film was the first to be finished in 4K resolution — gives the looming facial close-ups the sense of an object floating in deep space. It also obscures the use of split screens, another Reggio fixation, and the mundane surroundings where dozens of subjects — some of them frequent movie extras, some recruited from street corners and sports bars — sat, watching television monitors or playing video games.

“It becomes very challenging to go to a place where you have the routine of expectation that is there whether you want it or not . . . and to see something that is looking back at you for a good bit of the time,” he said. “That can produce discomfort, it can be considered confrontational, or one can become immersed in it.”

Reggio, 74, speaks with a distinct accent, akin to natives of the Bronx or New Orleans, where his family has deep immigrant roots. “We were the first Italians to show up there,” he said. At 14, he left home to join the Congregation of Christian Brothers, a Catholic order that led Reggio to Santa Fe, N.M. “You do the right thing for the wrong reason. I had no idea what I was getting into. It was like entering the Middle Ages. This was serious s--- because it’s your head they want as well as your body. I was happy to go there at that age.” Eleven years later, Reggio was about to take his final vows when he was asked to leave. “My Che Guevara was a guy named Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli — Pope John XXIII — a pope who was, let’s say, a very radical dude. He said: ‘Accept nothing, question everything, even the structure of the church.’ So for a young, zealous monk, those were like marching orders. I drove my superiors crazy.”

The Christian Brothers didn’t go to the movies. So Reggio’s formative exposure to cinema came after his return to secular life, when a friend introduced him to “Los Olvidados,” Luis Bunuel’s desolate, poetic descent into the Mexican slums. “It was black-and-white, surreal, certainly not entertaining,” he recalled. “It made me drop my jaw. It was a spiritual experience.” Reggio acquired a 16mm print of the film and projected it in the alleys of the barrios where he worked with street gangs. “The young men and women that saw it with me, it was the experience of going to church.”

“Visitors” can evoke the same sentiment. As with Reggio’s previous features, Glass composed an original score of pulsing, lower-register brass and ruminative strings that foster a meditative state: “Always ascending but never arriving,” Reggio said, during a later conversation, recalling his first exposure to the composer in the mid-1970s, when Glass was still driving a cab. Even the use of digital technology, overseen by Reggio’s Brooklyn-based collaborator Jonathan Kane, aspires to the primacy of movies at the dawn of the silent film era. And then there’s Triska, the gorilla, who plays on associations with “King Kong” but also prompts Reggio to cite one of his favorite quotations, from the anthropologist Loren Eiseley: “He said, ‘We have not seen ourselves until we have been seen through the eyes of another animal.’ ”

“What does a human gaze mean, really?” asked Soderbergh, speaking by phone. The filmmaker became acquainted with Reggio when his 2002 feature “Naqoyqatsi” was in the works and he became its executive producer, a role he also serves for “Visitors.” “As somebody who worked with primates on ‘Contagion,’ the looks that you would get from the animals in the cages were very complex and kind of disturbing. They would look at you and you could see they were saying, ‘What are you doing?’ ‘Why are you doing this?’ It was really strange, and when that first image came up, it got me thinking. Our primary form of communication is very basic and it’s very sight-based. I often say to people, ‘If you want to know what somebody’s about, turn the sound off and just watch them.’ And this is a classic case of what that’s about.”

Reggio turned to another wellspring, the mystic Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky, to amplify the theme — and the film’s deliberate aesthetic. “Cinema is a machine of time, as Tarkovsky says, it’s sculpting in time,” Reggio said. “If you can slow down time, then you get to see things the eye really can never see. You get to dwell on them in a different way. That which is least observed by us is that which is most present, or most familiar, or most ordinary. We don’t see the forest for the trees. This is the fragility of who we are. I didn’t want to take the obviousness of social injustice and war. I wanted to look at the ordinariness of daily living. To see the normal.”

Dollar is a freelance writer.

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