Film Reviews

Visitors Godfrey Reggio

Rating - 7/10

In a gregarious appearance at the 2014 Wisconsin Film Festival, visual artist-director Godfrey Reggio recalled a lesson from author Johann Wolfgang von Goethe that rails against the very act of criticism itself; through our efforts to intellectualize and wring logicality from every detail, a work may be reduced in its meanings. Well, then... a review of Visitors would be self-defeating and estranging, but considering the director's attempts to translate collective life experience to the screen, one's personal interpretation could help establish insight into grander meaning. Reggio confesses that the film is not meant to be seen as entertainment but as provocation, an auto-didactic form where signification is created in unique interpersonal narratives rather than a usual film defined by its non-reciprocity.  While grandiose in scope, Visitors is also an intimate mirror that reflects viewers' own unique humanity while simultaneously deprogramming them from "the intensity of acceleration" that inevitably occurs with modern living.

Because of its plodding progression, lack of diagetic sound (hypnotically scored in its entirety by Philip Glass), muted 5K black-and-white cinematography, and banal slideshow imagery that mimics a Rorschach test (to paraphrase critic Ben Kenigsberg), initial vicious press has branded Visitors as little more than a museum art installation. While superficially evident, the film is more than random assembly; to make that implication is to deny any artistic intention. Verbal dialogue may be absent, but the work swells with visual intensity through the use of close-ups and gentle movements as a play of aesthetic triplets (as Reggio describes in his essay, "Leap and the Net Will Appear").  Its looseness and unhinged nature are likely to provoke dismissal and garner intrigue alike. Building from the genesis concept that bore Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance (1982), Reggio's signature use of slow-and-fast-motion is less preoccupied with solar cycles and large-scale activity than achieving a sense of the eternal and the fleeting through the individual.  Reflecting upon this more internal choice is the etymology of the title, a derivation of "those who come to see" (or viewers themselves). Visitors becomes a symphonic panorama of a prolonged dream scene where human gestures are suspended in time in a deeply focused tunnel vision.

Reggio repeatedly breaks cinematic rules as unfathomable darkness softly blooms into light to reveal figures gazing directly into the camera. A female lowland gorilla from the Bronx Zoo, Triska, peers at the audience as an evolutionary relative, a signification of kinship with those in our phylogenetic tree. The image then catapults into space, as the surface of the moon peeks over the horizon.  Within these first few moments, Reggio establishes his own cosmic odyssey akin to Kubrick's own 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). With traditional narrative expelled, Reggio then finds human habitation through a series of portraits, the camera fixed upon subtle changes in facial expressions reacting to off-screen ephemera/stimuli. The viewer is left to construct the whole context, especially due to the "blackground" (as it was coined), the negative space into the beyond. Reggio's depth perception trickery elevates background to foreground, as he asserts that "it brings focus to that which is invisible by virtue of its presence, that which is hidden in plain sight." This method epitomizes Visitors' uncanny attentiveness, which heightens sensory perception of its audience in the modern era of distraction and technological multitasking, which are curiously integral to the human expressions captured.

Despite titular associations to alienism, Visitors is an inclusive portraiture of human race and generation. The camera introduces a teenage girl, slowly zooming in upon her face to illuminate every detail, the pores of her skin taking on a dimension comparable to the moon's surface. Through the act of peering, a universality emerges, as boundaries collapse into a singular visage.  Stripped of varied histories, young and old are a reflective conscience, evoking a unique sympathy towards fellow man. Reggio tinkers with this further, removing individuals of environmental context, as they literally become detached floating heads. While he revels in a kind of secrecy of technological application in the off-screen space (reportedly with the flickering magnetism of television and computer screens), he does allow the strange surrounding world of his own eye to be slowly unveiled, which suggests our own possible disappearance. People drift through a crowd at a train station or urban street; a young boy and girl blithely spin on the merry-go-round in a local park, which is surreally transformed into an abandoned amusement park of desolate beauty before it again morphs into a tragically polluted Louisiana swampland in the third act.

While there is a starkness to the film's ability to stir such passionate emotion from its execution, the most unusually affective moments are more imaginatively suggestive, featuring pairs of human hand signals on-screen. Clasping palms and interlocked fingers take on figurative faces as if imitating human embrace or mimicking someone playing the piano (or perhaps using a touch-screen tablet).  The movements also recall a dashing spider on a counter-top or even a wispy dancer performing a floor routine. Throughout its eighty-minute running time, Visitors may occasionally become out-of-sync or predictably rhythmic, but stability is redeemed in movements of unorthodox and intoxicating beauty that still feel cohesive within the wide-ranging foci. Philip Glass' typically shimmering minimalist score is sentimentally dynamic; while not an exact counterpoint to the one he composed for Koyaanisqatsi (that Reggio has labeled "a hyperactive child" in terms of momentum), the score wisely hits an even tempo due to the methods of composition. By immersing himself on location with the crew, Glass found a sound design does not feel detached nor arbitrarily applied. This meticulous craft and attention is reflected outright in Visitors' construction even if it feels a bit like a loosely knit audience response experiment rather than a commanding leap in the medium.