Twelve years after finishing the groundbreaking Koyaanisqatsi trilogy, Godfrey Reggio’s new documentary looks at what the human face—and the act of looking at human faces—tells us about ourselves.
When Godfrey Reggio was a young monk in the Catholic Church, he was taught, “In order to truly see that which is familiar, you have to stare at it until it becomes strange.”
The principle became the modus operandi behind Reggio’s poetic brand of filmmaking, beginning with his first feature, 1982’s Koyaanisqatsi. “Until now, you’ve never really seen the world you live in,” its trailer boasted. And it was true. The film’s groundbreaking time-lapse cinematography inspired many imitators, from 1993’s Baraka to television commercials and countless movie transition shots.
Reggio’s latest work, Visitors is another wordless meditation on the state of modern man, this time ruminating over our codependent relationship with technology. Taking the human face as both its subject and object, the film unfurls in dream-like slow motion, elevating what is earthbound to otherworldly, and back again. Shot in black-and-white, the clarity of the digital 4K projection enables the sleekest realization of Reggio’s vision to date, even if that vision isn’t quite as revelatory as it was 30 years ago.
Predicated on the concept of the reciprocal gaze, Visitors begins with a shot of a female lowland gorilla, the primate whose facial structure most closely resembles our own. Set against an otherwise pitch-black screen, she appears to be looking the audience directly in the eye.
“If you take the background out of the shot, you’re no longer looking at a gorilla,” Reggio says over the phone from his home in Santa Fe. “A gorilla is looking at you. It sets up a wholly different dynamic.”
“If you take the background out of the shot, you’re no longer looking at a gorilla. A gorilla is looking at you.”
It’s a technique the director applies to all of the film’s 80 unidentified subjects, and the complete dissolution of the background results in a disarming directness of the image; the 4th wall isn’t so much broken as it is suggested never to have existed at all.
From the stunned freckle-faced boy with big ears who resembles Alfred E. Newman to a weathered African American woman whose drooping eyes are on the verge of tears, the subjects of this first series of “moving portraits,” as the director calls them, have been given no instructions as to what to do or how to react to the camera. “These photographs are from the inside out,” Reggio explains. “Our faces reveal the fullness of life.” Stripped of any stimulus, the expressions of this first group of people expose their true consciousness (theoretically, at least).
The rest of the subjects, on the other hand, were filmed either watching TV or gaming, and they are considered “cyborgs”—not just using technology but actually becoming it.
“They’re being pulled by something that’s present but not seen, which is the screen,” he says. “These are portraits from the outside in. They knew they were being filmed, but as soon as the TV came on, or the video game came on, it was like a tractor beam, pulling them out of their conscious state into a non self-conscious state.”
As you might expect, the cyborgs are the more animated bunch: they cock their heads, furrow their brows, chew their cheeks, bite their tongues and lick their lips; their eyes widen with excitement or squint in disbelief, their mouths gasp, gape, sigh and scream. But the drama that unfolds across their visages is indicative of automaticity rather than authenticity.
The viewer, meanwhile, are not told what these people are looking at—are they looking at us? Or us at them? That’s the danger of Visitors: the specifics of the director’s commentary on technology might be overlooked.
But Reggio’s deliberate ambiguity also enables—and encourages—freedom of interpretation. The film is less about meaning than it is about experience, and like hypnosis, the effect depends heavily on the subject’s willing sensory engagement.
“It’s a different kind of cinema that may not be for everybody,” Reggio admits. “The ideal viewer is someone who watches the film like a traveler, like she’s passing through.” The effect should be “extra-mental,” he says. “If it works then it takes on a life of its own.”
The experience wouldn’t be complete without Philip Glass, who was also central to the Koyaanisqatsi films. The composer’s score avoids dramatic swells in favor of a kind of shamanic repetition that works alongside the images to lull the viewer into a trance. The music, Reggio says, should act as a “dancing partner” to the visuals, not showing off with dips or lifts, but rather gently swaying together as one.
“I asked Phillip Glass not to write note one until he’d been completely marinated, as it were, in the ethos of the spirit of the film,” Reggio says. “That starts out by him going to as many of the actual locations as possible…to get an original charge.” Once the director had a rough cut of the film (no small feat with over 60 hours of footage to reduce), Glass was brought back into the process.
Although Visitors is at this point as much of a pastiche as it is a poem—its combination of sound and image recall any number of things from Warhol’s Screen Tests to 2001: A Space Odyssey, to examples from Reggio’s own oeuvre—it is nevertheless a film that demands to be seen. Its most powerful argument is for the medium itself, the manner in which cinema—or viewing—can be mulled over. For Reggio, who believes that the “meaning is in the form,” this is perhaps the greatest achievement of all.