One doesn’t just walk in and sit down at a Godfrey Reggio film hoping to be entertained. It’s more likely that you’re going to be fascinated, mesmerized, stunned. Or you might get up and walk out before it’s half over. Yes, his approach to film – no words, no narrative story, lots of music, all of it by Philip Glass – can be polarizing.
If you’re not familiar with his name it’s because he’s only made four feature films – “Koyaanisqatsi” (1982), “Powaqqatsi” (1988), “Naqoyqatsi” (2002) and his new one “Visitors.” One more thing: From the get-go, none of these has been anything even resembling an ordinary film, from frame one.
“Koyaanisqatsi” opens with a shot of ancient cave paintings, then segues to a fiery booster rocket taking off in the slowest of motion. “Visitors” opens with a head and shoulders shot of a gorilla, just sitting there, in front of a pitch black background, staring right at you, like it can actually see you, like maybe it’s wondering why you’re staring back. And you are, definitely, staring back.
Then a person comes onscreen, black background again, staring, in close-up, then more people, sometimes a couple or a few of them. Sometimes they’re staring at you (while you stare back, because you can’t think of what else to do); sometimes they’re moving a bit, looking over your shoulder, maybe laughing, or reacting in some other way. One guy is caught yawning ... or is he silently screaming? They’re of all ages, all ethnicities, and you’ve got to wonder, what are they looking at, and what are they thinking and doing? What’s their story?
But this isn’t only about people (or is it about you, the viewer, wondering why people in a movie are staring at you?). There are also buildings, seen from different angles, some of them not in very good shape. We get to stare a while at an old skyscraper, with clouds scudding across the sky behind it. Later there’s a decrepit, abandoned amusement park, or what’s left of it, with sad visual hints of the joy the place once brought. Even later, there’s a slow pan across stumps of broken trees in a misty Louisiana swamp, beautiful in their stillness.
But it’s not only that stillness or the slow, deliberate camera movement that makes the film stand out. It’s shot in gorgeously lit, stark black and white, and it’s complemented, like all of Reggio’s features before it, by a Philip Glass score, one that starts out quietly, builds in intensity, gets soft and gentle again, then becomes nervous and percussive and – since this is Glass – comfortably repetitive.
The film enters a whole other realm when the camera stops looking at faces and places, and begins concentrating on just the fingers and hands of its subjects. Again, they’re all shot in front of a black background. So we see a hand moving, almost spider-like, center screen. It cuts to another hand, this one slowly tapping, then two hands that appear to be playing a piano, only there’s no piano, just blackness ... and hands.
Allow me to give something away. The hands actually are playing a piano, but it was digitally removed, as was the zoo in which the gorilla resides. And all of the people we see are reacting to images on a TV monitor – some were watching movies, some sporting events, some video games. It didn’t matter. They might as well have been watching us watching them. This film is fascinating, mesmerizing, stunning.
Ed Symkus covers movies for More Content Now.
VISITORS Written and directed by Godfrey Reggio With lots of silent people, some old buildings, a few trees and Triska the gorilla Not rated