In 1982 monk-turned-film-director Godfrey Reggio released Koyaanisqatsi, a film that, despite being an experimental non-narrative documentary, was a surprise hit that went on to become one of the most successful documentaries of all time, even spawning two sequels (1988’s Powaqqatsi and 2002’s Naqoyqatsi, now collectively known as the Qatsi trilogy). The innovative ways that Reggio was able to convey meaning and hold viewers’ attention using only music, montage, and images — largely impressionistic footage of landscapes, cities, and crowds — created a new filmmaking grammar that had an immediate and profound influence on the culture of moving images. Whether the average moviegoer (or TV viewer, or web video-watcher) knows it or not, Godfrey Reggio essentially changed the way we watch moving images forever. Now, with the premiere of Visitors at the Toronto International Film Festival, his first new film in over a decade, he’s managed to top himself by creating a film that actually watches us back.
The unveiling of Visitors at TIFF was one of the most anticipated premieres at the festival — pretty remarkable for a black-and-white experimental film with no dialogue. Nevertheless, it was a gala affair, fully “eventized”, as presenter Steven Soderbergh put it, taking place at the lush Elgin Theater, presented in-person by Soderbergh, Reggio, and composer Philip Glass, and featuring Glass’ original score performed live by members of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. By the time the curtain was raised, the 1,500 or so audience members in attendance were rapt and ready for anything.
What they got was a new kind of cinematic experience, the most radical and affecting of Reggio’s career: a film that consists largely of images of humans of various ages and races gazing directly into the camera for what are sometimes uncomfortably-extended periods of time. How extended, you ask? Visitors is an 87-minute film with only 74 cuts. By comparison, Reggio’s last film, Naqoyqatsi, had over 570 cuts in the same length of time. Think of how strange it can be to silently make eye firm, direct contact with someone, even a loved one, for more than a few seconds. Now imagine a film that is largely that and nothing but, and you start to get an idea of the strange emotional places that Visitors takes its viewers.
“The content of Visitors,” Reggio explains, “is the reciprocal gaze.” After spending a career inventing new ways for audiences to see and experience films, Reggio says that he was concerned this time around with creating a film that, for once, actually “returns the viewer’s look”. (Indeed, the film’s original working title was the decidedly more literal The Holy See.) When speaking about the film in Toronto, he stated that the inspiration for Visitors was the idea that humans cannot fully understand themselves until they’ve seen themselves through the eyes of another species. Accordingly, the first image of Visitors is the face of a female lowland gorilla (identified in the credits as “Triska”) delivering a steady, somber gaze directly into the camera. Triska, according to Reggio, can be seen as something like the film’s diva, with her gaze opening and closing the film and providing a sort of spiritual framework for everything comes between.
Filmed in lush, crisp black and white (and projected with diamond-sharp 4k clarity at the premiere) in front of a pure black background, the faces of Visitors gaze out of the screen searchingly. Sometimes they seem to be reacting to things that we never see, and we watch happiness, sadness, fear, and surprise play across their various faces in cosmically slow motion. Glances and tiny, minor moments of expression that we take for granted every day suddenly become high drama. Sometimes they seem to be uncomfortable with what they see. Other times they seem bored. Are they reacting to us? Judging us? What is it that they think they’re seeing? Do they know they’re being watched? Perhaps they might ask the same thing of us.
When blown up to theatrical size Reggio’s faces take on a sculptural quality, like ancient marble statues animated with some divine breath. Presented with such monumental weight and stillness they appear almost as living landscapes, echoing the epic widescreen vistas of the Qatsi films. Indeed, another recurring image is that of the slowly turning landscape of the moon, and more than one viewer noted echoes of Kubrick’s 2001, another film where both primates and heavenly bodies occupy similar thematic terrain.
Although the faces are the film’s most memorable imagery, the other dominant visual theme is that of abandoned spaces. There is the aforementioned moonscape, as well as many long, timelapse tracking shots of a creepily abandoned amusement park, an empty industrial apartment block, and other images of emptiness and decay. Everything is filmed with a uniformly masterful eye for stunning compositions. The single elegiac tracking shot that plays under the film’s credits, for example, might be one of the most haunting and quietly beautiful shots to cross a movie screen in decades.
Adding to it all is a new soundtrack by Reggio’s longtime collaborator, avant garde minimalist composer Philip Glass. After working so closely together for 30 years, Glass’ extraterrestrial symphonies have become such a vital component of Reggio’s filmmaking that this time around he is given full credit as a co-author of the film alongside Reggio and Jon Kane, the film’s producer and primary visual architect. The gently pulsing, hypnotic strains of Glass’ music are the perfect accompaniment to the meditative experience of Visitors. Throughout the film, glowing celestial strings and woodwinds ebb and drift around the margins of the stark images, occasionally undercut by spooky groans of ominously deep brass. Taken as a whole, the dissonance of the score not only keeps the viewer engaged in imagery that might otherwise test the patience of even the most iron-willed cineaste, but works to continually keep the audience slightly off-center and vigilant, leaving viewers hyper-sensitive to the smallest changes and suggestions that occur onscreen. Given Reggio’s lifelong goal of turning the movie screen into a place for contemplation and meditation, Glass’ music has always been a perfect fit, and Visitors is among his most accomplished scores yet.
Reggio’s previous films have always been concerned with raising questions for their viewers, with his Qatsi trilogy being essentially an extended inquiry into man’s relationship with nature, technology, spirituality, and place n the world. But never has Reggio — or anyone, perhaps — made a film that interrogated its viewers as directly as this. He states in the film’s press notes that his aim is for the audience to be “confronted face to face with the vivid unknown,” and Visitors does exactly that, sometimes to the point of causing anxiety and profound discomfort. Soderbergh puts it another way: “If, 500 years ago, monks could sit at a bench and make a movie, this is what it would look like.”
It remains to be seen whether Visitors will replicate the success of his previous films. (And perhaps in this age of Blu Ray, streaming, and video on demand, it may not need to in order to find an audience.) But from a purely artistic standpoint, Reggio has once again broken profoundly new ground, created one of the most fascinating films of the year, and proven himself once again to be one of the most important directors most people have never heard of.