Directed by Godfrey Reggio—2013—87 minutes
Any of you who have read my book “Documentary 101” (don’t all speak up at once!) will know the conflicted feelings I have for director Godfrey Reggio and his “guided meditation” films. He first made his name back in 1982 with cult favorite “Koyaanisqatsi.” Right from the start, all the genre elements were in place: awe-inspiring large format cinematography, trippy special FX and hypnotic Philip Glass music. All were in the service of an un-narrated parade if images keyed into themes of nature, travelogue, ecology and implicit criticism of our rampant technological age.
It was a stunningly beautiful and dynamic film, but clearly wanted to be more than just eye candy for the stoned midnite-movie mavens. Reggio, whose background is in philosophy and social activism, was clearly in thrall of pre-Colombian landscapes and the wisdom of indigenous populations (Koyaanisqatsi is a Hopi word meaning “life out of balance”). Everyday people, on the other hand, are depicted as either rats in a maze or sardines in can, in repeated sped-up scenes of rush-hour train stations or clogged-up freeways. A non-verbal experience like the one Reggio was offering lets viewers provide their own context and what I saw as a blame-the-people tendency got acutely annoying for me when it was repeated in the sequels, “Powaqqatsi” (1998) and “Naqoyqatsi” (2002). The powers-that-be that play a major role in the environmental havoc that the director clearly abhors remain behind the closed doors of boardrooms and presidential palaces.
To his credit, Reggio has switched gears for 2013’s “Visitors”, now available on DVD. Known in his earlier works for triple-time shots, here the pace has been slowed down to a crawl. The entire film, shot in B&W using pristine 4K ultra hi-def format, consists of only 74 shots lasting an average of 70 seconds each. It opens with an enigmatic stare down with a lowland gorilla (a highlight) before the staring contests continue with a diverse succession of humans. These are thankfully interspersed with richly pictorial (but static) scenes of mysterious abandoned buildings, a primordial bayou, a closed post-Katrina amusement park in Louisiana, etc.
Reggio has said that to be forced to gaze upon the supposedly familiar form of the human face until it becomes unfamiliar is a path to really seeing it for the first time. Maybe, but the best way to get to know people via cinematic means will always be through a strong narrative. “Visitors” was a film I found alternately enthralling and enervating, a bit of a seat-squirmer in theaters but one that may be helped on DVD by judicious use of the “next chapter” button on your remote. Honestly, this would have worked better as a multi-screen video installation in a contemporary art museum, or even as a coffee table book of stills.
My book “Documentary 101” is now on sale as both a paperback and e-book: http://booklocker.com/books/6965.html Also available from Amazon and other online book sellers.