Review: Godfrey Reggio’s ‘Visitors’ dares you to read too much into it
What is “Visitors?” For starters, it’s a film by Godfrey Reggio, who made the 1984 maximalist mainstream art film “Koyaanisqatsi” — the one with fast-forwarded images of urban life set to a crazy-making Philip Glass score. It’s 74 shots, each of them crisp, digital black-and-white. About 90 percent of them show the human face, people staring back at the audience. Every now and then Reggio throws in something else: a gorilla from the Bronx zoo; a decaying, depopulated building; the moon.
Is it a trance film? Yes and no. We could turn our brains off. But any two images cut together creates meaning. And so we, the viewers, are forced when an edit comes up to infer that a message is being conveyed. Most of the time Reggio is cutting from people to people — sometimes alone, sometimes in groups crossing across the frame as though on a conveyor belt. But he does cut to something else, albeit so infrequently that it’s not clear what he’s saying, if anything. It’s as though he’s daring us to think, then laughing when we come back with nothing.
That’s not our fault, though. Reggio has spent his career using media to confront people with grandiose, usually guilt-trippy ideas. “Koyaanisqatsi” is both sensory overload and hectoring overload, cracking humanity over the knuckles for defiling nature. Then again, one could easily read it the other way: as a celebration of a species conquering its planet. If we know Reggio, we come at “Visitors” ready to feel bad, to see a message, to question the big stuff.
It doesn’t give that to us. It doesn’t give us anything. Or it gives us the suggestion of an idea, the nub of a thought, then doesn’t follow through. Is he saying, as he did in his film “Naqoyqatsi,” that mankind is relocating from our manmade buildings to the digital realm? Is humanity starting over, leaving behind our evolutionary roots (see: our relative, the gorilla)? Is it a commentary on voyeurism? If so, to what specific end?
Or are we simply, as Reggio has suggested in interviews (including this one), supposed to use the film as a respite from our increasingly busy and fast-paced lives, where more is demanded of us physically and mentally? Should we give into this slow, somber and vaguely melancholic film, with a soft, gentle Glass score?
The latter is probably the most likely, though it’s also all of the above. It can be treated as an open space for thoughts to roam free. The flip side of this is that it seems to be pushing us in certain directions, then once we’re off on an idea lets us float freely, like an astronaut tumbling into the vacuum of space towards a certain death. Perhaps the real commentary is that we have a film that’s not trying to sell us on something, even if it appears to be, and we, as humans, have evolved to where we’re forced to detect patterns or thoughts, even when they’re not really there.
There is something vaguely arrogant about it, as though it thinks it’s trying something original. In fact, its play with duration follows in a long line of filmmakers who force viewers to think about time as it elapses: Andy Warhol, Chantal Akerman, Bela Tarr, Michael Snow, Hou Hsiao-hsien, James Benning — the list goes on. But Reggio is making art films for the masses. He’s more cult figure than filmmaker. Then again, lower your guard with his films and you miss or underrate their other attractive elements. For a film that’s almost entirely solemn people watching, it’s impressive how maddening “Visitors” is.