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After Koyaanisqatsi, Godfrey Reggio’s Visitors – review

Cult director Godfrey Reggio’s latest film, Visitors, screened in Sydney last week – with a live performance of the Philip Glass score. Prudence Upton/Sydney Festival

Godfrey Reggio’s film Visitors, which screened last week with a live Philip Glass score at the Sydney Opera House, represents the continuation of an aesthetic project that began with the landmark Koyaanisqatsi more than 30 years ago.

That film appeared as a kind of cinematic experiment in 1982, produced in piece-meal fashion, attracting the attention of Francis Ford Coppola, and finally achieving distribution a full year after its premiere.

Koyaanisqatsi astonishes the senses, and has since achieved something of a cult status. The film calls to mind the long century of cinema, that first auspicious projection of the Lumière Brothers in 1895, and more particularly, Dzigo Vertov’s great experimental documentary, Man With a Movie Camera (1929).

Man with a Movie Camera.

Challenging the norms of cinema

Narrative cinema communicates through story and character; these are the long-cherished building blocks of the medium. Put another way, we can say that most films we encounter, whether in a multiplex or art-house cinema, rely on narrative as their most basic substance.

Reggio’s aggressive critique of the effects of industrial modernity comes in the shape of images and sounds pouring across the screen, untethered from story, character, or any kind of narrative rationale.

The American director followed Koyaanisqatsi with Powaqqatsi (1988) and Naqoyqatsi (2002), producing a trilogy of films that represented a profound expression of contemporary life in the late twentieth century. But Reggio’s trilogy also challenged the technological and aesthetic norms of the medium of cinema, simultaneously shining a light on the cinematic past and pointing the way to its future.

In Koyaanisqatsi, Reggio plays with technology and aesthetics, taking image and sound as far as the medium will go.

Trailer for Koyaanisqatsi (1982).

Hyper-real saturated colours of a city move in frenetic blurs, building a progression of lyrical images. It’s social realism as an eye-popping special effect. The traditional ordinariness of natural phenomena – moving clouds, rain, shadows cast by made-made structures – take on a poetic, vivid quality. It’s beautiful, viscerally charged, affecting stuff – and all without the reassurance of narrative.

Stasis and contemplation

In his new film Visitors, Reggio again takes us back to images and sounds, and nothing more.

The film opens with the image of a gorilla staring down the barrel of the camera. Our eyes are fixed on its look of indifference, its glassy eyes, in gorgeous digital effect, standing in for a soul.

The eyes hold ours as its body shifts slightly, addressing the spectator. A somber string accompaniment brings a special weight to this wordless exchange.

This is a complete ancestral history in a single shot. And Godfrey holds this shot, as he will hold almost every shot in the film, for a lengthy, uncomfortable duration. In a film running 85 minutes that is composed of only 74 shots, each shot is a contemplative space, offering a very different, challenging form of cinematic experience.

Whereas Reggio’s trilogy frequently assaults its audience with imagery and sound, Visitors takes the spectator to the other experiential extreme: stasis and contemplation.

The subject of Visitors is an array of faces, usually addressing the spectator with a direct gaze, sometimes in remonstration for deeds done (perhaps the abuse of natural life, an enduring polemic in Reggio’s work), often simply in plaintive understanding.

Visitors at the Sydney Festival. Prudence Upton/Sydney Festival

The long duration brings a higher degree of abstraction to Visitors than Reggio’s earlier works. In this sense, it is a film about the experience of time and memory. Landscapes and the expressive faces of its inhabitants – its visitors – seem to encompass an indeterminate time and place. This is less a historicised commentary on life than an allegory of living, of passing time.

A collaboration with Philip Glass

The film is marked by ambiguity, nearer in spirit to conceptual art than representation, minimalist in abstraction rather than emblematic. The music of Philip Glass, who also collaborated on Reggio’s trilogy, strips the image further of its content.

Glass’s signature minimalism is dominant through most of the score, nourishing the overarching aesthetic of abstraction. Aural repetition and patterning enriches the languid repetition of images, most of it in unsettling tones. In Visitors, Glass’s music is appropriately less melodious, and certainly less aggressively rhythmic, than it is in Koyaanisqatsi.

Glass’s presence in Reggio’s trilogy and here again in Visitors speaks of the unique capacity for collaboration cinema affords, especially in musical composition.

In stripping cinema of its normative basis in narrative, Reggio elevates sound to the same status as image. These are not images with sounds – faces accompanied by musical pieces – but, quite literally, images built of visual and aural material. (Try watching The Thin Blue Line, Errol Morris’s documentary masterpiece of 1988, without Glass’s score.)

While Visitors is perhaps not as affecting as Koyaanisqatsi – those images and sounds remain galvanising in spite of being picked up in the decades since by advertising’s aesthetic rationale – Reggio’s film is nonetheless a fierce expression of the potential of images and sound in an age in which mainstream cinema relies is increasingly on formula and expectation.

Godfrey Reggio’s Visitors screened at the Sydney Festival. Details here.

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