Review: Is Godfrey Reggio's Visitors Just An 87-Minute Selfie Set To Music?

by Godfrey Reggio
Sydney Opera House
January 23, 2014
Sydney Festival

An image from Reggio’s film, Visitors.

“I usually hope that when people come to my films, they leave their expectations behind,” American director Godfrey Reggio said in an interview leading up to the release of Visitors, his first film in 11 years since concluding the trippy, ground-breaking, non-narrative “Qatsi” trilogy.

But I did come with expectations, because I fell in love with the music of Reggio’s long-time collaborator, the American minimalist composer Philip Glass, in 1982 watching Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance.

I have the expectations of three decades of Reggio’s work.
Visitors didn’t live up to them.

Have I let myself down? Or Reggio, who said in an interview that you shouldn’t read too much into this new work.

Both Glass’ music and Reggio’s films have been Sydney Festival favourites over many years. This latest collaboration between the two septugenarians is a slow meditation on humanity, an artful, black-and-white selfie in which the audience stares at mostly passive faces blinking slowly at the camera.

Watching a film set to live music, in this instance performed by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, harks back to the great era of silent pictures, which is exactly what Visitors is. For 87 minutes, nothing is said, not a voice heard.

Images appear at the speed of a TV slow-mo replay of a cricket shot, the composer’s music skipping between major and minor keys and 3/4 and 4/4 time. I keep waiting for the pace to quicken, for the film to reach its crescendo. It never happens. We linger, and amble.

In a fast-paced era of rapid-fire tweets, and multi-media multi-skilling, Visitors‘ stripped-back, almost Spartan visual parade provokes initial frustration, but the film, bubbling along to Glass’ slow, meditative three-note arpeggios, beautifully rendered by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Glass’ musical director Michael Riesman, forces you to yield and slow to its pace.

It’s a portrait of astonishing beauty, reminiscent of Renaissance chiaroscuro.

Reggio calls the glacially-paced images “moving stills”. It reminds me of Brian Eno’s video artworks from the 1980s.

Some of Reggio’s familiar visual signatures appear: clouds streaming across landscapes, abandoned, derelict buildings, eerie natural environments. The images of the moon’s crater-strewn landscape are particularly breathtaking.

Is it simply a piece of abstract art to contemplate for a few moments and then move on?

Reggio created a new language in film when he started the Qatsi trilogy, which in turn led to the more popular Baraka by his cinematographer, Ron Fricke.

Much of what he does is already part of our modern visual language.
Richard Tognetti’s Australian Chamber Orchestra explored similar themes a few years ago in its collaboration with photographer Bill Henson, a man long obsessed with the moody atmospherics of random faces in the crowd.
And this is an era in which a contemporary artist, such as Australian Shaun Gladwell’s 3-minute skating video sells at auction for $84,000.

I wanted Reggio to startle, to surprise. Now that everyone with iPhoto can add the Ken Burns effect to their photos, what does Reggio have to show us; to pass on late in his creative life?

Reggio, once a pathfinder, seems to have been caught by the peloton.
Or is this a sly reminder that now everyone thinks they’re an auteur, true art requires more than opposable thumbs and an app?

Visitors begins with the face of Triska, a female zoo gorilla, with a black background, seemingly in an intimate studio portrait. These shots are a triumph of the intricately painstaking rendering in post-production; Triska was filmed using a long lens, through glass, in natural light, in her enclosure. Frame by frame her surroundings were stripped back until only she existed in the frame.

Are we being invited to anthropomorphise, or simply empathise?

Then come the human faces, of varying ages and races. They stare at the camera, or somewhere just beyond it, as if searching for meaning, as we stare at them, searching for our own meanings in them.

Glass’ fellow composer, John Cage, once observed that music is the space between the notes. By giving us just 74 shots in 87 minutes, Reggio is teasing us to ponder the space in between; to seek meaning there? If we’re being asked to contemplate human nature, then surely it’s about finding meaning.

In once startling moment, because amid so much stillness, it’s almost hyperactive, a young girl appears using sign language. What is she saying?
My mind flicks to the imposter interpreter at Nelson Mandela’s memorial, who got away with it because so many of us didn’t understand.

You can enjoy Visitors simply for Glass’ score. It’s one of his more sombre, meditative efforts, beautiful for its harps, the swirling eddies of the string section and soft bounce of the percussion and xylophone.

Or, depending on your patience, you can be mesmerised by the images. For all those faces, my favourite visual actually appeared during the credits, when an upside down image of ink being dropped into water made a forest of exquisite abstract trees.

Godfrey Reggio’s films often incite a mind-altering conciousness. Some will find Visitors glacial and monotonous. Others a moment of hypnotic contemplation.

But the state of mind you put into Visitors is probably the one you’ll take out of it, especially if you came with no expectations.

* The final performance of Visitors is 8pm tonight, January 24, at the Sydney Opera House.

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