“Art has no intrinsic meaning.”—Godfrey Reggio
Filmmaker Godfrey Reggio and composer Philip Glass, co-creators of the Qatsi trilogy (Koyaanisqatsi, Powaqqatsi, and Naqoyqatsi) are back with a new experimental film, Visitors, this time collaborating with director/editor Jon Kane (It’s Only Rock n’ Roll) and executive producer Stephen Soderbergh (Traffic).
The marketing describes the as “aimed at the solar plexus, at the appetite within us all,” and “a meditation, as a transcendental event.” OK, that sounds neat, but does it mean, exactly? Visitors is filmed in black and white, with no dialogue or sound other than the score. With only 74 shots total, most of Visitors is people of various ages and ethnicities staring directly at the camera. This is interspersed with shots of empty skyscrapers and an abandoned, run-down amusement park. Later in the film, there’s a shift from individual faces to groups of people looking into the camera. There’s an interlude featuring extreme closeups of a person’s hands, and occasional shots of nature and the surface of the moon. There you go, that’s the movie.
In the accompanying booklet, Reggio says the movie has three characters, “ape,” “human,” and “cyborg.” It’s true, the first face we see staring back at us is an ape, before moving on to all the human faces. “Cyborg” is some sort of plastic crash test dummy seen in one shot. The filmmakers work hard to get around the “uncanny valley” thing by giving the cyborg a lot of body language, having it thrash around in some sort of lament better gives the feeling that it is alive.
Creating a feeling of life is part of what Visitors is about. Much has been made about the film commenting on people’s trance-like reactions to technology. I can sort of see that. We sit in front of our TVs and computers blankly looking at them, so here’s a movie that looks back. There’s more to it, though. All these people aren’t just sitting there staring at you. Each one has something on his or her mind. The idea is to evoke an emotional response between the viewer and the individual on screen—a personal connection between the two. The marketing goes as far as to call this a “dialogue” between the movie the members of the audience.
What we’re dealing with here is minimalist art. Imagine a painting that’s an entirely blank canvas except for a small splash of color in one corner. A lot of folks might grouse about how this could possibly be art, but they’re not considering the work as a mentally interactive experience. When an artist creates a painting with a mostly blank canvas, the artist is establishing a relationship of sorts with the viewer. The viewer is expected to fill in that blank space with his or her own thoughts, imagination, and experience. Filmmaking adds another level in the editing room, by taking these separate shots and creating a sequence, with the viewers’ imaginations filling in the gaps between each scene, so every viewer creates the “story” of the movie in his or her own mind, so there is a different experience for every viewer.
While a lot of the movie is left up to your imagination, there’s one aspect to it that tells you exactly what to feel, and that’s the score by Philip Glass. While Glass is allegedly famous for minimalist music (his bio shows all kinds of music to his credit) his score on Visitors is rich and immersive, and it sets the otherworldly tone for what we’re seeing. You could argue that the score is repetitive, but that’s a match for the repetitive content of the film.
Is the movie boring? It could be, if you’re less interested in making an emotional connection with cyborgs and more interested in cyborgs fighting demons (that would be Manborg). However, I must admit I was engaged enough to keep watching, just to see what Reggio and company would show me next. Also, I always enjoy that super-sharp black and white photography, where you can make out all kinds of details and textures, and that’s the case with these visuals.
The visuals really shine on Blu-ray, with a 2.35:1/1080p HD transfer that’s highly clean and refined. Glass’s score is also excellent on the DTS-HD 5.1 track. The disc comes with a couple of short behind-the-scenes featurettes and interviews with participants in which they elaborate somewhat on what they were going for. A DVD copy is included.
Visitors is appropriately titled, because it’s all these people are visiting you, inside your home, through your TV screen. It’s slow and weird, but it works in its own way.
Stare at the not guilty verdict long enough, and it eventually stares back.