Hopefully, the first thing you become aware of while watchingVisitors, director Godfrey Reggio’s first poetic documentary in over a decade since completing his “Qatsi” trilogy, is how different it is from his groundbreaking debut in the eighties.Visitors is black and white, its imagery slowed down to a mere crawl, and of course there’s the one word English title, almost begging the audience to understand its meaning. The Visitors in question are clearly us, the human race, each of us here on planet Earth but for nigh on a hundred years, to the 4.5 billion of the place we all call home but take for granted.
It’s funny how the exact opposite stylistic decisions can be used to make similar points, and for much of the film’s running time, staring into about 30 individual faces for about one minute each, I began looking for other significant criticisms than the usual environmental trappings Reggio is so fond of. But if the medium is truly the message, perhaps I was looking at it from the wrong perspective. What good would a Koyaanisqatsi approach have done me, with its reliance on sped-up scenes and obvious juxtapositions that have become so assimilated into the culture of mainstream advertising, music videos and MTV-style editing in motion pictures? It might’ve still had the same effect, but in Reggio’s decision to go the opposite route, it not only suggests a great difference with respect to the world today, but insinuates that such revolutionary techniques at-the-time are but second nature to us now. That is perhaps no more evident than in the films of Ron Fricke, Reggio’s previous cinematographer, who has gone out on his own with the lackluster Baraka and Samsara, which pale in comparison to the Qatsi trilogy, and feel like latecomers to a party that has already left the building.
Visitors has an otherworldy quality to it that lingers, and haunts. Shot in 4K digital and high contrast black and white, the film is very much a product of its time, while the restricting of its photography to only a few locations, and a third of the run time to just capturing faces puts the film on a much more intimate, quiet scale compared to Reggio’s earlier work, which took him all over the world. Visitors wants us to slow down, to reflect not on what we are going to do if we keep things up, but rather what we’ve already done, as buildings slowly blot out the overhead sky (still compressing a day into a few minutes, but this time the minutes feel like hours), empty warehouses sit barren within urban decay, and the Louisiana bayou immediately recalling the destructive power of nature, and of course the human hands behind it.
Visitors is a uniquely challenging experience. If you think you’ve seen every Godfrey Reggio film if you’ve seen one of them, you couldn’t be more wrong. Yes his signature “tone poem” approach is here, and yes even Phillip Glass is here, with another achingly beautiful, repetitive, somber, reflective score. But if you take nothing else at all away from this film, you should easily get the analogy of our time here on Earth akin to being invited by a friend over to dinner. How would you leave his/her house after dinner? What condition would it be in? The most challenging thing about the film, even more challenging than its glacial pacing and its at times impenetrable artistry, is finding a way of making this realization a true part of your life.
The Verdict: Rave