One of the most radical film-makers still at work today, Godfrey Reggio’s Qatsi trilogy (Koyaanisqatsi, Powaqqatsi, Naqoyqatsi) reimagined cinematic form in the way that only either a novice or a visionary could. Reggio is both: his training came not from time spent on sets nor film school, but through time spent as a Christian Brother in which he realised the potency of film as a platform for expression and communication. He eschewed a linear narrative approach to film-making, juxtaposing stunning, experimentally-shot and -edited imagery with rich cycles of music composed by his long-time collaborator Philip Glass.
While his films are an attempt at open-ended cinema, however, Reggio’s strongly-held ethical and political beliefs have come more and more to the fore in his work. Age 73, his interrogations into the broken world we inhabit have lost none of their nuance. With Visitors screening at 2014’s Jameson Dublin International Film Festival, we dialed up the director.
Let’s talk a little about the subject matter of Visitors.
You know the statement ‘the odd one out’? I guess this film could be described as ‘the odd one in’. It’s beyond the traditional boundaries of theatrical or documentary film. What I counsel people to do is to try and leave their expectations at the door, because nine out of eight films that we say are theatrical, which means they’re based in a screenplay. They come from literature. They have a logic to them. They’re entertaining. They explain things, if they’re documentaries. This film is not made to entertain or to explain, it’s not based in a concept or anything logical, it’s non-linear. In that sense I look at Visitors as poetic cinema.
I want to paraphrase Goethe on poetry: “in the measure that it’s least accessible to intellect, in that measure it’s most efficacious”. This film is an attempt to not be based in text, but in texture. It’s not, as it were, telling you a story. It’s a story to behold, and deals with pictorial composition, images that can transubtantiate into feelings. The intention of the film is to affect the viewer, not to inform them.
Let me use an example: if I were a sculptor, I would have to become intimate with the stone that I’m going to put the mallet to. If I don’t know the stone, then I’m going to mess it up as I start to chisel on it. In that same way I need to know the material that I’m working with, which is pictorial material. In that sense once the film is shot then it speaks to us, then it tells us what to do with it. I know that might sound strange. This is not an experimental film. These films are called experimental because they exist outside the boundaries of tradition – this film is an experiential form of cinema, one that is to give you an experience of the subject. In that sense, Visitors is an autodidactic film. The subject of the film, as weird as this might sound, is you watching the film. So those that watch the film become at once the storyteller, the character and the plot. What this film tries to do because of the poetic nature of this kind of cinema is engage those aesthetic triplets that exist within all of us: sensation, emotion and perception.
What is the title’s significance?
What I try to tell people is “do this like a road trip”. If you’re going to be looking for the meaning of the film then you’re going to miss what the film is. I suggest that, like a good road trip, that one just sits back and takes in the sights like a traveller would. If you or she were on a ride through the beautiful countryside of Ireland, you would just take in the sights. This is an extramental activity. The beauty of art is that it has no intrinsic meaning. If everybody saw the same picture in the same way then it would be either advertisement or propaganda. If there are 50 people in the theatre (after the first 25 leave!) then they will have vastly different experiences. They might have a similar affect, but when they leave the theatre, when their minds start to work out what they’ve been through, then there’s going to be as many different points of views about it as those that were present.
The very word ‘visitor’ is a ubiquitous term, it’s in all languages on the planet. It’s a plastic word, you can put anything on that you wish. The etymology of the word, though, is ‘those that come to see’, and that’s what this film is about: seeing, feeling, rather than knowing.
To talk about that autodidactic nature of the film though, the viewer’s experience is still mediated in that you and your collaborators as auteur are still directing the experience. There must be outcomes that you hope to provoke in a viewer, right?
Indeed. If the person watching the film is indeed the subject of the film, well, I believe that all meaning in art is in the form, then it’s going to be vastly different. But yes, having said that the crafting and point of view that goes into a film like this, my own feeling is that the stiller we become, the more we become sensitive to the world around us. In traditional cinema the average cut is anywhere from 3-5 seconds. In this film the average cut is over 70 seconds. With that in mind, the M.O. of the film is the moving still. However it’s moving so ‘still’ that it becomes imperceptible, it’s almost moving with you noticing that it’s moving. The film is always moving, but at such a slow rate it gives us time to be involved with the three principal characters of the film, or the generality of those characters.
Theatrical cinema is set up to give the view a voyeuristic experience of everything from intimate love to joy and war and innocence etc., intimate stories people watch, as it were, through the cinema. The rule that actors will not look directly into the lens of the camera is to save that voyeuristic relationship. Now, having said that, there are exceptions in many films. However in this film all of the characters I mentioned are all face-to-face with the audience, in dialogue with the audience through facial expression, eye movement, behaviour and gesture. But their presence is on the screen so long that one gets the chance to stare. This is what this exercise this about – looking at something so that it’s not only us gazing at the screen now, the screen is gazing back at us; the reciprocal gaze. What the film means, again, is up to the viewer. The viewer has to determine.
You talked about exceptions to breaking the fourth wall in cinema, and that direct gaze from the subject you employ reminds me particularly of Errol Morris’s use of the Interrotron for the same effect.
Yes, Errol uses the same type of system as almost all news programs [a teleprompter]. I did a version of this on a little film called Evidence, which is on the internet if you want to look it up. If you want to look directly into the eyes of the subject, then how do you do that? In the case of this film all the people who are in the film are what are called in the business ‘extras’. The job was to do absolutely no acting at all. I wanted completely non-self-conscious participants.
So that performative nature of being filmed, being watched, is stripped away then?
Right, they knew they were being filmed, but they were being filmed watching films, playing games, or in a sports bar. As soon as that TV set comes on it’s like a tractor beam, we’re being pulled by this predicate in the room and we go right out of our own consciousness into another zone completely, and that becomes obvious on the face of the people that you’re watching. They were looking right into the camera through a two-way mirror, as it was reflecting what the TV was showing them. While they knew they were being filmed they only had the opportunity to do what they do normally anyway.
We talked about getting to know the stone earlier. As a sculptor, Visitors seems like a total volte-face from the style of Naqoyqatsi which used a lot of found footage and hyperactive cuts, and in particular as a black-and-white film the new work stands in contrast to all your previous films which were an explosion of colour and light.
The thinking is the following. I work on a surface form of art, a two-dimensional form of art. In surface you want to get as much depth, or the illusion of depth onto that field as possible. In cinema, the blacker the blacks the more the illusion of death. Also, colour contemporises images, it makes it more representative, it brings it into the world we live in now. I was trying to bring us into an otherworldly view of world around us. And also, when you have colour, your eyes precognitively go to the different colours to understand the matrix of what’s in front of you.
Let’s use the gorilla, one of the film’s three main characters, as an example. If I had shot the gorilla in Uganda, as opposed to zoo that spent a gazillion dollars trying to make it look Uganda, then I would be looking at a gorilla in the wild. If I take the background of the “wild” out of the shot in post-production, then the gorilla is in the blackground. You are not looking at the gorilla, therefore, it emphasises that the gorilla is looking at you. I take as the inspiration for that this beautiful quote from Loren Eiseley: “we have not seen ourselves as a human being until we have seen ourselves through the eyes of another animal”. The blackground helps us do that. I felt it would ultimately be more emotive for the viewer, allowing the viewer to go into a depth beyond the surface of the frame, where they can find a deeper meaning in the film.
An article in Wired recently written by a user of Google Glass who filmed the birth of his own child received plaudits from tech utopians praising the breadth of access to diverse experiences for anybody in the world to dig into, which, in my gut, feels like the father has relinquished his opportunity to fully live in this precious moment as part of this trade off of experience for documentation, or creation of information, feeding into technology rather than celebrating nature. You’re concerned by this tyranny of technology too.
In all of the films that I’ve done that which inspires me is the basic idea that we’re living in a world that’s in the twilight of the real, which has to do with technology. Technology is probably the most misunderstood subject on the planet. We think of it in terms of how the use or misuse we make of it determines its value, as if its value is neutral. From my point of view technology is not something we use, it is as ubiquitous as the air we breathe. It is not the effect of technology on the environment, on education, on the economy, on religion etc., it is more the fact that everything exists in technology. So in that sense technology is the environment of our lives. Being sensate beings we become, of course, what we see, touch, smell and taste, and if technology is the world we live in then we become that. That’s why I can say that we are becoming cyborged, we are becoming the technological environment. Elias Canetti made this great comment 30, 40 years ago: all of a sudden, without realising it, all of mankind exited reality. These are very heady subjects. Anything we could have said about God in the past we can say about technology: it is making the world now to its own image and likeness.
In that sense technology is a mystical outlet?
It’s the story of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. That brilliant young woman at the age of 17 wrote that we’ve given life to something now that has become autonomous, that has a life of its own. As it were, we’re strapped in for the ride thinking that we’re in charge, but from my own point of view technology is in the driving seat. It has an infinite appetite but exists in a finite world. It is eating up the planet, as it were.
Do you consider yourself a fatalist?
No, I don’t! What I’m saying can appear hopeless. But unless one has the courage to be hopeless about something then one can never have the courage to be hopeful about creating their own life. My own point of view is that we live in a rooted future. We’ve been through three epics, as it were: nature, culture and now technology. We keep seeing technology as just one of many categories in the modern world. To me it is the only category. In that sense I have no hope at all, I am hopeless about this technological world. I also think it’s extraordinarily boring, to the point of madness. There’s a choice: we can live in the rooted future, which I think is hopeless, or we can live in the uncreated future, which is extremely hopeful. I’m happy to be involved in this contradiction. Let me say this: my films use the highest form of cinematic and musical technology available. My stance here, and maybe it’s self-serving, is that when in Rome you must speak as the Romans. The language we speak today is the language of technology. Our own human language, at least from my limited point of view, no longer describe the worlds in which we live. To me this is an unspeakable tragedy.
Words: Daniel Gray