The world premiere of Qatsi trilogy director Godfrey Reggio’s long-awaited and eagerly anticipated “Visitors” provided the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival with something extraordinarily unique: its greatest cinematic experience. The stunningly photographed, often difficult, always transfixing film was not the most satisfying creation on display at TIFF, or for many cinemagoers, its most alluring. But it was without question its most important. Here is a movie that defies simple interpretation and renders reviews — this one included—almost meaningless. Booking Reggio’s first film in more than a decade was always going to make waves; his immaculately filmed, non-narrative Qatsi trilogy—“Koyaanisqatsi” (1982), “Powaqqatsi” (1988), and “Naqoyqatsi” (2002)—is rightfully ranked among the most important artistic achievements of the last thirty years. But that was just part of the excitement.
For the premiere of “Visitors” at Toronto’s ornate Elgin Theatre, Reggio and his longtime musical collaborator Philip Glass, “Naqoyqatsi” editor Jon Kane, and “presenter” Steven Soderbergh took to the stage. Joining this inimitable quartet were members of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra to provide musical accompaniment—TIFF director and chief executive officer Piers Handling, clearly giddy with excitement, gestured to the musicians in the pit—making this presentation, as the film’s lovely program book put it, “a live orchestral cinema event.” Before the film began, Soderbergh spoke of it as a project “very much in the Qatsi tradition,” and asked a question that nicely sums up the difficulties in discussing and writing about this new addition to the Reggio canon: How does one describe in words a film that does not include a single one? Soderbergh smartly did not attempt to, but did explain what makes “Visitors,” like Reggio’s other films, such a delightfully complex experience. “If you show this movie to a hundred people,” he told the audience, “you get a hundred different responses.” Or, as Soderbergh said in the movie’s press notes, “If, 500 years ago, monks could sit at a bench and make a movie, this is what it would look like.”
“Visitors” begins with the most memorable face of the film festival, that of Triska, a female lowland gorilla who resides at the Bronx Zoo. It is, like so many of the film’s shots, slow and steady, and in digital 4K projection, looks hyper-real and shockingly detailed; we have never seen a face like this, in this way, before. Triska will return and she is the centerpiece of the film’s head-spinning almost-final sequence, but hers is one of many faces that stand out. “Visitors” is, above all else, a film of faces—young and old, male and female, always silent. Often, the faces are held on screen for an uncomfortable length of time. It is hard not to feel restless as the camera lingers, but it is also difficult not to be fascinated. We have time to study every detail, and when movement occurs, it is undeniably impactful. One of the longest “face shots” is that of a young girl, first smiling, then appearing to be almost angered. Her emotions run the gamut and so do our interpretations.
Sometimes the individuals on camera laugh, sometimes they cheer (the “sports fans” shot was a personal favorite), sometimes they look to their left as Reggio’s camera pans away from them, and our eyes follow. But we never learn what they are seeing, where they are located, or how they came to be—or whose spider-y hands we are staring at in a series of humorous shots. Likewise, the several seemingly abandoned locations used are not identified in any way. A large concrete behemoth of a building, a disturbingly empty, overgrown amusement park, and an eerie, dying warehouse look like alien landscapes. No signs of life appear in these spaces, but they are all beautiful. Even an extended slo-mo shot of garbage pouring in an endless stream is beautiful. And there is no lovelier visual than that of the moon’s rocky landscape. (Near the conclusion of the end credits comes this seemingly tongue-in-cheek note: “Filmed in Louisiana, New York, New Jersey and over the moon.”)
What does one make of it all? Are we, the viewer, the visitors, always looking and always wondering who, what, where, when, and why? Is it wrong to think “2001: A Space Odyssey” when we cut from Triska to the moon, or to spend time pondering how the hell Reggio pulled off some of this? In his program book introduction, Reggio stresses the importance of our role: “The viewer, unlike the voyeur, is not simply the giver of the gaze, but rather the subject of it. The content of ‘Visitors’ is the reciprocal gaze. The frame, a portal of light that incorporates the audience into the film, returns the viewer’s look.” Or, as Kane states, “[O]ur film sets out to ignite the senses with stillness, speak to us without words, and offer the audience the opportunity of seeing and being seen.” Indeed, these elements are all clearly here. Yet that does not mean “Visitors” is always satisfying, and it also means watching it outside of a large-scale setting might prove enormously disappointing. It needs this size, and this sound. In other words, watching “Visitors” on an iPad would be like visiting the Louvre with broken glasses—impossible to comprehend or appreciate.
For those lucky enough to attend the screening, September 8, 2013, will stand out as a major date in recent cinema. Perhaps it seems absurd to suggest that whether or not one “enjoys” “Visitors” is of little importance, but that is the case. Reggio’s film is an artistic and aesthetic achievement unlikely to be equaled in 2013, and perhaps the only film in recent memory which can proudly claim to be unlike anything else we have ever seen. As Soderbergh insightfully stated in the film’s press notes, this screening was an opportunity to “eventize” Reggio’s latest work, in a bold, memorable fashion: “This will be the first time anybody has seen the film and the first time anybody’s heard Philip’s score, his brand new score, and there’s not going to be another film around that’s going to be able to make that claim.” In a festival season that has seen battles over what premiered where and who snagged what first, TIFF pulled off something special. Hopefully, audiences around the world will have the chance to see, hear, and feel Godfrey Reggio’s “Visitors” like this—the way the film deserves to be experienced. [A for the experience, B+ for the film]
Cinedigm will release Godfrey Reggio’s “Visitors” on Feb 14, 2014.