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VISITORS (review)

visitorsVISITORS

Written and Directed by Godfrey Reggio

Writer/director, Godfrey Reggio, apparently spent 14 years of his life in silence while he was studying to become a monk. This devotion to silence has transferred over to his film work when he released KOYAANISQATSI, the first part of his QATSI trilogy back in 1982. The film seemingly had no plot, no dialogue or traditional narration, but was rather just a series of beautiful and time-lapse shots accompanied by a Philip Glass musical score. If you’ve ever seen the jawdroppingly beautiful travelogue, BARAKA, you get the idea. The QATSI trilogy acts as an essay to illustrate human life, our relationship with nature and technology, and the impact we are having on our planet. Now, 11 years after the last instalment in his trilogy, Reggio tries once again to connect his audience with humanity with far less of an obvious message than before.

VISITORS opens with the image of a gorilla against the blackest of backgrounds, looking off into the distance. Slowly, actually, almost painfully slow, we see that this is not just a static image and we can see the slight movements of her face, the breathing in and out. Fade to black. The title of the movie appears, stamped into concrete like a welcome sign over a doorway. Fade to black again. Another face appears, this time of a young girl; she is still, unblinking and the camera is ever so slightly zooming in on her face. The film progresses, showing unnamed faces that move from expressionless mannequins to laughter, seriousness, joy and sadness. We see unlabelled locations such as an abandoned amusement park, an apartment building, a boggy, forested area and a group of sports fans rejoicing in their favourite team’s win, or loss. We see the people talk to one another but there is no audible dialogue, so, like the film itself, we have to imagine what the conversation might be.

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One of the more fascinating parts of VISITORS are the shots of hands interacting with various objects like cell phones, a computer mouse, tablets and a piano. We see the hands but not the tools they use (they were digitally removed), and these make for some of the movie’s most fascinating shots. Some will say that this movie (much like the QATSI films) is completely dialogue free, and while that is only partially true, there is one line of non-verbal discourse in the “hand” segment of VISITORS, a shot of a young Deaf girl using ASL to tell a story about a ghost coming to visit her and how it frightened her.  Reggio seems to understand that with American Sign Language, it isn’t only the hands that convey the message, but the face as well. Out of context what the girl was signing makes no sense; it’s the only scene in the entire movie that I wish had lasted longer.

As the film moves from subject to subject, the 87-minute runtime really begins to make its presence known. Not much happens other than close-ups and slow moving shots, which makes it hard to put all the pieces together without imparting our own ideas and biases on the images we are seeing. There is no blatant theme here; it is up to us, the viewers, to discern some sort of meaning to the images we are seeing, and this creates a viewing experience which is both incredibly engaging and terribly frustrating. As we imagine what the story might be, each viewer will come away with a different experience, and like good filmmaking, this is exactly the result the filmmaker wants us to have. However, the message in VISITORS is so buried beneath the imagery, it eventually becomes exhausting trying to ascertain what exactly it is that Reggio is trying to say here. Are the people on screen the so-called “visitors”, or are we the visitors, visiting the movie theatre, visiting the images on screen, if only for just a little while at least? Reggio is absolutely out to make us think, but to be completely honest, about an hour into the film I couldn’t help but think, “When will this be over?” It takes patience to enjoy VISITORS.

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The score by Philip Glass is, as his work usually is, quite beautiful, but there were moments that reminded me of the wonderful score that Clint Mansel composed for Darren Aronofsky’s THE FOUNTAIN. Of all the works of Glass’, this is his most underwhelming, and somehow just like the film itself, kind of loses its meaning along the way. I was listening for audio clues, something to inform my experience with VISITORS but the swift change to an upbeat tempo threw me for a loop and I was lost all over again.

This is experimental cinema, polished and packaged for the non-ADHD crowd of movie goers who can appreciate visual poetry and that know you to infer their own meaning into the images on the screen. This is probably my least favourite of Reggio’s work, but it’s still one of the more daring pieces of cinema I’ve seen in quite some time. If you’re a fan of Reggio’s previous works of stunning beauty, then VISITORS will probably be something you will need to see on the big screen. However, it just felt like it would be better suited as in installation piece in a gallery where one could stop and admire this piece at their own leisure, maybe taking it in 5 minutes at a time. Or perhaps the widespread ADHD has become contagious and is finally getting to me.

3.5 sheep

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