In 1982, director Godfrey Reggio and composer Philip Glass collaborated on the masterful documentary Koyaanisqatsi, an art film that combined Reggio’s beautiful visions with Glass’ haunting music. The pair would team up again in 1988’s Powaqqatsi and in2002’s Naqoyqatsi. Now, in 2014, Reggio and Glass have once again created a stunning marriage of sound and picture with the much more pronounceable Visitors.
The central theme for Visitors is the interaction between people and technology as they ride along on this spaceship Earth. Reggio intersperses long, drawn out takes of human faces (and one gorilla) with long, drawn out takes of abandoned and decrepit locations. Every once in a while, he shakes things up by tossing in something like a hand pantomiming the working of a computer mouse or a tablet screen or a creepy life-sized puppet dancing, but the film is mostly just faces and places. And it’s completely in black and white, because of course it is.
There’s no real way to review a work like Visitors. Either people will get it or they won’t. It gives the illusion of being a pointless film, but it’s hard not to watch. It’s very much an art film, much more than Reggio and Glass’ previous collaborations, and has the air of pretense that goes along with it. There is no real story to the film and, unlike in the pair’s older works, there doesn’t even half-pretend to be one. Although there is no plot, there is a definite arc to the picture. It’s not a narrative by any stretch of the imagination, but the sequence of shots and images does make sense. And it’s incredibly fascinating to see and hear, provided one “gets it.”
The backbone of Visitors is Philip Glass’ hypnotic score. The soundtrack is rhythmic and repetitive, completely dictating the pace of the film. The music sounds like it is made up completely of electronic compositions, droning and pounding away dynamically. It’s the type of score that, after a while, the audience forgets is going on, but notices its absence the second that it stops. In a word, it’s perfect film music, and Philip Glass does it like no one else.
And then, there’s Reggio’s visuals. The shots seem to be laid out over Glass’ score, slowly but steadily telling the story that isn’t there. The shots themselves are simple, yet compelling; there is slight movement in every overcranked, slo-mo camera shot, begging the audience to keep watching. Reggio uses zooms and pans that are so subtle that the viewer questions whether it’s even happening; it’s only when the viewer picks a point and focuses upon it that the movement becomes evident. In a way, the pictures are the perfect complement to Glass’ music; the images drone and pound away dynamically and, after a while, they get so repetitive that the audience may even forget that the images are there.
There’s something hypnotizing, almost spooky, about the imagery in Visitors. The film is not for everyone, and it does require a little patience and persistence to make it all the way through. It can’t really be called entertaining, or even interesting. It’s more like…absorbing. One can let Glass’s score wash over them and soak up Reggio’s photography, and if they find themselves drifting, well, at least they won’t have to wonder what they missed in the movie.