Film

Capturing Slow Portraits of People and Landscapes

by An Xiao on February 14, 2014

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Still image of the Dummy from Godfrey Reggio’s VISITORS. All images courtesy Cinedigm.

Koyanisqaatsi, a debut collaboration between filmmaker Godfrey Reggio and composer Philip Glass, broke ground in so many ways in the 1980’s for exploring film as a poetic, rather than narrative or theatrical expression. Composed in moving images and song, it kicked off the popular Qatsi trilogy, which has seen a bit of a resurgence thanks to its release on DVD. Over ten years later, Reggio and Glass have come together to produce Visitors, another moving poem, at once visual and musical, without words or a clear narrative.

The film shifts away from the landscapes of the Qatsi trilogy and begins with a closeup: an incredible, 4K-resolution portrait of a gorilla named Triska, staring back at us. Reggio allows us to project our own assumptions onto her visage. Is she angry? Contemplative? Curious? Thoughtful? It’s a question that carries us into a series of long, drawn out portraits of different individuals, as we puzzle over their facial expressions without context or sound to fill the void.

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Triska stares back over a live orchestra at the Elgin Theatre at the Toronto International Film Festival World Premiere. Photo by Alex Ulleri.

The film moves slowly, almost painfully so, as the camera zooms into different portraits and faces, each no doubt carefully chosen for the rich but difficult-to-decipher emotion behind them. They alternate with images of abandoned landscapes and buildings, or the bayous of Louisiana. Set to the rhythms of Philip Glass’s composition (this is the duo’s latest collaboration since their popular Koyanisqaatsi series), Visitors reads like Warhol’s slow video portraits, or screen tests. But if Warhol’s portraits were about the subject’s relationship with the camera — and their awareness of that — Reggio’s film is about the subject’s relationship to something the camera can’t see, maybe a screen, or a walk in a busy crowd, or a conversation we are only marginally privy too.

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Still image of Massman

A recent review in the Times spends time on how Reggio’s crew filmed Triska, a resident at the Bronx Zoo, during regular visitor hours. Although at the start it seems like Triska is staring back at the camera in an isolated studio, she is having an average day at the zoo, and the shots were compiled over days. Like a surreptitious peek through a laptop video camera, we are peering directly into a face that does not seem to be aware that it’s being watched. Triska’s countenance, and those of the many other subjects in Reggio’s film, only appears to be performing for the portrait artist. It is, in fact, ignoring us entirely.

“These films are sort of acknowledging the fact that we each have a very subjective experience when we look at anything,” noted Steven Soderbergh, who presented the film, in press materials provided to Hyperallergic, “and it’s made in such a way that is really encouraging us to have an experience that may be very, very different than the person that’s sitting next to us.” This subjectivity brings the film closer to a painting than a traditional narrative, and in that regard, it’s successful.

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Still image of the abandoned Six Flags New Orleans

It’s a slow start, and the film veers often on pretension, but the most rewarding moment for me was a close-up of hands seemingly dancing on the screen. In art school, we learn about the expressiveness of hands, how they too can be a portrait, a way of understanding a human being and a lifestyle. In these hands, blown up on the big screen and shot with Reggio’s dream-like precision, we see technology most clearly: hands clicking a mouse, hands on a piano keyboard, thumbs tapping at a joystick, fingers swiping and enlarging an image on a touchscreen. These actions have become commonplace, gestures for the office or the subway, but seen on the big screen in Reggio’s hypnotic style, we remember just how human they are too.

Visitors is a film by Godfrey Reggio, Philip Glass, and Jon Kane, and presented by Steven Soderbergh and you can find information about upcoming screenings at visitorsfilm.com.

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