Interview: Godfrey Reggio
In the arts, developments and accomplishments that come to seem outmoded, things of the past, have a way of reasserting themselves back into artistic practice, often without being recognized as re-assertions. The traditions of 19th-century American landscape painting and of the diorama and panorama have been periodically revived by a range of filmmakers, as have the Lumière Brothers’ Cinématographe shows that provided early cinema audiences with arresting cine-documents of local and exotic people and places.
During recent decades, Godfrey Reggio and Ron Fricke have directed a series of features that often evoke these earlier forms. Their collaboration on Koyaanisqatsi (84; Reggio directed, Fricke saw to the cinematography) produced one of the more popular and influential avant-docs in recent memory. Reggio and Fricke went their separate ways after Koyaanisqatsi: Reggio, to complete what he called the “Qatsi Trilogy” (qatsi means “life” in the Hopi language), with Powaqqatsi (88) and Naqoyqatsi (02); Fricke, to make the IMAX film Chronos (85) and the theatrical features Baraka (92) and Samsara (12). Both Reggio and Fricke have used technical means unusual for feature filmmaking—complex forms of time-lapse in Koyaanisqatsi, Chronos, and Baraka; elaborate slow motion in Powaqqatsi—to create panoramas of cultural sites and practices that, in Fricke's words, represent “humanity's relationship to the eternal” or at least to evoke a global consciousness.
Visitors, like Reggio’s earlier features, was developed in collaboration with composer Philip Glass, but while it sometimes evokes the Trilogy, it is distinct both formally (Visitors was shot in elegant black and white on 3K and 5K high-def video and released in 4K) and in terms of its subject matter: Reggio's focus is on portraits of individuals, nearly all of them in close-up, interspersed with more panoramic imagery filmed in areas of Louisiana that had been, five years earlier, devastated by Katrina.
Reggio's use of the close-up evokes Warhol's Screen Tests of 1964-66, in their composition and their use of black and white, as well as in their meditative pace (the Screen Tests were shot at 24 frames per second, but shown at 16 frames per second), though the kinds of gaze that interest Reggio are quite different from the gazes of the Factory visitors at Warhol’s 16mm camera. Visitors seems part of a contemporary revival of interest in the cinematic portrait, shared by Susana de Sousa Dias, whose 2009 film 48, an extended 2009 meditation on mug shots of political prisoners incarcerated during the 48 years of the Salazar regime, uses some of the same subtle visual strategies as Visitors; and by Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez, veterans of Harvard's Sensory Ethnography Lab, whose Manakamana is a series of portraits of visitors to the holy site of a Nepalese goddess, filmed on a cable car.
Visitors is not for everybody. For a good many sophisticates the ambiguities of Reggio's imagery and the pomp of its mood will seem mindless and pretentious. But for those who can enjoy the experience of looking at Reggio’s stunning imagery within the context created by Glass’s elegant compositions, and who can appreciate an experience of cinema akin to the experiences enjoyed by early audiences for the Cinématographe and the various media that were premonitions of cinema, Visitors can be powerful and meaningful.
Scott MacDonald spoke with Reggio about Visitors in December 2013.
It’s been more than a decade since you finished Naqoyqatsi. How long has Visitors been germinating?
What has become Visitors went through a series of progressions. I started the process in 2003, just after Naqoyqatsi, but it was seven-plus years before there was any funding for the film. My first thought was a film called The Border. I had become interested in working with Butoh theater, especially with the emotive expression of human faces, but I couldn’t get the amount of funding I needed to make the film.
The Border transformed into Savage Eden. An image of two-and-a-half primates in a pew came to me. I did a whole scenario for Savage Eden. It dealt with “isms”: scratch the surface and there’s an “ism” within us all. It was to be an anarchic, comedic piece dealing with the ideology of books, flags, walls, and screens…
Then in 2005 Katrina happened. Being from New Orleans, this affected me deeply; a lot of what’s in Visitors is a result of Katrina. I went down to Louisiana to see the debacle, which enforced my idea of Savage Eden, but then I took it into another direction, which I called Evidence. Again, I couldn’t get anything more than a documentary amount of money—about a million dollars. I know it sounds ridiculous to refuse so much money, but I knew how to budget what I wanted to do, and I didn’t want to shoot a doc. At the time, other people were doing docs about Katrina (I’d seen Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke).
I visited Louisiana a lot during the four years after the hurricane, and I noticed that while what I had first seen was the evidence of an enormous storm, a catastrophe, as the places I was visiting sat there and moldered over several years this evidence became like a big set for the ruins of modernity, a modern Pompeii. This gradual transformation revealed something that I could not have seen had I taken the money just after the hurricane.
holy see was the working title of Visitors throughout most of the making of the film, but my feeling is: “When in doubt, cut it out.” While I loved holy see as a title, I didn’t want it to get confused with the Vatican or be too obtuse or misunderstood. For me that phrase was like “Holy smoke!” “Holy shit!” “Holy moly!”—“Holy see!” To see is what Visitors is about—to see that which the eye cannot see, to make the invisible visible, to see that which is hidden in plain sight.
What was the final budget?
Just over $4.6 million, most of which is the below the line: that is, it’s all going into the film. The funding started mid-to-late summer 2010. Dan Noyes let us shoot a bit in Louisiana before we actually had the rest of the money, then we regrouped again in February 2011 and worked through May 2011, doing some more shooting in New York; then we regrouped in March 2012 and worked through the end of the year and three months into 2013. Altogether, within a three-year period, about two years of work.
At what point did Philip Glass become involved?
Well, in all my projects, I keep him informed—when I’d go to New York, I’d usually sleep on his kitchen floor and we’d talk. He’s been involved in Visitors since 2003. We began shooting Visitors in New Orleans and the Louisiana swamps during the autumn of 2010. I asked Philip to come down with one of his producers to join us on the locations. Philip likes to experience firsthand what the camera will see. He was also at the Bronx Zoo when we first shot the gorillas—that was very moving to him, I think. He also came to the studio where we were shooting the people who were playing video games, watching TV. By coming to the locations, he gets an original hit, a connection to the project.
I always ask Philip not to write a note until he’s really marinated in the ethos of the film, in its emotive atmosphere. He came and saw all the film selects (we shot over 630,000 feet for Visitors) and talked with us about creating a dance of music and image. Normally when composers work on theatrical films, they do musical cues that can be anywhere from fifteen seconds to a few minutes at most. Here, we were asking for a full orchestral score: in effect, a narrative for the film, an emotive armchair in which to view the images. That process takes time.
Philip’s first writings were beautiful, but they were too symphonic and tended to overwhelm the images. He understood our feedback—and started over. At one point he had a Eureka moment and said: “What you’re asking me to do is write for the attention of the audience; I get it.” He went back to his studio and we got two pieces of music in less than a week, and they were spot on. Philip’s activity in terms of writing and then recording the score took about six months.
The earliest shoot was in Louisiana?
Yes, towards the end of 2010 we shot for almost six weeks. The building that has “Novus Ordo Seclorum” (“New Order of the Ages”) on it—we came up with that name—is an Art Deco building from the Thirties. It had a “VISITORS” sign embedded in the wall, and my colleague Ray Hemenez and I were really keen on shooting it—and that ended up as our title. It’s not important that the audience knows this, but tattooed on the masonry that makes up “VISITORS” are at least six bullet holes. I came to feel that that’s really what we were, and are, “visitors,” and I liked the ubiquity of the word because you can interpret it in any way you wish.
The Art Deco of the building and the opening titles suggests the first half of the 20th century, the era when America came to see itself as leading the world.
That monolithic building has a real presence. I thought it could stand in for modernity itself. Its voice fills the frame.
Is the abandoned amusement park imagery also from Katrina?
Yes, that was the Six Flags franchise, built up on platforms above the swamp, with big cement-slab sidewalks. When the hurricane came across, the water swamped the park and now it’s full of alligators and snakes—and is used pretty regularly for photography. It has a ghostlike feel.
It’s unusual to do the kind of extended close-ups—portraits—so important in Visitors, in a theatrical film. I was reminded of the Andy Warhol Screen Tests.
I’ve not seen the Warhol films, but that reference has come up before.
In Visitors there seem to be at least two different kinds of facial close-ups, plus a sequence of close-ups of hands mimicking gestures used with modern digital technology. At the beginning the faces seem to be looking at us, they seem to be conscious of the project they’re part of.
Those portraits were what I call “from the inside-out”; the people were consciously sitting for portraits. All my effort involves getting organized in the hope that spontaneity is going to take over. And it does, usually. As a crew we discovered the virtue of an inhumanly slow move into the face so that the face you see at the beginning of the shot is not the face you see at the end.
After the finger-play section and the beginning of the Six Flags movement, which is called “Off Planet/Games,” we go to a little girl who’s singing, then to another little girl who has the longest single shot in the film, then to four children each watching television, followed by the Big Clown face at Six Flags, then to a whole other series of portraits of young people who are playing video games. All of these young people knew they were being filmed, but they were asked to do what they normally did when they played these games. As soon as that digital screen came on, it was like a tractor beam; each person went out of a self-conscious state and became entranced by the virulent presence and demands of the game. We could record that entrancement by filming directly through the mirror that was reflecting the video game screen.
You don’t see the screen they were actually paying attention to, which was bounced onto a two way mirror that we could shoot through. I had used that technique for a little film called Evidence  that I did in Rome. And Errol Morris uses his version of it for his interviews. It’s used on television all the time.
How did you eliminate all the details of the space around the faces you filmed?
We shot all the portraits on what I call “the blackground”—something that was part of the original motivation of the project. I wanted to do the film in black and white and in infrared. Color contemporizes the film image and would have been less emotive. In some cases this can be useful, but for this film I didn’t want to represent the contemporary; I wanted to put Visitors in an otherworldly zone.
During the making of Naqoyqatsi, I’d realized I wanted to do a film that involved split screen, but I wanted a way to use split screening that would be hidden in plain sight, and the “blackground” was important for this; it allowed me to put multiple faces together next to each other in pans and dolly shots in the editing room, and without any visual distraction from the intensity of the faces. Every portrait was done separately—except for the sports bar where people are clearly in a group. There’s only one bit of color in Visitors, the blue of the earth at the end.
How did you get the moon shots?
The moon shots are based on precise maps from NASA. I did see a shot of the moon that I loved from JAXA, the Japanese equivalent of NASA—they did a run over the moon in 2005. But that image was in 1080 resolution, which couldn’t work on a big screen, so we used a 3-D program, and over four-plus months, we built three different moons. Quite a task.
Of course, in any art, and particularly in the case of—dare I say—poetic cinema, much more is suggested than is intended by those who make it. The meaning, in this case, the subject of this film, is the person watching the film. While I wanted to avoid a didactic piece, I ended up realizing that what I was making was an autodidactic film. Visitors has no intrinsic meaning, all meaning is in the eye of the beholder. Each member of the audience must become the storyteller, must become the character and plot of the film.
The films I intend are beyond the limits of my capacity to achieve. The process I employ is collaborative. I always work with people more talented than I. Jon Kane and the young crew of Optic Nerve (in Red Hook, Brooklyn) were my principal collaborators, and together with Philip Glass we made Visitors. For what I do, I is we.
All your films have felt like emotional warnings, more or less to the effect that we’d better learn to be human, to be gentle, while there’s still time—it’s a “Look, let’s get serious” message.
Yeah, it is. And as you say, I’ve had that “message” through all the work I’ve done. I can see Visitors as a requiem.
What went into your decision to use Triska, the gorilla?
I looked at a lot of representations of gorillas, most of which are gorillas as monsters—maybe in some films they represent the interior of who we are, but always they’re a violent presence. In reality, gorillas are sedentary. I’ve worked with chimpanzees, and, compared to gorillas, they’re on steroids. The reason I chose Triska, who is a lowland gorilla, is that, in the great primate line-up, the face of the female lowland gorilla is most similar to ours.
I was out at the gorilla exhibit in the Bronx Zoo for almost three weeks, a mind-blowing experience. Literally tens of thousands of people came to see the gorillas. It’s a very popular site. We had to shoot on a platform above the crowds. People go nuts trying to get the gorillas to go nuts! It’s unbelievable.
Loren Eiseley has said that we have not seen ourselves until we’ve seen ourselves through the eyes of another animal. And there’s René Dubos’s beautiful book So Human an Animal—we have a lot to learn from those we’re here with. In that long pan shot past five human faces, leading to Triska, she becomes the adult in the room.
I assume you mean to allude to the original King Kong at the very end, when Triska is on the movie screen in the movie theater within our theater.
Well, not really. The last shot is a key to the autodidactic nature of Visitors: here we are, looking at a screen, and a screen is looking back at us. Throughout, the film has been about this reciprocal gaze. Also, I believe in bookends. As soon as you put a frame around anything that is (or is posing as) art, people have the propensity to conjure meaning, because of the limit that is offered. Beginning and ending with Triska is a kind of framing.
The New Orleans material causes Visitors to seem more personal than some of your other works. This film led you back home.
I’ve wanted to film in Louisiana for a long time but had never had the opportunity. I grew up around the swamp that you see in the film. My father was born less than two miles from it in a place called Olivia, between New Iberia and Jeanerette on the Bayou Teche, and I spent a lot of my adolescence in that swamp. I know its power, and felt it would be the perfect companion for what I was trying to suggest with the moon. The contrariety of the swamp has a palpable primordial presence, other worldly.
Knowing the swamp, I knew that had we filmed it in the summer, it would be full of beautifully colored flowers and the greens would be magnificent—but the water levels could be as high as 12 feet in the place we shot, so you wouldn’t see the root structure of the trees. Also I wanted the imagery to have a unified look, so shooting at the end of November was the best time. The water was inches deep in some of the places we were filming, and you could see the root structure of the cypress trees.
With the mist and the gray scale, those shots seem very Edenic.
The camera is showing us something our eyes can’t see. I’m told our first dreams come in black and white. A lot of words go into creating the shooting script of a film like this, deciding on the point of view, getting everybody on the same page and into one breath, one heartbeat—but at the end of the day we’re making a pictorial composition, a syntax for the eye. It’s not about text; it’s about texture. Until the film is shot, it’s just on paper; once the film is shot, the paper goes out the window and we’re left with the material of the medium—the image-in-time—and that’s what we have to work with.
Essentially, the people in Visitors, be they humans looking at you or people playing games, are the doubles of who we are. In daily life we see ourselves as doubles through shadows, reflections, and spirits, but we can also see ourselves through other people. Their gaze brings us into a dialogue with ourselves, but the specific nature of the dialogue is up to the viewer.