Wednesday, January 15, 2014
Like director Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi, Visitors uses lush cinematography, a nonstop Philip Glass score, and generous lashings of slow-motion and time lapse photography to half-seduce, half-hypnotize us into seeing familiar sights with fresh eyes. Ironically, Reggio’s signature style has been so widely copied in ads that it can feel a little tired itself, especially when a subject is shot from below against a sky with time-lapse clouds scudding by. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that this film had something profound to say even when I wasn’t sure what that was.
There are almost no words in Visitors’ succession of creamy black and white shots. There’s no narrative either-—except whatever order your mind imposes on the steadily accumulating images.
Shot in digital 4k, which holds four times as many pixels per square inch as HD, the shots are almost always held for a long time—-minutes rather than seconds. Some are of transcendently beautiful trees or mountains and a few show hands typing or tapping at keyboards, though the keyboards themselves have been digitally removed, so the movements made by the fingers look abstract. More are of picturesquely decaying man-made objects (an abandoned amusement park, trash falling in langorous slo-mo at a garbage dump, old mausoleums in a graveyard). But most consist of a person facing the camera, bathed in soft light against a black or very minimal background.
Centered on the screen, the men, women, children and one very dignified lowland gorilla in these portraits stare back at us, their faces generally so still that you may wonder: is this live action or a still photograph? Like a more sumptuous version of Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests, this is a movie that watches you at least as closely as you watch it.
Staring at a series of strangers as they appear to do nothing (according to the press notes, most watched TV or played video games while they were being filmed, while some just looked at the camera) feels odd, even uncomfortable at times, but it’s also magnetic. As the gently persistent camera circles around or pushes in on its often slowed-down subjects, you start to feel almost godlike, a weightless witness floating through space and time. The satellite’s-eye shots of the moon’s surface and of Earth that show up at the beginning and end of the film reinforce that feeling--and provide a theory about the film’s deeper meaning.
Couldn’t the visitors of the title could be us humans, relative latecomers that we are to planet Earth, dropping in on our beautiful blue planet only to trash it?
Written for The L Magazine