UPDATE: Godfrey Reggio's "Visitors" will be released via Cinedigm beginning January 24, 2014. It is presented by Steven Soderbergh, with a score by Philip Glass. Read our TOH! review out of the New Orleans Film Festival, plus check out the film's new trailer, below.
Godfrey Reggio would hate this review. The director behind the cult classic "Koyaanisqatsi" (1983) resists description. As he noted while introducing his latest, "Visitors," at the New Orleans Film Festival, he considers his films "texture, not text." Well, here's some text anyway: "Visitors" is cinema as soul-craft, a profoundly beautiful portrait of the finitude of this mortal coil.
Following his five previous features, the most recent of which, "Naqoyqatsi," premiered in 2002, "Visitors" dispenses with the traditional lineaments of narrative and characterization in favor of a style faintly reminiscent of the avant-gardists of the silent era. "Visitors" is, to be momentarily reductive, "The Man with a Movie Camera" (Dziga Vertov, 1929) concentrated in 74 extended shots, or the cine-poems of Man Ray and Germaine Dulac without the Impressionist gauze.
Yet, "reductive" is precisely what "Visitors" is not. I could catalogue for you the series of images -- the derelict arcade of an abandoned theme park, disembodied hands performing keystrokes on an invisible computer -- or I could outline the rules of the game -- black and white, no dialogue or voiceover, long takes -- but neither gambit would seem to illustrate the film's almost prayerful power.
Coupled with Philip Glass' spiraling score, echoing its sonic themes without ever seeming to replicate them exactly, the images produce something akin to total aesthetic immersion. (For those seriously averse to the nonlinear and the experimental, the more precise term might be "drowning.") Evaluating the experience for the Reggio newcomer is an exercise even more subjective than the critic's usual task, which at least has the crutch of synopsis should things get hairy. You might well hate it, and I wouldn't hold that against you. All I can say is that I loved every fucking minute of "Visitors" and implore you to see it.
Indeed, despite the director's protestations, "Visitors" is not without its own symbolic logic, though the appropriate analogy may be to atonal music or abstract painting, rather than film. Comprised largely of closely framed human faces, the variation within the repetition -- the array of ages, sexes, shades, expressions -- becomes momentous when juxtaposed with the primeval landscape of the Louisiana bayou or the empty spaces that haunt post-Katrina New Orleans to this day.
Without clear referents or identifying marks, this cinematic stream-of-consciousness can only inhabit the realm of suggestion and implication. But in the opening frames I discovered, or at least thought I discovered, a clue -- not texture but text, allusive and to my eye unmistakable. In the face of a lowland gorilla named Triska; a blindingly white, cratered moonscape; and a concrete, monolithic building inscribed with the words "Novus Ordo Seclorum" (Latin for "New Order of the Ages," a motto you'll find on the back of the one-dollar bill), I saw an uncanny resemblance to another film about the pitilessness of nature and the relentless march of time: Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" (1968).
Reggio, when I asked him about it in the Q&A that followed the screening, jokingly dismissed this theory. The only specific film he cited as an influence on his career was Luis Bunuel's "Los olvidados" (1950). Yet, perhaps because I am a writer, and so make a living from imposing order on the collected evidence, I prefer to imagine that we are the visitors of the title, infinitesimal pinpricks along the path from prehistoric past to cosmic future. Ashes to ashes and dust to dust, yes, but in between as alive and multitudinous as the film's many faces, on an odyssey of our own making.
"Visitors" is slated for theatrical release in 2014. The Qatsi Trilogy is available on Blu-ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection.