Visiting time

In conversation with Godfrey Reggio and Jon Kane.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Godfrey Reggio with Philip Glass, Jon Kane, Steven Soderbergh: "The template of the film is the moving still."
Godfrey Reggio with Philip Glass, Jon Kane, Steven Soderbergh: "The template of the film is the moving still." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Steven Soderbergh is presenting Visitors, Godfrey Reggio's latest illuminating film collaboration with composer Philip Glass and assistant director/editor Jon Kane.

A girl wears her necklace off-center, a mouth quivers, freckles form constellations on a curious nose. When is there life in a face? Where it goes when it disappears and how fingers become ducks without eyes talking is what can move us in Visitors.

Glass, who collaborated with Reggio on five previous films - Koyaanisqatsi, Powaqqatsi, Anima Mundi, Evidence, and Naqoyqatsi - described the unique way they work together. "Godfrey is very skillful in taking the technology and figuring out what to do with it…We've done six movies together and every time he says 'I want something completely different.' The music making and the image happens at the same time, which is unusual."

Steven Soderbergh also spoke at the New York premiere screening of Reggio's remarkable molding of his art and said that he is "very excited by the way Godfrey seems to re-build his aesthetic with each film… It was really a luxury to be associated with it at all." It is also the appeal of the other. "For the same reason it's fun to watch the Olympics. Seeing somebody do something that you could never do is always incredibly exhilarating."

Visitors is a "non-mental experience" we are invited to narrate ourselves. A gorilla sends us on a journey to the moon and into the world we live in. Salty white craters and clouds over art-deco skyscrapers reflect on perspectives and textures.

Godfrey Reggio with Jon Kane on Visitors: "Like any art, it triggers what's inside of you. You become the narrator."
Godfrey Reggio with Jon Kane on Visitors: "Like any art, it triggers what's inside of you. You become the narrator." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

In New York, I spoke with Godfrey Reggio and Jon Kane, who had also worked on Naqoyqatsi, about the soul of buildings, the desire of the Other, portraits from the inside out and the outside in, swamp beauty with ties to family history, lion cubs being roared to life and the difference between the real and the true.

Anne-Katrin Titze: Was it always clear for you that you would have places without people and people without places in Visitors?

Godfrey Reggio: Yes, it was. How that would be materialised is unclear. I see the people more as an entity, rather than a structure. I see the soul within the building. It's like a mirror that reflects the world we live in. So I would want to film that building not like a documentary but as if it was Basil Rathbone. In other words, to give it that presence, that voice. Because in these kind of films, all the tradition or foreground of traditional cinema, characterisation, plot, story are ripped out. All the background, second unit, which is just the wallpaper is then put into the foreground. So the buildings, the traffic, in this case swamps - all of those things are like entities in the film, like divas. With as much attention, literally, as you would give to a five star actor.

AKT: I think Basil Rathbone is the perfect comparison for that beautiful high-rise building.

GR: He has such a great nose!

AKT: Maybe you have a George Sanders in there somewhere, too.

GR: Ha! But he's playing second fiddle to Basil.

AKT: At the screening at the Museum of the Moving Image, I had a physical reaction to some of the scenes with the children. It was frightening because I could not at all connect to the glance. You can see the difference between the people in thought who are looking inside themselves and the ones looking at a screen with something, although we only see the faces. There is the possibility of connecting to the people in thought and a complete disconnect with the...

Steven Soderbergh on Godfrey Reggio's Visitors: "Seeing somebody do something that you could never do is always incredibly exhilarating."
Steven Soderbergh on Godfrey Reggio's Visitors: "Seeing somebody do something that you could never do is always incredibly exhilarating." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Jon Kane: Cyborgs.

AKT: Yes, the cyborgs.

GR: You are very right. Some of the portraits are from the inside out, some are from the outside in. The ones you were having this adverse reaction to were from the outside in. The predicate in the room was a screen that you didn't see. They were watching, in the case of the kids, TV. In the case of the young adults, gaming or being in a sports bar whereas the portraits from the beginning, they were from the inside out. They were just like posing for a portrait.

The trailer without sound is playing on a screen behind me in the office where the interview takes place. Kane and Reggio reference some of the faces. An absent young girl is on the screen, followed by a young boy.

JK: She isn't really here with us.

GR: He has an emotive state. Automaticities come through her face. This guy is particularly good. You get this from observing all of us who use these mediums. We go out of our bodies and we're pulled by the tractor beam of these gizmos that we use, the ubiquitous screen.

AKT: This particular boy, when his face fades, reminded me of a portrait of Kafka. Your film allows for thoughts to drift. Mine went to a moment in the new Claude Lanzmann film, The Last Of The Unjust, about the last elder of Theresienstadt, who recounts the story of Kafka's sister Ottla. She volunteered to accompany a children's transport who were told they were going west. All of them died in Auschwitz instead. Before the screening, you told the audience to deprogram expectations…

GR: Like any art, it triggers what's inside of you. You become the narrator. You become the storyteller. You become the character because the intention of this film is the person watching the film. That is the story.

AKT: Another thought I had was Jacques Lacan's principle that the desire is the desire of the Other. What we desire is the desire of the Other, which works on two levels - the Other's desire and what the Other desires.

GR: Right, because we are incomplete in ourselves. We're incomplete beings. We see the world through language but language is not a solitary event. Speaking to you I can hear myself think. I can express ideas to myself for the first time in this dialogic connection that I have with you. So instead of Descartes "I think, therefore I am", I speak, therefore I think. Speaking is who we are. And it is a communal event. It is something that is involved with communion rather than communication. It shows us that we are implicated one to the other. Together we make one. That's when I was saying Sunday, when I say "I", I mean "we". It's who we are. We are not here by ourselves. Same thing with the gorilla. We're part of the gorilla, the gorilla is part of us.

AKT (to Jon Kane): Where did you locate desire in this film?

JK: For me personally? My desire in working with Godfrey is making the journey that we make together. From these very strong but amorphous ideas to this finely crafted, hopefully jewel, that we end up with in the end through the most cumbersome art form on the planet, which is filmmaking. We're trying to do something very delicate and non-specific in an art form that demands specificity, lots of money and equipment and people and cumbersome things. Making this journey together with Philip [Glass] and our crew is, if you're an artist, about as great as it gets. We're really discovering as we go and it's a real honor for me to be involved in the process.

Godfrey Reggio with Philip Glass: "Godfrey is very skillful in taking the technology and figuring out what to do with it…"
Godfrey Reggio with Philip Glass: "Godfrey is very skillful in taking the technology and figuring out what to do with it…" Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: You have the most beautiful images of a swamp on film that I have seen, possibly ever.

JK: Infrared photography a lot of it.

AKT: And the egret flying through.

GR: Thank you. Yes. That's called the grace of heavens, because you can't program the egret. The person that shot that, Tom Lowe, was in a flat bottom boat. If we had shot it in the summer, there would be a lot of colour of floral arrangements, browns and greens and moss. But if you shoot it in black and white and infrared and in the fall at the end of October and into November, the water is low and you can see the full structure of the cypress trees. In the summer, the trees have watermarks 12, 15 feet higher, since the basin, the swamp fills up. That swamp [in Louisiana] is the nursery for the Gulf of Mexico. It's the largest river bottom swamp in North America. It's the breeding ground to put all those beautiful creatures in the gulf. It also has a primordial presence. My own father was born within a couple of miles of it and I as a young person lived less than a mile from it and spent a lot of time in it. I would never go by myself - I'm not that capable.

AKT: I didn't even see the egret at first.

GR: It almost looks like a flower.

JK: While we are at this topic, this shot is technically …

GR: We don't give away our secrets!

JK: Technically, there's a flat bottom boat which is relatively stable but not enough for a man holding a camera in a boat. So if you'd see the original of that shot…

GR: Shaky. He has to un-shake them.

JK: A lot of effects work went into this film to make the camera, the hand that made this film invisible. Out of the 74 shots 72 were effect shots in one way or the other,

AKT: Is the title Visitors really on the building?

GR: Yes, it is. It has eleven bullet holes in it. You couldn't tell that but that's a very famous old building in New Orleans. It's like an icon, something that my family has been involved with since 1786. Not that building but that institution. [To Kane] You didn't know that, I bet?

JK: I did.

GR: It's a very important building but also it has a voice. That building is like a choir. on the side of the building is this beautiful sign Visitors. By contract I cannot give you the name of the building. Though it's ridiculous. It's extremely controversial in New Orleans. Half the people want to tear it down, half want to save it. They don't let anybody film it anymore. We got permission so we can't name it. That iconic building was built in 1939, the history goes back to the 18th century. On that were two visitors signs. It's a very racist community in New Orleans. One side said White, the other side said Colored. They took that off. Otherwise I would have filmed that.

AKT: The texture of the stone tells of a history.

GR: Yes, like chiseled in an Art Deco form.

A blow of dusty winter wind comes in through the opened window - itself a rare privilege in a New York high-rise office. I start coughing and Jon Kane is kind and goes to reception to bring me some water.

AKT: Sorry. I lost track of what I wanted to ask you.

GR: You have very intelligent questions, if I can pump you up a little bit. I'm not used to that. I get a lot of pablum.

AKT: Thank you.

On the screen, the trailer has looped back to the swamp and the delicate flying flower of the egret.

Visitors US poster
Visitors US poster Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: Here is the egret again. Last Sunday, when I saw Visitors, I had just finished my feature on the conversation I had with Sam Shepard. We had talked about holding a heart in your hands and he told me that he rescued an egret. And there is the same kind of bird in your film.

GR: Beautiful. Isn't that amazing?

AKT: On the subway, after the screening, I looked at the people sitting across from me and what they were looking at in an attempt to see if it mirrored what I saw in your film. It made perfect sense. There were several people looking at their phones who had the expression of the children playing games. A young woman was reading a book, chuckling to herself and other people were staring into space, thinking. The people who stopped looking at their phones, showed a drastic change in expression, some kindness crept in that wasn't there before.

JK: Life came into it.

GR: Isn't that amazing?

AKT: How did looking become your focus?

GR: I've watched people looking at television not forever but for a long time. I did a small film in Rome when I lived in Italy during the mid-nineties about children watching television [Evidence, 1995]. I used to watch the friends of my children and the children of my friends watching television. I could see automaticities go through their faces, emotive states, staring. I could see them being pulled out of their bodies by a screen. And it didn't matter what was on the TV. It was like a tractor beam holding their attention and that's true for all of us. Old people tend to drool. It was all very observable to me.

AKT: Once the soul is pulled out by the screen, you say, it doesn't really matter what is on the screen?

GR: It matters little. It's not what's on the medium, it's the medium itself. It used to be so many lines of resolution. Now, digital is even worse.

JK: They have to be interested. The children were watching what they like to watch. The blonde girl we see for a long time, she is watching her favorite scenes from The Wizard of Oz. The young adults are gaming. It had to be something that they would want to look at.

The Basil Rathbone of buildings in Visitors
The Basil Rathbone of buildings in Visitors

GR: I don't know if I'd agree with that. With all respect, because my experience is different. I can tell you for myself. I find modern living incredibly boring. I'm bored to death, if you want to know the truth. I find it uninteresting and it makes me crazy. I stay as high as possible - and want to be in the world but not of it. In my experience with the kids in Rome, it mattered little what I put on the screen. The medium independent of the subject matter is transfixiation.

AKT: I had a discussion recently about technology and if a small child would rather interact with another child or a device in front of them.

GR: I can give you the answer. Children are not playing anymore. Children spend more time on their gizmos than in school, because it's addictive. They're like forbidden fruit, that's why it's called Apple. The statistical behavior of patterns in children is that they're not playing anymore, they're involved with their tools.

AKT: So they're just visiting?

GR: Yes, in effect. The etymology of the word visitor is to come, to see. We are visiting our world. We're not living in it anymore.

AKT: In the end, how you show earth - it looks as though it really needs protection. And it does! The garbage dump looks almost as beautiful as the swamp. Not really, and yet…

GR [laughs]: Well, in a different way. You know, in Greek the etymology of 'beauty' is 'kallos' but the etymology of 'kallos' means 'to provoke'. Beauty is to provoke. It's not to make us placid, it's to provoke us. The lions in animal mythology - when cubs are born to the mother lion, they are stillborn and the lion must roar to bring their hearts back to life, must provoke their hearts. So this film is like a lion's roar to provoke our hearts back to life.

AKT: That is beautiful - I like it more than the midwife comparison you made at the screening. You are more like a lion midwife. You begin with the gorilla. I was hoping you wouldn't cut away abruptly from her face. And you didn't. Fear of losing the gorilla, you might call it. The length of each shot must have been very complicated decision making.

GR: Yes. The template of the film is the moving still. The average shot is about 70 plus seconds a shot. The average in a Hollywood or regular film is anywhere from three to five seconds.

JK: You hit the nail on the head. That was the main, one of the main agendas of the editors. How long? When has the shot spoken all it can speak? When is it overstaying its welcome? You know, Tarkovsky's Sculpting In Time.

Great Egret in Prospect Park: "That's called the grace of heavens, because you can't program the egret."
Great Egret in Prospect Park: "That's called the grace of heavens, because you can't program the egret." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: No film can start with a clean slate. Film history is always already there. Gambling attaches itself to Mabuse. German Expressionism lurks in the shadows of black and white buildings.

GR: Sometimes things are in the air. There are many people who pick up on what's already present. But we have to somehow give manifestation to what many people are feeling. After Koyaanisqatsi, I can't tell you how many people came up to me saying, "Godfrey, that's the film I've been wanting to make". When we're running around in traffic, on speed, outrunning the future, people are dying to be still, to be calm, to not be moving. There's a placidness of beauty, in that repose. But we don't have that chance.

AKT: The inertia of the real as escape from the urgency and disconnect?

GR: That's correct. Well, this film is about a world that's more real than true. So the film is more true than real.

AKT: I don't get that. Can you explain?

GR: All I'm saying is there's a difference between the real, what your eye can observe. True has something to do with who we are. We say that beauty reveals a truth. That's what art can do. Art is a meta-language like religion is a meta-language. Both require faith. We're in that world of what's real and what's true. True is a human attribute, whereas real is what's present, what the eye can observe. The world we live in is very observable but it's not very true to me. To make a film about this world, I wanted to make a film that's more true than real.

AKT: Now I got it. Thank you very much for your truth.

Visitors opens in the US on January 24.

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