Creator of ‘Koyaanisqatsi,’ Reggio touts new ‘Visitors’ at Seattle appearance

craig.sailor@thenewstribune.comFebruary 7, 2014 

Godfrey Reggio is the most influential film director you’ve never heard of. Unless you are a filmmaker, artist or follower of ground-breaking cinema.

Reggio’s style, parsed out in a handful of movies over more than three decades, consists of long takes where time slows dramatically. Or greatly speeds up.

The New Orleans native will be at Seattle’s Cinerama on Friday to screen his latest film, “Visitors,” and take questions from the audience.

The film that propelled Reggio onto the world stage in 1982, “Koyaanisqatsi,” was a pairing of two realities: human created and nature created. There was no dialog or actors — just imagery backed with a soundtrack by an up-and-coming composer few had heard of then: Philip Glass. It was the first of a trilogy that would cement Reggio as a filmmaker of uncompromising vision.

It also was hard for some to understand. Reggio knows “Visitors” will have the same effect.

“It could be difficult. People go to cinema with an expectation and they’ll have to kind of leave that at the door. If they start looking for a specific meaning, the whole experience could be missed,” Reggio said.

Over the decades Reggio has increasingly populated his films with the human face and “Visitors” continues that trend. The 87-minute film has only 74 shots — the typical Hollywood film might have 1,000 — and some of Reggio’s last up to a minute. A fair number are given to close-ups of people. They fix on the camera with piercing gazes that give them the appearance of looking at the audience rather than the other way around.

“Most movies we watch as a voyeur,” Reggio said. “The actors are not in dialog with us, the audience.”

In “Visitors,” Reggio used people from retirement homes, day laborers, friends and family. He even recruited “sports freaks.”

“We built a bar in the studio, picked them up, fed them, gave them what they would have in a bar. None were actors,” Reggio said. He then filmed them through a one-way mirror as they watched sporting events. The director was seeking unselfconscious behaviors. “We didn’t want any acting.”

There is no story in the traditional sense in “Visitors.” The narrative is created by the viewer as the film unfolds, Reggio said.

Yes, he’s aware of how that comes across. “I know that sounds difficult if not … oh, I could give you a lot of bad adjectives,” he said.

Suffice it to say Reggio will probably not be asked to direct the next “Transformers” sequel.

Reggio, 73, grew up in New Orleans, living a self-described wild life until he joined the Christian Brothers at age 14 and became a monk. He left the order at age 28 but those formative years forever altered his outlook on life.

“I’m living off that experience I had as a child up to the age of 28. I got to enter the Middle Ages. It gave me an appreciation for stillness, for something under the surface, to look at something for a long period until it became strange. It affected me for life.”

“Visitors” was shot entirely in black and white, some even in infrared, rendering skies black and vegetation white. Reggio chose the gray scale approach because he felt it was less representational, contemporary and distracting. “One’s eye is drawn to color.”

The film begins with a startling image of a gorilla, staring into the camera. The remainder of the film has shots of people interspersed with images of clouds passing over buildings, abandoned amusement parks and nature.

When “Koyaanisqatsi” came out in 1982, it turned the filmmaking community on its head. The title is a Hopi word for “life out of balance.” The film comes across first as a nature documentary but then morphs into images of environmental degradation and pause-inducing segments of traffic and crowds of people moving like cattle in stockyards.

The film made use of two of Reggio’s trademarks: slow motion and time lapse photography. In the late 1970s and early 1980s (the film took seven years to make) it was both arduous and groundbreaking. Now, “you can do them on your phone yourself,” he said.

Reggio’s work is indelibly linked with that of composer Glass, who Reggio calls his principal collaborator. Unlike many composers who score films after they have been edited and completed, Glass was involved with the project from the very beginning.

“Philip likes to go on as many (filming) locations as he has time for,” Reggio said. Glass looked at rough cuts of the film in Reggio’s Brooklyn studio and both filmmaker and composer modified their approaches as the film developed. “It’s back and forth from one medium to another.”

“Visitors” arrives at a time when people are increasingly interacting in nonpersonal, mediated forms in shorter bursts of time. Call it the Age of Twitter.

“That’s why this is going to be difficult. We’re used to the accelerated image, of multitasking, of doing three things at once. In a way this will be confrontational for some, intimidating for others. It’s almost as if we’re asking for a deprogramming experience.”

Craig Sailor: 253-597-8541 craig.sailor@thenewstribune.com

‘Visitors’

With: Director Godfrey Reggio

When: 8 p.m. Friday

Where: Cinerama, 2100 Fourth Ave., Seattle

Tickets: $18

Information: 206-448-6680, cinerama.com/

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