Review: Visitors (2014)

The notion of “pure cinema,” a cinema focused on the basic elements of shot and montage with a reduction of plot and character, has been a pursuit of the avant-garde since at least the 1920s. Notably, Dziga Vertov, in his masterwork Man With a Movie Camera (1929), described his film as “an experimentation of in the cinematic communication of visual phenomena without the use of intertitles, [...]a scenario [script], [...] without the help of theatre.” His film, drawing on the “city symphony” genre that was popular at the time, offered, instead of plot or characters, a catalogue of the various techniques and effects of cinema. It’s topic was not the cities of Kiev, Odessa, and Moscow where it was filmed, but rather the cinema itself. “Pure cinema,” it seems, leads inexorably to self-reflexivity.

Vertov’s film has long been admired by cinephiles and academics, and recently it replaced Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin on the Sight & Sound Top 10 as the highest rated Soviet film. And it is understandable why. Man With a Movie Camera, for all its origins in the Soviet Constructivist philosophy and its work as a piece of Soviet propaganda, is brimming with energy and creativity. Few films are able to capture the myriad possibilities of cinema the way Vertov’s film does, with split-screens, fast-forwards, reverse-motion, over exposure, superimposition, and endless points of view. It is genuinely a document of a creator in love with the camera.

Fast forward nearly 90 years, where this weekend, the avant-garde spirit of Dziga Vertov is alive and well in Visitors, the latest film from director Godfrey Reggio. Reggio describes his film as being in “a cinematic language of imagery and music, without discourse or explanation.” The echoes of Vertov’s claims to a pure cinema are obvious.

But where Man With a Movie Camera moves a break-neck speed, Visitors contains only 74 shots. Where Vertov’s film speeds you up, exceeding your capacity to take it all in, Visitors slows you down. Given Reggio’s history as a one-time Christian Brother (a Catholic monastic order), the contemplative aspect is appropriate. Shot in 4K and using black and white infrared, the film in some ways delivers on the promise of Vertov’s “kino-eye” to provide more than what the naked eye can see. Infrared literally increases the wavelengths of light that are visible to the human eye. The result is that the photography in Reggio’s film takes on a dream-like and uncanny quality, particularly seen in the high definition 4K projection.

Reggio is most famous for his 1982 film, Koyaanisqatsi, a film that on the surface has much more in common with Vertov’s film, with its time-lapse photos of cities and the way people live in the late-twentieth century. Koyaanisqatsi, which can be roughly translated from Hopi language as “life out of balance” has almost spawned a whole mini-genre of documentaries, such as Samsara and Baraka, directed by Reggio’s former cinematographer Ron Fricke, that are dedicated to the earnest critique of “late-capitalist” living. It’s not hard to draw a line in some ways between Vertov’s critique of narrative cinema as a “new opiate of the masses” and the Qatsi film-genre’s critiques of technology or capitalist modernity.

Visitors eschews the cityscapes and nature photography of Reggio and co.’s past work instead for mostly long takes of a variety of subjects, people’s faces, a mangrove swamp, the surface of the moon, and, most memorably, a lowland gorilla. The effect that Reggio was going for is what he calls, “the reciprocal gaze,” the idea that the audience is being watched at the same time they are watching. The film varies in how successful it is at times, but the most memorable parts are the gorilla’s face. Looming above you in 4K infrared, one can’t but think of cinema history’s most famous gorilla, Kong, “The 8th Wonder of the World.”

When Visitors achieves that notion of wonder is when it is best. At other times it can seem ponderous and self-important, but the success of the film for a viewer will mostly depend on whether you reject Reggio’s thesis that our society is too sped up and over-saturated with screens, or whether you can take it for what it’s worth. I feel the film works best when taken in the spirit of avant-garde cinema going back to Vertov and company. Just as Vertov’s film works for me despite my quibbles with his constructivist art-philosophy, I found Reggio’s film to be fascinating purely for the images it puts on the screen. And at moments it does work its magic on you, making you feel quite unsettled as the giant faces on the screen stare back at you.

I saw Visitors at its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival this past Sept., projected in 4K at the Elgin Theatre and with a live performance of, Reggio’s long-time collaborator, Philip Glass’s score by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. I was also privileged to hear producer Steven Soderbergh, Reggio, Glass, and producer Jon Kane all talk about the film after.

The effect of the live performance and the avant-garde nature of the film as an event means that seeing this again in a different theatre without the context might dim the film’s effect on me. Still, I can’t dissuade one from seeking out Visitors this weekend if it is playing near you. Even if you don’t buy Reggio’s message or philosophy, you will be participating in a long history of one particular cinematic quest that doesn’t come along everyday.

8 out of 10

Visitors (2014, USA)

A film by Godfrey Reggio.