Film : Interview

Godfrey Reggio

by Alex Zafiris

Godfrey Reggio on his new film Visitors, a piece of poetic, experiential cinema, with an original score by Philip Glass.


Godfrey Reggio at the Cinedigm offices in New York City, January 14 2014. Image courtesy of and copyright: Braden King.

Godfrey Reggio’s first film in ten years, Visitors, is a wordless, confrontational meditation on the influence of technology in human life. Composed of seventy-four shots, with an original score by Philip Glass (with whom Reggio has collaborated on all of his films, beginning with Koyaanisqatsi in 1982), Visitors presents cinema as a tool for consciousness and unity. The film opens with Triska, a female Lowland gorilla, staring intently into the camera, fully present. This is followed by close-up portraits of individuals. Their unselfconscious faces gazing directly at the absent viewer. The emotions are vivid, funny, unsettling.

Born in 1940 and raised in New Orleans, Reggio has long been involved in humanitarian and social causes. At fourteen years old, he became a monk with the Christian Brothers, and abandoned his studies in 1968. Living in Santa Fe, he co-founded Young Citizens for Action, La Clinica de la Gente, La Gente, and the Institute for Regional Education. In 1972, with support from the American Civil Liberties Union, he organized a nationwide campaign against the invasion of privacy and the use of technology to control behavior. In 1993 he was invited by Benetton to develop a new school and studio for media and the arts named Fabrica, based in Italy, where he held a thirteen-year tenure as director. Meanwhile, he was making films, completing the Qatsi trilogy with Powaqqatsi (1988) and Nagoyqatsi (2002); he also made two shorts, Anima Mundi (1992), a documentary; and Evidence (1995).

Alex Zafiris It felt for me as though the film already existed, that you simply brought it out of the atmosphere.

Godfrey Reggio Ah, interesting! Bravo. Thats beautiful. Thank you. I like that. I understand that. Would you like me to respond to that?

AZ Please!

GR Okay! Whenever I talk about I, I mean we. Having said that, this film didn’t originate with a concept, or with an idea. It came out of a sensibility. It is already inside, which you very astutely noticed. My job is to find it, and to midwife it. That’s been the modality of all the films I’ve worked on. They’re not based in literature, or screenplay—they’re based in a sensibility that I call the aesthetic triplets: sensation, emotion, and perception. Those triplets reside within all of us. It’s how to put something in front of the viewer, so that she can have an opportunity to respond to that which is also inside of her.

Art has no intrinsic meaning. If art had only one point of view, then it would be propaganda, advertising, social realism. It wouldn’t have the virtue of being able to have many voices for many people. What is the meaning of the smile of the Mona Lisa? Everyone sees a different picture. That’s what this film is about: offering people something in a commercial medium that portends something of art. I hate the word, art. It has been hijacked by the art mafia, the galleries, the museums, the money people, the investors—but art should have a place at the table. Commercial cinema is run like a business, like automobile and luggage companies.

Most films are based in screenplay. I have no beef with that; I’m just saying there are other forms of cinema that are palpable, of which many are not readily available. This is separate from “independent cinema.” I’m talking about poetic cinema, which is based not in word, but in pictorial composition. It is a wholly different experience.

AZ You just gestured to your solar plexus. So it comes from feeling.

GR Yes. This film is not aimed at your head. It is trying to create a feeling for everyone. Everyone experiences things differently. When a person leaves the theater, they say, “Well gee, what did I see?” And then the mind starts working. The film is aimed at another center. Art cannot be explained without losing its meaning. Art is something that portends something mysterious. Art is a meta-language, like religion. Religion is a mystery. One has to have faith to approach religion, and one has to have faith to approach these kinds of films, because you have to have faith in the image that it is going to dialogue with you. That’s a different modus operandi than that of a commercial film that is giving you entertainment—or if it’s a documentary—information. This film offers you an opportunity to have a conversation with yourself.

AZ Do you recall the first image that came to your mind?

GR The gorilla. This film, fundamentally, has three characters: gorillas, humans, and cyborgs. I chose the female Lowland gorilla because her face and our face look most alike. I’m not interested in the genetics of it, though they are very close. I’m more interested in the veracity of her face. The anthropologist Loren Eisley said, and I paraphrase: “We have not seen ourselves as human beings until we’ve been seen through the eyes of another animal.” In this film, the gorilla is the real adult in the room, the person with consciousness. She’s the witness. We humans, the audience, are the real King Kong, hanging by our T-A-L-E-S from the trees. The rest of us in the film are cyborgs, not of science fiction, but the fiction of science. Being human beings, being human animals, like all creatures upon the planet, we become the environment that we live in. We’re sensate, we become what we see, smell, taste, touch, and hear. This is who we are, this is why we have great similarity to all of the other creatures on the planet. If the environment radically changes, then we will radically change. You and I and everyone else on this planet are well on our way to full cyborg state, and that to me is something we should be aware of.

AZ Your use of technology is very advanced.

GR When in Rome, speak like the Romans. If I could magically do it, like an immaculate conception, then I would bypass and let my imagination produce it. But I’m not there yet. If I want this to be palpable, it has to be impactful, to offer a gift to the viewer, so that she or he can have an experience of the subject. I’m shooting in 5k, which—in terms of what’s available in resolution right now—is off the charts. All the six films I have done have a source inspiration in the technological environment. Not the effect of technology on the environment, or on war, the economy, religion, or culture. Technology today is seen as just another category. For me, it is now the environment of life. These films have their many paths to the source, so there have been many different ways to try to provide an experience about this subject. The films have also been predicated on the following: that we see the world through language. Unfortunately, our language—in my opinion—no longer describes the world in which we live. Not for any lack of love of language, but because of love of language. I take this Napoleanic dictum, “are pictures worth a thousand words,” and flip it on its head to offer you a picture that gives you many images. Metaphorically: a thousand images to give you the power of one word, a word that can offer you an experience of the subject.

AZ The expressions on the faces are all unselfconscious. It feels like a contradiction in terms to use this technology to film something so primal. In your construct, it forms a new logic.

GR Let’s take the medium. The medium is a two-dimensional plane, dealing in a flat surface. I know from experience that the blacker the screen, the more the illusion of depth. Any filmmaker, if she or he is conscious, wants to make the blacks as deep as possible. That, in addition to doing this in black and white, allowed me to create an image out of color, or the lack of color, called the blackground. For example: had I shown you the gorilla in Uganda, or in the Bronx zoo where they spent 30 million dollars to make it look like Uganda or whatever African country, then you would be looking at a gorilla. But if you remove the background from the image of the gorilla, and show her in the “blackground,” then she is looking at you. It sets up a wholly different dynamic. Color contemporizes images, makes them representational, makes them real. In art—at least in this attempt at art—I’m trying to make a world that is more true than real, because the subject I’m shooting is more real than true. I use black and white because it’s more emotive, more abstracted. It takes it to another level. If you take the great American still photography masters of the ’30s—Ansel Adams, or even before that, the photogravures—they will stand the test of time, because while they’re in time, they’re out of time. That’s what I’m looking for. Your pre-cognitive eye goes to color to try to make a matrix out of what it is looking at. But when it’s all black, it keeps it all intensely focused.

AZ The main problem that arises these days in technology is the narcissistic element of the cyborg existence. I see you have with you today an image of Rubin’s vase. The action of the film is you presenting two people looking at someone else, but actually, they are looking at themselves.

GR That’s right. You asked me earlier on, what were my original images. Rubin’s vase is the other one. This is from the early 1900s. It is about seeing things in two ways at once. About doubles, visually. This is the reciprocal gaze, these two people are looking directly into each other’s eyes, and from that emerges the chalice. It could be anything. MC Escher uses this also, in his images, where if you look at it one way it’s this, and if you readjust your eyes, it’s that? That’s what this is about. In conventional or theatrical cinema, one of the cardinal rules is that you don’t have the actors look into the lens. There are very few exceptions, but when the actor looks into the lens, that means the actor is looking directly into the eye of the observer, the audience. It takes away the voyeuristic experience of looking through the keyhole. If you change that dynamic, the audience is in dialogue with the screen. It’s a reciprocal gaze, not a one-way gaze. That’s underpinning the whole thing.

AZ I think this can be quite threatening.

GR Some people find this film very confrontational, and they are angry: “Who are you to be throwing this in my face! You’re in my face! Get out of my face!” This is really in your face, but it’s like a painting. I watch people go through the Met—I used to go over there and observe, for filming purposes—and I’d watch people come through. Most will walk by an extraordinary painting, take all of five seconds, and go to the next one. But then you’ll find people sitting on the benches, like this, (eyes wide) sometimes for an hour, or two. They’re breathing the soul of the painter. The painter is communicating with that, because they make a painting to be observed, to be seen. I learned, as a monk in the Catholic church, from my novice master, that if I wanted to see my familiar, my ordinary, my normal, for the first time, I must stare at it until it looks strange. I’ve never, ever, left that behind.

AZ Why would he have told you that?

GR Because the thing we least see is that which is most present. It’s the least observable, because it’s an assumption we make. You walk outside, you’re not even going to look at the buildings, but believe me, they’re looking at you. They’re in your sightline, it’s one geologic layer of commodity, piled upon another called the urbanscape. (Gestures outside) So: traffic looks normal, all this looks completely normal.

AZ How do you put this into process?

GR It’s collaborative. The process is the following: I have to work with people like [Associate Director] Jon Kane, and of course, Philip Glass. Philip Glass is like the bilateral side of my body. He’s this side, I’m that side. Without Philip Glass, there would be none of these projects. He is so implicated in the piece that it is inseparable.

I work with people more talented that I: Philip, Jon, and Jon’s crew. Most of them are 30 or under, they’re born in the digital domain, it’s in their nervous system. First I do a talking paper. My love is the word—I know that might sound strange, because I make non-narrative, or speechless narrative, films; I consider my films narrative, but speechless. I do something I call “dialogic thinking.” I can hear my ideas for the first time if I have the opportunity to dialogue with another person. Descartes says, “I think therefore I am.” Well, “I speak therefore I think,” is my point of view. In speaking out, language is magic, and it reveals things to me through this dialogue with my community.

Most of the people I work with, including Philip, might work six months at the most on a project. My crew has to be willing to go into the tank for a couple of years with me. We’re not going to climb a little hill in Central Park, we’re going to go to Annapurna, and you better be willing to leave behind family, friends, lovers, because this is ruthlessly about creating this film. As a young monk, I learned discipline. I went from la dolce vita, New Orleans, my home, in the 1950s, to living a very fast life. At the age of—if you can believe it—11, 12, 13, I left home, knowing little of what I was doing, and leapt into the middle ages—literally, culturally, emotionally—with spirituality. I learned something that I would have never learned in good old USA schools: discipline, the power of limits. And that’s always stayed with me, just like I learned to stare at things until they looked strange.

AZ You mentioned, about you and Philip, the bilateral line.

GR Yes. We’re Siamese twins.

AZ Did you know that straight away, when you first met?

GR Yes, I did, but he didn’t. When I knew that I wanted to make a film, I knew that I had no capacity to, or interest in making a Hollywood film. I knew that I wanted to use music, because music portends a direct transmission to the soul of the listener. Music became the equivalent of the emotive, or spiritual, narration of the film. Choosing the right music was very important. I worked with a group of people and told them that I wanted to do a little research project, listening to as many living composers as I could hear. A woman named Marcia Mikulak, a composer and pianist, was up for the job. I listened to a zillion people and when I finally got to Philip Glass, I thought, Woah. I said, “This is the guy. Stop stop stop—Who is this person?” I never heard of the dude. I tried to get in touch with him. Philip had zero interest. He’s not a film person. That motivated me, too—but he didn’t want to see me, he didn’t know me. At that point, he wasn’t world famous, he was avant-garde famous. He had just finished Einstein on the Beach, it became famous after only two showings, then he was back to plumbing and driving a cab. I knew a good friend of his, Rudy Wurlitzer, the screenwriter and screen doctor, very brilliant guy; and Jeffrey Lew, who started 112 Greene Street—before SoHo was SoHo—the first cooperative, artistic gallery in town. Both of them knew Philip well. I prevailed on them. Philip relented, saying, “Get this guy off my back, he’s driving me crazy.” I knew Jonas Mekas at the time—he wasn’t on Second Avenue and Second Street then, he was on Wooster Street. I asked if I could do a screening, and invite Philip.

My crew and I had shot some photography of the four corners area: New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Arizona. I put two pieces of music together: Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures At An Exhibition, rendered by the Japanese genius Isao Tomita. Brilliant piece of music. Then I played it again with Philip’s music. Philip said, “Gee whiz, mine works better.” I knew he would say that, but it’s true. He was expecting to duck out during the screening, that he would go on with his life, and I would go on and be sad about it. Instead, he said: “When can we begin, Godfrey?”

Visitors is now showing in New York at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema

Alex Zafiris is a writer based in New York.

Braden King is a New York-based filmmaker, photographer and visual artist.

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