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Interview: Godfrey Reggio

March 6, 2014 10:51 p.m.

KPBS arts reporter Beth Accomando interviews filmmaker Godfrey Reggio about his latest film "The Visitors."

Related Story: Review: 'Visitors'


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

ANCHOR INTRO: Filmmaker Godfrey Reggio made a name for himself partnering with composer Philip Glass on a trio of wordless documentaries beginning with “Koyaaniqatsi” 30 years ago. KPBS arts reporter Beth Accomando says Reggio would have more films to his credit if they weren’t so hard to finance. His latest film, “The Visitors,” opens today at Landmark.

Filmmaker Godfrey Reggio says his films are like “cats that bark.” And pretentious ones if you listen to his harshest critics. But Reggio has carved out a unique niche for himself making wordless documentaries set to evocative scores by Philip Glass. He says the subject of all his films is always the person watching it – he or she is the storyteller, the character, and the plot of his movies. He suggests the best way to watch his films is to leave all expectations at the door.

GODFREY REGGIO: If one goes into these films looking for meaning then one could miss the entire purpose or the entire experience of the film because they are experiential. I’ve been to the redwoods and I’m certainly not walking through there asking what is the redwood mean, I’m there having a meaningful experience. So these films are offered in a sense to give you a meaningful experience… They are not a story to be told, they are a story to behold.

In his latest film “The Visitors,” he continues to explore modern life but this time focusing on our trancelike relationship with technology. His black and white film is made up of a mere 74 shots, most of which are centered on a person’s face staring directly at us. To shoot some of these scene Reggio had his subjects play video games or watch sporting events.

GODFREY REGGIO: My direction for the people were never to act. They all knew they were being filmed, they had lights on them, lots of lights, but as soon as that TV comes on, as soon as the game starts as it were, the TV is like a tractor beam, the screens that are that we’re addicted to are everywhere. As soon as they go on we go out of self-conscious behavior.

He calls these moving stills in which the images are so drastically slowed down that movement is almost imperceptible. Reggio says the slower the pace the more heightened his viewers’ senses may become.

GODFREY REGGIO: For some that can become confrontational… for others it can slow down their heart beat, their breath, they can start as it were to contemplate if I can be so bold, to look, to see, to gaze, to behold and perhaps, just perhaps they can enter into a speechless narrative through the vehicle of the faces that they are involved with.

The film is gorgeously shot on state of the art digital cameras that give us a background of deep, rich blacks that set off the faces is bold relief. Reggio notes it’s not just ironic but also contradictory that he must use technology to critique it.

GODFREY REGGIO: When in Rome do as the Romans. I wish to speak to people through the medium of a very, highly advanced technological medium called filmmaking. So my task , which has warranted a lot of criticisms toward me is that I embrace that contradiction. My embrace of technology is not to celebrate it, it’s because it is the language that we speak.

Entering into Reggio’s “The Visitors” is like leaving the modern world behind. He shoots footage in a massive swamp that looks downright prehistoric and by slowing the pace of the film down he forces us to leave the sensory overload of the outside world behind. It is an odd mix of relaxation and provocation. Reggio, who spent more than a decade as a Christian brother, turns to an African fable to begin an explanation of his style.

GODFREY REGGIO: The mother lion when she gives birth to her cubs, the cubs are stillborn and she roars them, provokes them into life. The very entomology of the word beauty comes from Greek and it’s calos, however it shares its entomology with another word calio, which means to provoke, and in that sense, my intention is a provocation of the audience through beauty.

Critics have described Reggio’s films as pretentious, and his explanations preachy or academic, and I can understand their point of view. I think to appreciate his films you simply have to surrender to his images in order to experience something unique that challenges both the way you watch movies and the way you look at modern life.

Beth Accomando, KPBS News.