Godfrey Reggio Calls His Films ‘Cats That Bark’
Thursday, March 6, 2014
KPBS arts reporter Beth Accomando interviews filmmaker Godfrey Reggio about his latest film "The Visitors."
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. "Visitors" (opening March 7 at Landmark's Hillcrest Cinemas) is his latest film and there would be more films to his credit if they weren't so hard to finance.
Reggio says his films are like “cats that bark.” But he 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.
"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," Reggio told me by phone, "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 “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 scenes, Reggio had his subjects play video games or watch sporting events.
"My direction for the people were never to act," Reggio explains. "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 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.
"For some that can become confrontational," Reggio says, "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."
In addition to faces, Reggio shoots abandoned buildings in and around his hometown of New Orleans. Much of the landscape was devastated by Katrina but he wasn't able to shoot the buildings in the immediate aftermath of the hurricane
"I wanted to film these buildings as if they were Angelina Jolie," he recalls, "But it requires a bigger base of technique to do, a bigger crew, longer time, [so we] waited five years because we filmed those locations in 2010 in the fall, they matured not as the wreckage from a big hurricane but more like Pompeii or the ruins of our modernity, which fit better actually into what I was trying to show in the film."
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.
"When in Rome do as the Romans," Reggio says. "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” means exiting the modern world. 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.
"The mother lion when she gives birth to her cubs, the cubs are stillborn and she roars them, provokes them into life," he explains. "The very entomology of the word beauty comes from Greek and it’s 'kalos', however it shares its entomology with another word 'kaleo,' 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 I can understand their point of view. But I think all that is needed to appreciate his films is to simply 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.
"Visitors" (not rated) is just one of two offerings this weekend that provide filmgoers with a radically different filmgoing experience than they would find at the mall theater. The other is Crispin Hellion Glover's "Big Slide Shows" this Friday and Saturday at the La Paloma Theater.
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