Wednesday, April 9, 2014

The Visitors

(image taken from NY Times) 

 (image taken from CBC Music)

 (image taken from Toronto Film Festival) 

A few weeks ago, the filmmaker and I went to the Sunshine Theater for a screening of the latest Godfrey Reggio film, The Visitors. For me, it was my first foray into the aesthetic and philosophical realm of Reggio, which the filmmaker admitted and bemoaned, a few weeks later following a screening of the infamous and stunning Koyaanisqatsi at the Museum of Arts and Design, was perhaps not an ideal introduction, deviating substantially in style and tone from his other celebrated works. While certainly not disappointed that I experienced The Visitors before the others, I understand what he meant. Also an exploration of the ever-evolving triangulated relationship between humans, the natural environment, and the technologies we have developed and harnessed in creating civilizations, unlike Koyaanisqatsi, The Visitors is contained and controlled. Rather than extended sweeps of grandiose landscapes and rather candid moments with an array of people on city streets, people walking and talking and staring, oblivious to or ambivalent to the camera, the individuals are posed, staring into the lens and seemingly into the eyes of the audience directly, explicitly, with purpose, individuals isolated in a black and sterile capsule.

Initially, this struck me as an orchestrated posture of one of the most primitive modes of interaction and communication between people, in this case, the faces slowly flashed upon the movie screen and the gazing faces of the audience members: eye contact. A collection of bizarre and beautiful extended eye contact moments, with a diverse group of people, mediated through the screen. Almost stagnant portraits, save for slight shifts in expression; the tightening of a grimace, a bit of lip turned upward. A celebration of the brilliant malleability of our facial musculature. Discussing this with the filmmaker, he offered that perhaps the various individual faces that visually accost the audience are, rather than staring at us, intended to be staring intently into a screen. This interpretation, even coupled with my own perspective, presents a great mirror and an elegantly symmetrical framework for these portions of the film: we, seated in a cool and darkened theater, stare into a screen, silent, as the faces of young boys, girls, older men, women, stare into a screen, neither party able to properly access or touch or engage with the group on the other side. With this view, the myriad spectrum of expressions and looks become grounded, not in a sense of how we interact with another individual, face to face, but with how we interact with popular and nearly omnipresent technological social platforms, which facilitate the exchange of information and of stories so efficiently that we do not, or may not, require face to face interaction. Our collective attention, us the audience, and them the filmed, is focused on the movie screen, though us the audience are focused on the exchange of faces; what they the filmed contemplate remains a mystery.

Confronted with these various faces, vacant, bemused, thinking, I was reminded, forced to remember, really, how little eye contact I seem to make these days, with those around me, with people I pass on the subway, the street, my colleagues at work. It was a lesson enforced, from those earliest years, making polite eye contact, acknowledging someone, connecting with them, for a brief moment. Lately, I cannot seem to hold eyes, to make that acknowledgement. During those near two hours, in that dark theater, I had made more extended eye contact than it seemed I have in years.

My niece is a little over two years old; though it is rationed and supervised, she is allowed to play with the household computer, tablet, old versions of cellular telephones, in small doses, few and far between her sessions with wooden blocks, a kitchen stove, a miniature tea set. I am always fascinated that she and her generational peers, who I regularly spy on the subway, in restaurants, out and about, have an almost innate facility with these devices. Swiping to new screens, selecting icons, playing high resolution videos, their chubby, freshly formed fingers perform these adroitly. One might say this is a testament to the user experience and ergonomic design of these tools, sculpted to our intuition, but I am not sure.

Included in this spectrum of dynamic portraits is a female gorilla; indeed, the film opens and closes with long shots of her face, stern, prosaic, concentrated. Emotive and familiar, her floating face is a visual reminder of our shared ancestry with her species, of our natural journey on this planet, from a smattering of cosmic dust eons and eons ago, to the fumbling puzzle pieces of the pioneering proteins, to those first bipedal steps away from the cluster of trees and those monumental milestones in language, agriculture, engineering, architecture, culture. She is a visual reminder that, ultimately, we are all mere visitors to this planet and this life, each of us individually, and also collectively, our communities, our nations, our species. 

 (image taken from Blackbook)

 (image taken from Philly Magazine)

Another stylistic similarity to earlier works, Reggio interspersed between his facial portraits majestic shots of tall, grandiose buildings, of abandoned warehouses, of a silent and empty amusement park, of natural landscapes. Again, these visuals lack a certain frenetic energy that seems characteristic of these earlier works; the buildings, the wooden frame of a once-speeding roller coaster are stoic, almost surreal, in that it seems impossible to imagine that they are products of human creation, designed for human use and purpose. The skyscrapers, splattered with dark windows in a perfect grid, are stark and domineering, incongruously alien and unfamiliar. The roller coaster, in a sense the epitome of the hybridization of the application of physics and the indulgence in pure visceral entertainment, also stands stark, domineering, alien without the context of human interaction with the space. These typical and recognizable spaces of human engagement, silent and empty, maintain their beauty, but seem to lose a bit of their meaning.

Dining in a small hotel bar the other evening with a charming colleague of mine, a Southern gentleman, we discussed evolving social engagement platforms and made a number of jovial, but not trivial, jokes about the use of the notion of connectedness. Being connected, to friends, family, loved ones, partners, business associates, through a medium, via a screen and a designed piece of technology, rather than a face to face conversation. Rather than extended eye contact. Rather than the friendly shake of a warm hand, an embrace, where you can hear and feel the pulsing of blood into and out of the heart in the chest of the other.