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New directions for Philip Glass but not for Godfrey Reggio

Producer Jon Kane, director Godfrey Reggio and producer Lawrence Taub with the poster for Reggio's new film at the 2013 Toronto Festival
Producer Jon Kane, director Godfrey Reggio and producer Lawrence Taub with the poster for Reggio's new film at the 2013 Toronto FestivalPhoto by Michael Buckner/Getty Images

It has now been over 30 years since the film Koyaanisqatsi (Hopi for “life out of balance”) received its first public release. With a soundtrack consisting entirely of music by Philip Glass, with a few brief punctuations by natural sounds, this “visual tone poem” (as it is described on its Wikipedia page) by Godfrey Reggio had a major impact on how we thought about watching a movie. The film alternated between static and moving images, with the latter category often being shown at an accelerated or decelerated pace. Furthermore, the static images were often shot “real-time,” showing a motionless individual rather than simply a photograph. Not only did the film provide a new way to think about the movies but also, for those of us familiar with the work of Philip Glass at the time, it provided a new way to think about his aesthetic of repetitive structures.

In the following decades Koyaanisqatsi emerged as the first of a trilogy, the other two films being Powaqqatsi and Naqoyqatsi. The entire trilogy amounted to a narrative-free meditation on relationships among humans, nature, and technology, all within the ominous context that nature was suffering great losses and humanity was not doing much better. Now Reggio has made a new film entitled simply Visitors. This film consists of only 74 shots, all in black-and-white; and the focus is more about deterioration on the human plane, rather than our natural environment.

What is most interesting about this new film, however, is that, while Reggio continues to examine the same theme from different angles, Glass’ music has moved on significantly. While he has not abandoned his repetitive structures, he continues to explore new rhetorical contexts in which they may be embedded. For Visitors, however, he made an advance that could only be anticipated by those who have been following his music in concert performances, rather than on recordings.

That advance has been in the domain of instrumental resources. Glass has developed a new set of tools for his toolbox (to return to a metaphor I recently invoked in writing about Ludwig van Beethoven); and with those tools he has begun to examine how his past rhetoric of very slowly changing thematic elements can translate into a rhetoric of very slowly changing sonorities. The impact of these new tools is so great for those who know Glass’ music that it runs the risk of dominating the experience of watching Visitors.

Nevertheless, there is a problem. The music is performed by the Bruckner Orchester Linz, conducted by Dennis Russell Davies, a conductor whose knowledge of Glass is so extensive that he is probably better equipped than any other to follow the composer into his new approach to expression. Unfortunately, the conditions for listening to these new directions are just not present in a movie house, where one is at the mercy of playback systems that may be inadequate and even the transfer from the studio recordings to the film itself may have been questionable. There is just too much nuance in what Glass has done to belong in any movie, let alone a film like this one that demands intense visual concentration.

Equally problematic is that, while Reggio clearly expects such concentration from his viewers, it is unclear that he has done much to satisfy it. His past technique of presenting static images in “real-time” has now escalated from the “punctuation effect” it provided in Koyaanisqatsi to dominate almost the entirety of Visitors. Thus, with very few exceptions, the shots are of faces, directed straight at the camera lens with unblinking stares. There is no question that this can be more than a little spooky; but, over the course of those 74 shots, the effect gets to be more than a little tedious. As a result, it seems as if, while Glass has managed to take his repetitive structures and present them with less “minimality,” Reggio has pulled back from the diversity of the trilogy he made with Glass to come up with minimal sensation demanding maximal concentration.

The world premiere of the film (at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival) was actually given with a live performance by members of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. This would have given Glass’ capacity for invention more of a fighting chance than it would have to endure in a movie house, but there remains the problem of sensory overload. Reggio’s images demand to be viewed with a “knowing eye;” and Glass’ music demands listening, rather than mere hearing. Given my own background and interests, I would much prefer to be in a setting where I can focus on the listening without worrying about the looking, particularly when the looking loses its appeal far before the film has come to its conclusion.

Visitors opens this Friday (March 7) in San Francisco at the Embarcadero Center Cinema, located on the top floor at One Embarcadero Center.