With the portent of a man bringing fire to humanity, Godfrey Reggio introduces viewers to the technique of the camera pan—and Philip Glass rediscovers the power of the triplet—in Visitors, a tedious Rorschach test whose novelty depends on discounting much of the history of photographic, cinematic, and gallery art. According to the film’s official synopsis, this black-and-white effort from the director of Koyaanisqatsi “reveals humanity’s trancelike relationship with technology, which, when commandeered by extreme emotional states, produces massive effects far beyond the human species.”
This means that Reggio will begin with a close-up of a lowland gorilla from the Bronx Zoo; rocket up to the moon; hunker down for a bit of Warholian, Empire-like architectural contemplation; and then settle in for a long procession of faces staring directly into the lens. The subjects—representing a cross-section of society—are photographed against a jet-black background. Many of them are children, impishly making faces. The Richard Avedon-style faux class photos segue into group shots. A crowd appears to cheer a sports game, though it’s impossible to know what the group is looking at. The “visitors” of the title might be aliens, humans, or the film audience itself, staring at an unfamiliar world. This last notion is made explicit when the movie concludes on the sort of fourth-wall-breaking effect “presenter” Steven Soderbergh employed more successfully in Full Frontal.
Working with just 74 shots, Reggio seems to have abandoned traditional notions of montage in favor of a slideshow approach. A few images resonate—a Lynchian Ferris wheel, a tour of swamplands and a mausoleum, jellyfish patterns over the rather drawn-out end credits. The randomness is seemingly intended to help viewers examine their own interpretive attitudes (sorry, “trancelike relationship with technology”), but the imagery itself is hopelessly banal—unvaried in pace, indifferently composed, betraying little of the sense of purpose one might associate with everything from Surrealism to social realism. It’s hard to see how altering any shot would change Reggio’s opus in a meaningful way.
What’s hypnotic for five minutes at the Whitney Museum does not necessarily carry over to an 80-minute movie, and Visitors might conceivably run half that length without the slow motion. Reggio’s film premiered in Toronto with live musical accompaniment, a gimmick that probably enhanced the experiential aspect of what’s otherwise a glorified installation piece. Turning the camera on the spectator presumes an audience is there.