Godfrey Reggio’s films “are like a cat that barks. They’re unusual, the names of the films are off the wall,” he tells Kurt Andersen. Most people know Reggio for the 1982 film Koyaanisqatsi, a word from the Hopi language meaning “life out of balance,” and its two sequels. Koyaanisqatsi has no dialogue and no actors, no action or story in the traditional sense. It is composed of striking images — desert canyons, traffic zooming at night, a nuclear test — with a pulsing score by a composer who was not yet a household name, Philip Glass.
Reggio’s new film Visitors is in black-and-white, with mesmerizingly long, slow takes devoid of action. There is a long procession of faces (including a gorilla) watching you, as you’re watching them. “You are the subject of this film,” Reggio says. Unlike Koyaanisqatsi, Kurt notes, Visitors does not seem to give a clear thematic takeaway. “If you are going to look for meaning in this film you will miss what the whole film is about,” Reggio replies. “Like a traveler, just go on a journey and let your eyes be open to the sights that are coming to you.”
Reggio’s own life would make a compelling movie. He grew up in New Orleans. (“It’s a crazy, crazy place. I was burning it on all ends,” he says — not even in his teens.) By age 14, he had left home to became a monk with the Christian Brothers. “I ran away to the Middle Ages — little did I know,” he says. “It made the Marine Corps look like the Boy Scouts.” Reggio remained with the Brothers for 14 years, ultimately working with street gangs in northern New Mexico. It was there that he was inspired to become a filmmaker when a friend showed him Los Olvidados, Luis Bunuel’s movie about street kids in Mexico City. “When I saw that film it was like a spiritual experience.”
Thirty years after Koyaanisqatsi, Reggio feels we are no closer to a life in balance. “We are on a treadmill,” he says, “we’re all pursuing our technological happiness without realizing that the price we pay for that is the plummeting of our humanity and the planet we live on.” But even with such a dire outlook, Reggio wants to make beautiful films. “Art is to provoke, it gives us access to a truth. I wanted to show the beauty of the beast and not the obviousness of injustice.”
Video: Visitors (trailer)
KoyaanisqatsiArtist: Phillip GlassAlbum: Koyaanisqatsi soundtrackLabel: Nonesuch
The Reciprocal GazeArtist: Phillip GlassAlbum: Visitors soundtrackLabel: ORANGE MOUNTAIN