“We, as human beings, have not seen ourselves until we have been seen through the eyes of another animal,” says the film director Godfrey Reggio, quoting (or perhaps paraphrasing) the anthropologist Loren Eiseley. Last night brought the local opening of Reggio’s latest collaboration with Philip Glass Visitors, shown on the magnificent Cinerama screen in Seattle (one of only three such remaining screens in the world).
The Eiseley quote was Reggio’s reference for discussing the powerful images of the Bronz Zoo gorilla named Triska whose deep, straight-on gaze haunts this meditation on the contemporary situation of the technology-crazed human species. “Visitors” deliberately plays off the etymology of its title – as in one who goes to see something.
Glass’s partnership with Reggio has resulted in some of my favorite work by this composer. I’ve heard stories of Koyannisqatsi changing people’s lives the way we sometimes hear about Einstein on the Beach (one of my big artistic adventures in 2012).
Each time Glass and Reggio work together, they rethink the very foundations of how image and music can interface and together generate powerful emotional responses that are at the same time thought provoking. As Reggio aptly put it, the music doesn’t illustrate a narrative. Conventional film narrative is jettisoned, there are no words, and the linear, plotted “foreground” we expect from a film experience is stripped away so that the background becomes foreground. Music and image are co-equal partners.
And what’s especially striking on first viewing/hearing of Visitors is the often-somber tone of Glass’s score – played with exquisite care and conviction by the Bruckner Orchestra Linz and Glass authority Dennis Russell Davies.
I may have been influenced by the silver-intensified dark palette of Reggio’s black-and-white filming, but the music often seems elegiac, certainly more meditative and slower paced in general than the Qatsi trilogy scores and without their exuberant explosions of manic energy. Glass’s orchestration continues to fascinate: especially his percussive touches and simple but mysterious blends.
Jay Michaelson eloquently describes the focus on temporality in Visitors in his recent article “Philip Glass Is Getting Older — for Better or Worse”:
We don’t know anything about these people visiting planet Earth – only that their time is short, especially measured by the geological time of the moon, but even according to our own reckoning and the lines in their faces.
“Visitors” is a film about the evanescence of life, its mystery and its frailty. It is about how we make meaning out of meaninglessness, and how ultimately we are brought to the blinding light of oblivion. It is a late work by a 73-year-old filmmaker and a 76-year-old composer, reflecting as much on their own oeuvre as on the essential questions of mortality and meaning.
Image from Visitors
In the post-viewing discussion with Reggio, the director was asked whether he thought we were better or worse off than in 1982, when Koyannisqatsi came out. Are humans even more out of balance? Unsurprisingly, Reggio said he thought so, that we’ve reached a point where our imbalances are “the price we have to pay for our technological happiness.”
And something to the effect that it takes “courage to have the hopelessness” we need to be able to recover a sense of hope. Visitors represents another attempt “to see that which is most vital but which is hidden by virtue of its presence” — a process of defamiliarization through art, in other words.
Here’s Philip Glass in a recent interview with Sam Adams for The Dissolve:
We began talking about a film about humor. And [Reggio] focused it on people, that it would be people who would represent that. And from that, very slowly over those years, it shifted to the idea of the gorilla. And once the gorilla was there, the whole thing changed, because of the reciprocal gaze…
And then we got into a very interesting idea that the film is really about looking at the film….
Then the role of the music takes on a completely different role. So the question is, how does music function in this?
Filed under: film, film music, Philip Glass