Intersections at WID: Filmmaker Godfrey Reggio on Man and Machine

Filmmaker Godfrey Reggio’s original Qatsi Trilogy films subversively question the balance among humanity, nature and technology. But it’s Reggio’s pioneering use of time-lapse footage and bustling narrative devoid of human dialogue that leaves audiences to find greater meaning for themselves — in themselves.

While premiering his new film Visitors at the 2014 Wisconsin Film Festival, Reggio stopped by the Institute to visit his longtime friends and Co-Directors of the Center for Complexity and Collective Computation David Krakauer and Jessica Flack.

Filmmaker Godfrey Reggio
Filmmaker Godfrey Reggio

For people who may not have seen your films, how do you describe your style?

Godfrey Reggio: Film now is based on a screenplay — it comes out of literature; it comes out of writing; it comes out of telling a story; it comes from the campfire. Before the innovations of color and sound [and story], it was all about pictorial composition. Film wasn’t interested in representation; it was interested in giving someone an impression or affecting people, rather than telling them a story or information. It was an experience. But that kind of all stopped in the 20s or thereabouts, when sound came in.

Having grown up in the Middle Ages and not now, and being a Catholic monk, I found myself in a medium where I wasn’t interested in the talking part. I was interested in — I don’t like the word but let me use it — the “artistic” nature of what it could be, or the poetic aspect of cinema, which is non-rational, something that is not [there] to give you any information or tell you something. It’s more to affect you, to watermark you, as if you had sat in water for a long time. Or give you a tattoo. Or to be even more intense, to afflict you with something that maybe you wouldn’t come into contact with in another way.

What techniques give these impressions rather than tell linear stories?

In the form that I use, I take all the foreground out of traditional cinema — the characterization, the plot, the story basically — and you’re left with what in the business is called “second unit” production, which is the background. So if we were shooting a film here (points out the window of the Discovery Building), that gentleman down there on the sidewalk would be second unit, the main actor would be sitting here where you and I are.

So ripping it out, I take the background and now make it the foreground. That’s not to say, in other words, the films I’ve done have been characterized as non-narrative, which is a misnomer. They’re narrative but non-spoken narrative. There are many ways to speak. Body language, facial display, eye behavior, gesture, are perhaps — with authenticity — more communicative than the words we use. Now, my love in life is word, so I’m not doing this for lack of love of the language, I’m doing this because, tragically, I feel our language no longer describes the world in which we live, and who we are is language qua language.

“This is what my cinema is about: to try to find what we’re surrounded by that’s under the rubric of normalcy.”

— Godfrey Reggio

For the Qatsi Trilogy, the pacing of the films guided viewers with crescendos to form these impressions. What about Visitors?

Pacing in film is like the meter in poetry. The impression of Visitors was stillness. I had made films where everything was on speed, or rush hour.

I believe that buildings have a voice. I believe that traffic has a voice. I believe that the world is speaking to us, but we’re deaf and blind to it because [these things] are close to us — so normal, so ordinary, so regular. This is what my cinema is about: to try to find what we’re surrounded by that’s under the rubric of normalcy. This cinema tries giving a voice to that which is overwhelmingly present, but we don’t see.

Most of my films have between 400 and 600 images. Visitors has 74 images in the same amount of time, roughly, as Koyaanisqatsi. It’s an exercise of slowing down. First of all, for whatever reason, it’s my feeling that our faces are like masks we wear that reveal a universe inside of us, if only you can know how to look at the mask. And the longer you look at the mask, the more it reveals itself.

In the film, there are three characters: humans, gorillas and cyborgs. It’s all to lose track of time, really. So the face that you see at the beginning (if you allow yourself to get involved in this reciprocal gaze) — not only are you staring at the screen, but the screen is staring back at you. It could be vapid. It’s like you go to the hamburger stand and you get everything but the meat. Where’s the meat? So all of those things, it breaks in a fundamental way the expectations one brings to that room when they go to a cinema. And that’s what’s important, for whatever reason; I can’t tell you why.

What I wanted was a film that was autodidactic to discover something for yourself. So that’s the intention: to watermark the audience, to have them discover something for themselves. It’s not a story to be told, it’s a story to behold.

Visitors Film

Your work not only comments on humanity, but also technology. To you, are they becoming the same thing?

Technology for me is the new religion. I’ve become an obsessive observer of people over my life. I live in New York a lot, and on any given street, on the short versions of the streets, 70 percent of the people are plugged in in some way.

It’s speed! Everything’s faster. A shorter world. More comfort. More comfort for some means less comfort for others — that’s the nature of it. When my mother was born in 1900, there were 1.7 billion people on the planet. Now we approach 7 [billion]. There’s an inverse relationship in terms of the quantitative presence that we have. We’re losing the qualitative voice of life. We see the world through language; now our language is zeros and ones. Most people can’t speak those.

I think we’re transiting from being human already. I think it’s already happened, in fact. I’m not waiting for the event, the event has occurred. In our bodies, we have trace minerals that didn’t exist on the planet 100 years ago. We’ve become the environment we’re in.

To me this is the height of techno-fascism, because, to me, the beauty of this planet is its diversity. If there were one season, one bird, one person it would be boring. The beauty of it is that everything is different, but it’s all now being homogenized. So homogenization is the modus operandi of the medium, not diversification.

Interview conducted and edited by Marianne Spoon