Visitors, Sydney Concert Hall – review

Some 30 years ago, Godfrey Reggio’s first feature film, a virtuoso display of time- lapse landscapes both natural and man-made, was propelled into filmgoers’ consciousness in large part by Philip Glass’s kinetic score. Since then, particularly from screenings accompanied by live performance from Glass’s ensemble, Koyaanisqatsi has often seemed less of a cinematic experience than a social ritual.

Neither follow-up film in Reggio and Glass’s non-narrative “Qatsi” trilogy could summon the original magic, and Visitors – their fourth feature collaboration – doesn’t even try. Instead of pushing and pulling the viewer’s sense of time by manipulating imagery – a once-visionary concept soon degraded by TV commercials and music videos – Visitors practically brings time to a halt. Much of the film, in fact, unfolds more or less as a series of still black-and-white photographs, making the music a crucial factor in moving the piece forward.

Right from its premiere last September at the Toronto International Film Festival, Visitors has been given the live-performance treatment. Last week, the Sydney Festival and the Sydney Opera House billed their screening as a “live cinematic orchestral event”, with Glass’s longtime collaborator Michael Riesman conducting the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. True to the festival’s multidisciplinary spirit, the event became part concert, part film, part installation.

The film is, truth be told, not so new. Rather, Visitors essentially juxtaposes two short films Reggio and Glass created in the 1990s: Anima Mundi (1992), an arty wildlife documentary, and Evidence (1995), which records in careful, alarming detail the intensity of children watching television.

Visitors opens with a gorilla (identified in the credits as Triska, from the Bronx Zoo) and moves smoothly through a series of human faces (singularly, then collectively), scenes of the moon’s surface, and the occasional nature shot. Nearly every image is in some way altered, allowing for smooth visual transitions.

It’s the music, though, that makes these images pop off the screen and ultimately hold together. The genius of Koyaanisqatsi and its follow-ups is not in Glass’s ability to match Reggio’s images but rather in his providing what they lack. Even by the composer’s standards, Visitors is a minimal score, focused on the task at hand with Berlioz-like attention to broadening orchestral sonorities without thickening musical texture.

Where the “Qatsi” films are about breadth of momentum, Visitors is about depth of sentiment. Whether or not the film itself has an actual story to tell, every face on the screen does. And while Reggio famously avoids concrete language, Glass brings to the table a welcome aura of lyrical mystique.

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