By the time he was 28, Godfrey Reggio had passed half his life in monasteries run by Christian Brothers, who taught him to spend as much time as possible in silent contemplation. It may not be surprising that there is no dialogue in any of Reggio's richly visual films, from his breakout debut Koyaanisqatsi (1982) to his latest Visitors.
"Brothers meditate every day, they keep silent when they are not teaching, and they're encouraged to be as still as possible," says the lanky 73-year-old filmmaker, in a baritone inflected by long residence in Louisiana and New Mexico. "If I forget those things, they remember me. They are a watermark left on me, just as I want this film to leave a watermark on the audience."
But like most people who have spent a lot of time with the Christian gospels, Reggio is also acutely sensitive to words. He says he couldn't make a film, or even think of a film to make, without them.
"My medium is the word," he says. "Once the word is present, at least in my mind, it stimulates a lot of images."
"If you work with Godfrey, he'll talk to you for 10 years before you make the movie," says Philip Glass, who has written the scores for all of Reggio's films. And once the film is actually being made, says assistant director and editor Jon Kane, Reggio keeps a whiteboard filled with the words he needs to keep the concept clear and the images flowing.
But when the work is finished, only pictures and music remain. It's as if Reggio needs to outrun the words before he can make his strongest appeal to the non-verbal mind.
Visitors is a film about slowing down the distracted, 21st-century mind, and allowing time for the viewer to really examine what's on the screen. There are only 74 cuts in the 87-minute film. Reggio's unhurried camera peruses faces, scans monumental buildings, glides through waste spaces and dormant swamps.
"The etymology of the word 'visit' is to come to see," he explains. "This film is about coming to see. The question is, who is the visitor?"
His human subjects all stare into the camera, apparently at us, in an exchange of attention he called "the reciprocal view." While watching the film, you can't help but become party to the illusion that it is watching you back.
Reggio experimented with the concept in the 1995 colour short Evidence, in which he filmed children's faces as they watched TV images reflected from the same point as the hidden camera lens. He was fascinated by "the automaticities that go through the face, as emotional waves. What you see is what's inside the person, which can be frightening."
Like all of Reggio's films, Visitors is also about our place in the world, including natural surroundings, built environments and virtual places created by technology. Some of the most striking images are those of places ruined and abandoned after Hurricane Katrina tore through New Orleans in 2005, including the city's imposing Charity Hospital and the Six Flags amusement park.
"Visitors was going to be a reflection on Katrina, but it took five years to raise the money," says Reggio, who got some of his capital from Phi Films, run by Montreal arts producer and philanthropist Phoebe Greenberg.
"It was better that we waited. Instead of looking like the result of a storm, those ruins look like the ruins of modernity, which gives them a much more dramatic presence. They stand in proxy for the world we live in."
Even the building shots are forms of portraiture, Reggio says, if only because they reflect something about us. In some ways, his vision is radically anthropomorphic, in that he finds in all things an image of the human.
"Since we're sensate beings, we become what we see, smell, touch and taste," he says. "We become the environment we live in. These environments were shot as if they were the stars. They become entities in the film, because they are indicative of who we are."
Photographing Visitors, which was shot in 4K black-and-white with infrared, posed a series of technical challenges, with lots of painstaking postproduction work. Kane says that the colour-correction work on a single shot of a tree required him to split the digital image into 165 windows, and adjust each one individually.
The film's opening portrait footage of a lowland gorilla named Triska took two days of shooting, and extensive frame-by-frame work later to black out Triska's surroundings at the Bronx Zoo.
Enormous detailed shots of the moon had to be recreated digitally, because "the highest resolution footage that exists of the moon was too low for us," Kane says.
Reggio, not surprisingly, sees the human even in that remote dead rock, which becomes a symbol of desolation, but also of what comes after desolation.
"The moon is a grand metaphor for the film," says the filmmaker.
"For some people it'll look depressing. From my point of view, one can't be hopeful unless one has the courage to be hopeless."