Category Archives: Film & Documentaries

Godfrey Reggio’s ‘Visitors’ Is Staring At You

Emma Meyers via The Daily Beast

Twelve years after finishing the groundbreaking Koyaanisqatsi trilogy, Godfrey Reggio’s new documentary looks at what the human face—and the act of looking at human faces—tells us about ourselves.

When Godfrey Reggio was a young monk in the Catholic Church, he was taught, “In order to truly see that which is familiar, you have to stare at it until it becomes strange.”

The principle became the modus operandi behind Reggio’s poetic brand of filmmaking, beginning with his first feature, 1982’s Koyaanisqatsi. “Until now, you’ve never really seen the world you live in,” its trailer boasted. And it was true. The film’s groundbreaking time-lapse cinematography inspired many imitators, from 1993’s Baraka to television commercials and countless movie transition shots.

Reggio’s latest work, Visitors is another wordless meditation on the state of modern man, this time ruminating over our codependent relationship with technology. Taking the human face as both its subject and object, the film unfurls in dream-like slow motion, elevating what is earthbound to otherworldly, and back again. Shot in black-and-white, the clarity of the digital 4K projection enables the sleekest realization of Reggio’s vision to date, even if that vision isn’t quite as revelatory as it was 30 years ago.

Video screenshot

Predicated on the concept of the reciprocal gaze, Visitors begins with a shot of a female lowland gorilla, the primate whose facial structure most closely resembles our own. Set against an otherwise pitch-black screen, she appears to be looking the audience directly in the eye.

“If you take the background out of the shot, you’re no longer looking at a gorilla,” Reggio says over the phone from his home in Santa Fe. “A gorilla is looking at you. It sets up a wholly different dynamic.”

“If you take the background out of the shot, you’re no longer looking at a gorilla. A gorilla is looking at you.”

It’s a technique the director applies to all of the film’s 80 unidentified subjects, and the complete dissolution of the background results in a disarming directness of the image; the 4th wall isn’t so much broken as it is suggested never to have existed at all.

From the stunned freckle-faced boy with big ears who resembles Alfred E. Newman to a weathered African American woman whose drooping eyes are on the verge of tears, the subjects of this first series of “moving portraits,” as the director calls them, have been given no instructions as to what to do or how to react to the camera. “These photographs are from the inside out,” Reggio explains. “Our faces reveal the fullness of life.” Stripped of any stimulus, the expressions of this first group of people expose their true consciousness (theoretically, at least).

The rest of the subjects, on the other hand, were filmed either watching TV or gaming, and they are considered “cyborgs”—not just using technology but actually becoming it.

“They’re being pulled by something that’s present but not seen, which is the screen,” he says. “These are portraits from the outside in. They knew they were being filmed, but as soon as the TV came on, or the video game came on, it was like a tractor beam, pulling them out of their conscious state into a non self-conscious state.”

Video screenshot

As you might expect, the cyborgs are the more animated bunch: they cock their heads, furrow their brows, chew their cheeks, bite their tongues and lick their lips; their eyes widen with excitement or squint in disbelief, their mouths gasp, gape, sigh and scream. But the drama that unfolds across their visages is indicative of automaticity rather than authenticity.

The viewer, meanwhile, are not told what these people are looking at—are they looking at us? Or us at them? That’s the danger of Visitors: the specifics of the director’s commentary on technology might be overlooked.

But Reggio’s deliberate ambiguity also enables—and encourages—freedom of interpretation. The film is less about meaning than it is about experience, and like hypnosis, the effect depends heavily on the subject’s willing sensory engagement.

“It’s a different kind of cinema that may not be for everybody,” Reggio admits. “The ideal viewer is someone who watches the film like a traveler, like she’s passing through.” The effect should be “extra-mental,” he says. “If it works then it takes on a life of its own.”

The experience wouldn’t be complete without Philip Glass, who was also central to theKoyaanisqatsi films. The composer’s score avoids dramatic swells in favor of a kind of shamanic repetition that works alongside the images to lull the viewer into a trance. The music, Reggio says, should act as a “dancing partner” to the visuals, not showing off with dips or lifts, but rather gently swaying together as one.

“I asked Phillip Glass not to write note one until he’d been completely marinated, as it were, in the ethos of the spirit of the film,” Reggio says. “That starts out by him going to as many of the actual locations as possible…to get an original charge.” Once the director had a rough cut of the film (no small feat with over 60 hours of footage to reduce), Glass was brought back into the process.

Although Visitors is at this point as much of a pastiche as it is a poem—its combination of sound and image recall any number of things from Warhol’sScreen Tests to 2001: A Space Odyssey, to examples from Reggio’s own oeuvre—it is nevertheless a film that demands to be seen. Its most powerful argument is for the medium itself, the manner in which cinema—or viewing—can be mulled over. For Reggio, who believes that the “meaning is in the form,” this is perhaps the greatest achievement of all.

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Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages, Narrated by William S. Burroughs

Häxan is a 1922 Swedish/Danish silent horror film written and directed by Benjamin Christensen. This version was updated in the mid 1960’s to include an English narration by William S Burroughs.

Based partly on Christensen’s study of the Malleus Maleficarum, a 15th-century German guide for inquisitors, Häxan is a study of how superstition and the misunderstanding of diseases and mental illness could lead to the hysteria of the witch hunts. The film was made as a documentary but contains dramatized sequences that are comparable to horror films.

With Christensen’s meticulous recreation of medieval scenes and the lengthy production period, the film was the most expensive Scandinavian silent film ever made, costing nearly two million Swedish kronor. Although it won acclaim in Denmark and Sweden, the film was banned in the United States and heavily censored in other countries for what were considered at that time graphic depictions of torture, nudity and sexual perversion.

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The Aliens that…almost…appeared in Kubrick’s 2001- A Space Odyssey

1. Early conceptions

In a film like 2001, a project that started with the explicit purpose of investigating the possibility of extraterrestrial life, it comes as no surprise that Kubrick decided very soon in the production to tackle the problem of how to actually depict the extraterrestrials themselves.

Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke had met for the first time in April 1964: by the last months of that year the director had already set up a team working on hundreds of drawings about possible E.T. shapes – his wife Christiane was on board as well and worked on preparatory drawings – and in late 1965, the young and recently hired collaborator Anthony Frewin joined the team, researching on modern sculptures, paintings of German artist Max Ernst and modern art in general to try different ideas. (Here’s a detailed account by Frewin about his appointment to the movie and about Kubrick fondness of Ernst; thirty years later, Ernst’s influence resurfaced in a Ian Watson interview about the making of the movie that turned out to be Spielberg’s Artificial Intelligence).

Some of those eerie alien landscapes are available, as ‘bonus materials’, in the DVD edition of2001 issued in 2007 (and captured in screenshots in these three fine websites); here’s an example of the material and a comparison with a famous painting from Ernst:

Author unknown, alien landscape, pre-production drawing for 2001 (source). We can see some insect-like beings similar to those later described by Arthur Clarke in a script draft.
 
 

Max Ernst, Europe After The Rain (1940-42)

Another reason for an early start in the quest for a credible alien came from the script evolution. Arthur C. Clarke gives us an interesting hint about the many ideas pursued and abandoned; starting with an entry in his diary dated October 6, 1964, reproduced in the bookThe Lost Worlds of 2001:

Have got an idea which I think is crucial. The people we meet on the other star system are humans who were collected from Earth a hundred thousand years ago, and hence are virtually identical with us.

The earliest outline of the story drafted by Kubrick and Clarke featured the discovery of a extraterrestrial artifact not in the beginning of the story (as in The Sentinel, the 1948 novel that was chosen as a basis for the movie) but as the climax;

Before that, we would have a series of incidents or adventures devoted to the exploration of the Moon and Planets. […] The rest of 1964 was spent brainstorming. As we developed new ideas, so the original conception slowly changed. “The Sentinel” became the opening, not the finale.

So, now that the plot had to focus on an early meeting of alien and men that had to take place on earth, the script had to feature an explicit description of the alien. In a draft from 1965, the main alien character even had a name: Clindar; straightforwardly borrowed by Clarke from his old novel Encounter in the dawn (1954), originally collected in the anthologyExpedition to Earth.

The cover of Expedition to Earth (1954) and the Kubrick-Clarke duo in a 1964 photo (source)

Although not included in the series of novels whose rights Clarke had sold to Kubrick as a basis for the 2001Encounter will end up giving the first part of the final movie its basic structure: Clindar is a very human-like alien who “could pass for an human with some surgery” and he’s basically an anthropologist that helps the struggling ape-men, showing them, among the other things, how to kill a hyena with a bone. Clearly, Clindar’s function is the same of what the monolith turned out to have in the finished movie: he’s a catalyst for the potential of the human race.

Slowly, Kubrick and Clarke decided to move the actual meeting of aliens and humans to the climax of the movie, in the final scene after the Stargate – basically trading places with the appearance of the alien artifact; and the monolith, that at this stage had already appeared on the moon as a pyramid as in The Sentinel, would take the place of the aliens as catalyst/teacher on the prehistoric earth. Continue reading

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Varanasi, India’s “Holy Men”: A Photo Series and Documentary

Varanasi, one of world’s oldest living cities, is rightly called the religious capital of India. Also known as Banaras or Benaras, this holy city is located in the southeastern part of the state of Uttar Pradesh in northern India. It rests on the left bank of the holy river Ganga (Ganges), and is one of the seven sacred spots for Hindus. Every devout Hindu hopes to visit the city at least once in a lifetime, take a holy dip at the famous ‘Ghats‘ of the Ganga, walk the pious Panchakosi road that bounds the city, and, if God wills, die here in old age.

All photos from : Joey L‘s photo series “Holy Men”

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A Place of Spiritual Luminance

The former name of the city, ‘Kashi’ signifies that it is a ‘site of spiritual luminance.’ Indeed it is! Not only is Varanasi a place for pilgrimage, it is also a great center of learning, and a place known for its heritage in music, literature, art and craft. It is a cherished name in the art of silk weaving. The Banarasi silk sarees and brocades are prized all over the world. The classical musical styles or ‘gharanas’ are woven into the lifestyle of the people and are accompanied by musical instruments that are manufactured in Varanasi. Many religious texts and theosophical treatises have been written here. It is also the seat of one of India’s biggest universities, theBanaras Hindu University.

A Haven For Pilgrims

Varanasi is a veritable paradise for pilgrims, who throng the ‘Ghats’ of the Ganges for spiritual rewards like deliverance from sin and attainment of nirvana. The Hindus believe that to die here on the banks of the Ganges is an assurance of heavenly bliss and emancipation from the eternal cycle of birth and death. So, many Hindus travel to Varanasi at the twilight hour of their life.

What Makes It Holy?

To the Hindus, the Ganges is a sacred river and any town or city on its bank is believed to be auspicious. But Varanasi has a special sanctity, for it is believed, this is where Lord Shiva and his consort Parvati stood when time started ticking for the first time. The place also has an intimate connection with a host of legendary figures and mythical characters, who are said to have actually lived here. Varanasi has found place in the Buddhist scriptures as well as the great Hindu epic of Mahabharata. The holy epic poem Shri Ramcharitmanas by Goswami Tulsidas was also written here. All this makes Varanasi a significantly holy place.

The City of Temples

Varanasi is also famous for its antique temples. The renowned Kashi Vishwanath Temple dedicated to Lord Shiva has a ‘lingam’ – the phallic icon of Shiva – that goes back to the time of the epics. Skanda Purana by Kasikanda mentions this temple of Varanasi as Shiva’s abode. It has withstood the onslaught of various invasions by Muslim rulers. The present temple was rebuilt by Rani Ahalya Bai Holkar, the ruler of Indore, in 1776. Then in 1835, the Sikh ruler of Lahore, Maharaja Ranjit Singh had its 15.5 m high spire plated in gold. Since then it is also known as the Golden Temple.

Major Temples of Varanasi

The 8th century Durga Temple, situated on the Ramnagar Pandav road, is home to hundreds of monkeys that reside in the nearby trees. Another popular temple is the Sankatmochan temple dedicated to the simian-god Hanuman. Varanasi’s Bharat Mata Temple is probably the only temple in India that is dedicated to the ‘Mother India.’ Inaugurated by Mahatma Gandhi in 1936, it has a big relief map of India carved in marble. Another relatively new temple is the Tulsi Manas Temple built in honor of Lord Rama in 1964 at the place where Tulsidas composed the Ramacharitmanas, the vernacular version of the epic of Ramayana. The walls of this temple adorn the scenes and verses depicting the exploits of Lord Rama.

Other significant places of worship include the Sakshi Vinayaka Temple of Lord Ganesha, the Kaal Bhairav Temple, the Nepali Temple, built by the King of Nepal on Lalita Ghat in Nepali style, the Bindu Madhav Temple near the Panchaganga Ghat and the Tailang Swami Math.

“BEYOND” is an exclusive documentary featuring photographer Joey L. Set in Varanasi, India. The documentary by filmmaker Cale Glendening follows Joey and his assistant Ryan as they complete their latest photo series- “Holy Men.”

Almost every major religion breeds ascetics; wandering monks who have renounced all earthly possessions, dedicating their lives to the pursuit of spiritual liberation.Their reality is dictated only by the mind, not material objects. Even death is not a fearsome concept, but a passing from the world of illusion.

Created by: Cale Glendening, Joey L., Ryan McCarney
Directed by: Cale Glendening
Edit/Color: Chris Dowsett, Cale Glendening, Joey L., Megan Miller, John Carrington
Graphic/Titles: James Zanoni
Original Score: Stephen Keech,Tony Anderson
All Photographs: Joey L.
Guiding/Translation: Raju Verma, Tejinder Singh

Special Thanks: Jesica Bruzzi / BH Photo, Kessler Crane


Varanasi, India:Beyond Trailer

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Milan Kundera, the Prague Spring and the 45th Anniversary of the Soviet Invasion of Czechoslovakia

This week marks the 45th anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. The invasion and subsequent occupation of the nation was intended to put an end to the liberal policies enacted by reformist president Alexander Dubček‘s  that began after his election in January 1968. Dubček’s democratic reforms included a loosening of restrictions on the media, speech and travel as well as other general acts that partially decentralized the economy. The Soviet Union saw these particular measures as a threat to the cohesion of  communist bloc nations in Eastern Europe and after several failed negotiations with the Dubcek government, invaded the country along with several other Warsaw Pact nations  ( the Soviet Union, Bulgaria, Poland and Hungary) on August 20th, 1968.

During the invasion , 72 Czechs and Slovaks were killed with close to 300 severely wounded. Alexander Dubček called upon his people not to resist yet ,throughout the nation, there was scattered resistance in the streets. In a clever (and humorous) act of defiance, road signs in towns were removed or painted over—except for those indicating the way to back to Moscow.  Many small villages renamed themselves “Dubcek” or “Svoboda” (Slavic for “freedom” or “liberty” ) making it impossible to navigate the countryside without navigational equipment.

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