Composer Philip Glass’ first trip to Big Sur was by motorcycle; little did he know that he’d establish a music festival there six decades later.
“I was there in 1956 or ’57. I’d read ‘On The Road’ like everybody else, and I wanted to see the country,” says Glass. “That’s what we did in those days, and it was a lot of fun.”
He has also long appreciated the writings of Henry Miller. He first read Miller’s books in 1954, when he was 17, while studying music in Paris. When Magnus Toren, director of Big Sur’s Henry Miller Library since 1993, invited Glass to play at a benefit concert there in 2008, Glass readily agreed. It was during that visit that the ideas for the annual Days and Nights Festival, and for a permanent Philip Glass Center, were born.
This year’s Days and Nights Festival, which runs Sept. 25-28, features a screening of Visitors the latest full-length film collaboration between Glass and director Godfrey Reggio. The two first worked together on Reg- gio’s groundbreaking 1982 film Koyaanisqatsi, the first in a trilogy (followed by 1988’s Powaqqatsi and 2002’s Naqoyqatsi) that featured only images and music in a provocative examination of progress and technology. Visitors is another dynamic visual-musical ride that offers a radical look at our “life out of balance,” (the literal translation of the Hopi term “koyaanisqatsi”) informed by Reggio’s years as a monk, artist and social change activist.
Visitors will screen at the Henry Miller Library on Thursday, Sept. 25 at 7 p.m., and it will be the only California screening attended by both Glass and Reggio, who will be part of a Q&A beforehand.
“I know Philip enjoys playing at the Henry Miller Library, with its acoustically warm and womb-like feeling,” says Toren. “And it seems peculiarly perfect to show Visitors in the forest in Big Sur, because this environment engenders thoughts of disconnect from the busy digital buzz that goes on in the world outside.”
Indeed, Visitors serves as an antidote to that fast-paced world; the film features only 72 cuts during its 87 minutes.
“I’ve been all over the world, but Big Sur has a special quality,” explains Glass. “Mother Nature is really showing off there. When I’m playing, I feel that we’re almost embraced by the redwood trees.”
Glass says he has always believed that music and film were an effective way to raise interest in environmental issues and social change, as well as in science. He has written operas about Galileo Galilei, Johannes Kepler and Albert Einstein.
“I’ve written more operas about science than any other composer!” says Glass, with a laugh. “In a place like Big Sur, it makes sense that science, art and conserva- tion should all be together. That’s what we’re doing at the festival.”
The Days and Nights Festival will also feature an intimate evening of music and spoken word on Friday, with Philip Glass, Tom Fain, Matt Haimovitz, Jerry Quickley and Jaron Lanier. Additional festival events are scheduled for the Sunset Center in Carmel, including a screening of Icarus At The Edge Of Time with a live score by Philip Glass and narrated by scientist Brian Greene (Sept. 27) and Three Acts, Two Dancers, One Radio Host (Sept. 28) with This American Life radio host Ira Glass, who is Philip’s second cousin.
A permanent Philip Glass Center is in the works for the Big Sur/Carmel area, according to Glass and Toren.
“We have designs and drawings, and we’ve gone pretty far with it,” explains Glass, who has composed music for more than 40 feature films, including The Hours, The Truman Show and The Fog Of War. Glass began working with Reggio in 1977, which culminated in the stunningly original Koyaanisqatsi, and in 1995 Glass and Reggio collaborated on an eight-minute 35mm film titled Evidence, which will have a free screening during the festival (Thursday, Sept. 25, noon at California State University, Monterey Bay).
Visitors, released earlier this year, is based on ideas presented 25 years ago in Evidence, which simply observes the behavior of children watching television.
“I don’t think anyone has made more socially conscious films than Godfrey,” says Glass. “And he did it without saying a word. That made it much more powerful.” While their films all have something in common, Glass explains that this new production is unusual.
“Where Koyaanisqatsi is a film about life being out of balance, Visitors has dropped all pretense of content,” said Glass. “A lot of my music is also abstract. Unless I put content into music—like the opera Satyagraha, which is about social change—symphonies don’t really have content. This is the same with Visitors—it’s more about the perception of the viewer rather than a critique of society. People ask, ‘Well, how do you know what music goes with what images?’ Well, it’s very simple. I look at the images and I play the music!”
The Computer is The New Divine
Visitors director Godfrey Reggio on man vs. machine
The working title of Visitors— which screens this weekend at the Days and Nights Festival in Big Sur—was The Holy See, pointing to director Godfrey Reggio’s intention to inspire self-awareness in the audience, and to call attention to how technology affects us in the digital age. GT had a rare opportunity to speak with director Godfrey Reggio—best known for the melding of images and music in his revolutionary trilogy Koyaanisqatsi, Powaqqatsi and Naqoyqatsi—about Visitors, and the role that technology is now playing in our lives.
GT: Koyaanisqatsi, Powaqqatsi and Naqoyqatsi have had a big impact on audiences and filmmakers. Your newest film Visitors continues ex- ploring some of the same themes. What is your guiding philosophy in making them?
Godfrey Reggio: The focus of my films is technology. But technology with a big “T”. By“Technology” I don’t mean a machine, or a gadget, or this tool or that tool. From the point of view of my films, technology is the new environment of life. Anything that could have been said about the divine in the past is now said about technology. It has reached the point where the new divine—the computer—produces the world to its own image. In that sense, the computer is sacramental. But it is sacramental in a way that is unlike a symbol. If you are married and have a ring on, that is a symbol of your union with your spouse. However, if you have a sacrament, it is not just a symbol. A sacrament is a symbol that produces what it signifies; it is the very highest form of magic. The computer produces a new world, and it signifies a new world coming.
Diversity is the norm of old nature. Homogenization is the norm of new nature. What should be valued most today are people who live a handmade life, who create their own way of living. The unity of the planet now is held together through this monstrous homogenization called technology. Technology is no longer something that we use, it is something that we live. It is a way of life. It is the war beyond the battlefield. Life as a way of war. We’re living in a techno-fascistic society, and it’s very hard to see that ourselves.
The war you’re talking about can be viewed as something happening outside of ourselves. But we could also say that the war is a manifestation of something emanating from within ourselves. How do you view the connection?
Wilhelm Reich’s famous book The Mass Psychology of Fascism talks about the external and internal connection. Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, Churchill and Roosevelt; they are like the pimple on the back of the event. It’s the internalization of fascism within the individual that makes
for a fascist state. Authoritarianism doesn’t occur because just one person happens to be out of control. That person wouldn’t have a chance to be in authority if the people of the state didn’t acquiesce to that.
Almost everything said by political entities is about image. It’s about what’s going to go down and not about the reality of what is actually happening. It’s true for all governments, all over the world. It is true for the Obama administration. A politician’s fundamental role is to maintain power. The current wars are all about importing resources to keep the technological dream alive.
I wonder how technology will shape the lives of the next genera- tions. Technology is developing so quickly in realms like nanotechnology, biotechnology, and 3D printing.
You can print a gun now. It doesn’t take much imagination to see that we’re running up against a brick wall. Take a look at what’s happening with the oceans, the environment, with violence, hunger and disease. Any industry you want to look at is on steroids now. We can think that it’s all going to come together, and maybe it will. What we know is so small compared to what we don’t know. Everything is so very accelerated. We’re on this linear course of progress that will eat up the planet. And everybody on it. The civilizational twins are religion and war. Any concept of war we had in the past we can now get rid of with new technology. It changes the game.
In the mid-’70s, you worked on an ad campaign to bring attention to the ways that technology is being used to control behavior. An ironic and legitimate question could be asked: “Can a TV commercial be produced that encourages people to turn off their TVs?”
The way to reach people is through the medium they’re tuned to. If you can create something that’s in diametric opposition to commodity advertising by using the advertising medium itself, then you’d be like a firefighter using fire to fight fire. This is how I started off, actually. In 1974, I helped create a mixed-media campaign for the American Civil Liberties Union on the the invasion of privacy with technology. This is exactly what Wikileaks and Snowden have been talking about. All of that was in its nascent form, and was in place way back when. There were records being kept on everybody. In fact, the whole decision-making of our government and most institutions are predicated on analyzing raw data through computers. We made this ad campaign for the ACLU and placed it on television at prime time, and radio at drive time, and on billboards in high-traffic density areas, and on hot air balloons floating over Albuquerque and the Southwest. The hot air balloons had big eyes on them. That campaign was massively successful.
Your 1995 short film Evidence explored the effects of television on children. Tell me what you discovered.
For years, I’ve watched the effect that television has on people. I got so obsessed with it that I would watch people watching television. I noticed that breathing slowed down, fixation takes place and a kind of myopic stare is present. I realized long ago, and confirmed it by reading Jerry Mander’s Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, that in effect TVs are cathode-ray-tube guns aimed at us. We hear that it’s a “good program” because it has some educational benefit, or a great moral story. Or it’s a “bad program” because it has sex and violence. This misses the whole problem of technology, which is that it’s not the good or bad uses that one makes of the tool; it’s that the tool itself is its own direction. You don’t look at television, you live television. It is doing something to you, and what it’s doing is left unexamined because we keep looking at it. Actions unquestioned—routine— produces the content of our minds. In my film Evidence, the children were watching Dumbo. But it isn’t the story or the content; it’s the medium. Evidence was an understudy for this new film Visitors.
Most people seem to love their digital devices, and yet the same technology is used to fight wars and engage in warrantless, mass surveillance. Julian Assange has called the Internet a “tool of state surveillance.”
No question about it. I’m amazed what a revelation that is to everybody, knowing that when you use social media like Facebook all of that is trackable by the companies that advertise on there. Technology is power and control; technology is our destiny. And humans offer rebellion against destiny as the way of achieving freedom. Jacques Ellul, the French philosopher, said that our greatest act of freedom is the ability to know that which determines our behavior. Ivan Illich, another great philosopher, said that freedom is the ability to say “no” to technological necessity.
Visitors and the other films I’ve made are trying to seek the darkness from this blinding, oppressive light of technology. I believe in the positive value of negation, the positive value of saying “no.” There is a positive value of revolution, if it’s real. These actions are perceived by the established order as negative and it’s that very negativity that produces something positive. This perspective extends well to film; you can’t have a film print unless you have a film negative. It’s through rebellion against destiny—a negation of destiny—that something positive or hopeful happens.
Tell me about Visitors.
The subject of the film is the audience itself, watching the film. While the film shares the form of the other films I’ve done with Philip—i.e., image and music—that’s where the commonality stops. The structure of this film is based on the moving still. It’s going to be a real stretch for the audience, and could be a de-programming experience. The equivalent, maybe, would be trying to stop smoking cigarettes. It’s going to be demanding of the audience because what you see will be on the screen a long time.
There are two and a half characters in Visitors: gorilla, human and cyborg. They’re all caught in the act of ordinary daily living. They’re all acting in the norm of the life they’re in, and they’re full-framed face-to-face with the audience. The dialogue is with the audience, and it’s a dialogue of facial expression, body, gesture and eye behavior.
Reading about Visitors and watching the trailer, I didn’t have any indication that “cyborg” was one of the realms you were covering.
It’s the character in the room that’s not seen. It’s implied. It’s the screen. It’s about how we’ve become captivated as a planet with digital technology. We’re on speed in rush hour, out-running the future. That’s observable and filmable, because all of us are already in the state of being cyborgs; we are at one with the machine. Whatever we do with our hands patterns the channels of our brain. Our hands are constantly in motion with digital gadgets of all kinds. Information has become very disconnected from place, so that now there is no place and all place; all together and all at once. We live in a globalized, disembodied world.
You mentioned that Visitors might serve as a sort of de-programming. Would you say more about that?
The film has very long cuts, and it will be stretching it in terms of the expectation of the viewer. This is not a psychological film. It’s more of a metaphysical film. It’s like an art-topsy—an autopsy where you see with your own eyes what you are do- ing every day, but through the eyes of another. This film is extremely still. The point of view of the film is that the more still one becomes, the more heightened one’s senses become. So, to look at something for a long time increases one’s sensitivity to that image. The average length of a cut in this film is 70 seconds. The average length of a cut in a theatrical film now is four to five seconds. [Stanley] Kubrick was the master of long cuts in theatrical films at eleven to fourteen seconds.
The premise of the film is that we haven’t seen ourselves as human beings until we’ve been seen through the eyes of another animal. In that sense the gorilla Trishka is the star of this film. She is the animal and the adult in the room. We’ve switched the roles; humans are the real King Kong in this film. Visitors is based on subtlety and observation. It’s based on “less is more.”
While the film is highlighting the negative impact of digital technology on life, I imagine that you used some digital technology to produce Visitors?
Not only “some”; I used the highest capacity of digital technology. I used prototype Red Cameras before they were on the market. While I have a lot of personal concerns regarding technology, if I’m going to be in this medium, then I can’t have it immaculately presented. It’s not an immaculate conception. In other words, when in Rome, do as the Romans. If I wanted this film to be seen, I needed to use the latest digital technology. All analog cameras now are driven by chips, and all of the processing is done by computers. If you’re in this world and you’re in a productive mode, there is no way to produce without using technology—and in my case a very high base of technology.
Philip Glass’ music has always seemed a perfect fit for your films.
The music for my films is a co-equal partner with the image. It’s not there to support the narrative in terms of pinning the tail on the don- key. The music becomes the equivalent of the narration. I do this because music creates a direct transmission to the soul of the listener. It doesn’t proceed through metaphor, and therefore has the capacity to be different things to different people.
Visitors is black and white and infrared. Philip’s music provides the color for the film. It gives it a breadth and emotion with live, organic instruments. When music is fused with image, that creates the union I’m looking for in my films. The films I do with Philip give up specific meaning in order, hopefully, to create an experience of the subject. This music for Visitors is composed for a full orchestra, and goes back to Philip’s early roots in composing; this music is the sound he hears between the notes of the music that he writes for everything else.
You were a Roman-Catholic monk, and spent 14 years in fasting, silence and prayer. What was your experience during that time, and how does your filmmaking relate to that time?
The Christian Brothers were a tremendous influence on me. At the age of 14, I left home, and my family was not too pleased. But I feel fortunate that they gave me the freedom to pursue my own life. I got there and I was horrified. It was so difficult. I had entered an ascetic community. We engaged in mental prayer, reflection and manual labor; things that were in another universe. In effect I got to grow up in the Middle Ages rather than in 1950s America. I will forever feel fortunate. I learned the most practical thing I could do in life was to be idealistic. It prepared me to go into social activity and to be of service.
John Malkin is a Santa Cruz-based writer and musician. For more information about the film screenings and events, see: daysandnightsfestival.com.