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Godfrey Reggio’s Visitors Return Life to A Legend

I first met Godfrey Reggio when I was 10 years old. I was fascinated at the time with anything to do with the occult – witches, goblins, true-crime Satanist stories. My mother — infinitely fed up with my poor taste — sat me down to a film called Koyaanisqatsi. I squinted hard, laughed her off, and approached it like one would a long amusement park line – with unbridled hope that the two hours of skull-shattering boredom would be worth it. They were. My mother had turned me on to movies.

Cut to 20 years later. I manage a movie theater called The Screen, named after its single-film canvas, on the Santa Fe University of Art and Design campus. The primary selling point of The Screen and the reason I fell in love with it is its fetishistic obsession with immaculate picture and sound. I hear rumors that Godfrey Reggio, the man behind the famed film of my youth and its sequels – now known as the Qatsi Trilogy – lives in town. Even better – he’s working on a new film. It’s been 10 years since anyone heard from the guy. He’s a ghost. A legend. A campfire story.

Days later I receive a call from an office called the IRE (Institute for Regional Education). They have a new rough cut of a movie they want to screen. They’re big fans of the theater and need to use it so they can truly see what they’ve made. This is normal. Living in one of the top movie destinations in America, I often get requests like these from strangers. Based on the name, I assume that they have an educational short.

The day arrives. In walks a seven-foot-tall bigfoot of a man, with the deepest voice since James Earl Jones. He leans down to my average American 5’ 7’’ frame: “Hi. I’m Godfrey. You have a wonderful screening room.” His appearance and gait alone command respect. My palms flood with sweat.

“We’ve been working on this film for the last eight years. We finally have it down to two and a half hours,” he explains and hands off an unlabeled DVD-R disc. Like his previous work, it’s made up of moving pictures. No plot, no dialogue; just pictures. Literally moving art. The lights come up and Godfrey stands to hand off a check. “Thank you, Peter. You have a wonderful room.”

Three more rough-cut screenings and a year later the film has a title. Visitors is a lean 87 minutes, has a full soundtrack from Philip Glass, and Godfrey needs to lock picture for a premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. We screen it again, and it’s changed completely. Godfrey explains he’s made it 74 shots in total. That means multiple shots last longer than one minute. Yet it’s not a test of patience, and I’ve now seen it four times. I’ve even met regulars who view the entire Qatsi Trilogy annually. Like all upper-echelon art, it hurts so good.

The films sells at Toronto and we immediately pick it up for a run. (Visitors opened in Santa Fe on January 31st at The Screen and will run through February.)

Godfrey agrees to host an opening night QandA. Only now does the hammer drop. The real reason Godfrey loves The Screen is because we’re picture-Nazis. Everything you loathe about the Regal mall theaters fuels every projection move we make. Godfrey knows this, and it’s time to test his exhibition copy. Immediately he hears the subwoofer is lower than at our last screening. Maybe by “20, 30 percent?” he suggests. I had recently turned it down for a lengthy run on All is Lost (the waves crashing against Robert Redford’s boat made the art fall off our walls) a full . . . 30 percent. He goes on to notice that the picture size is off, simply by looking at the opening titles. It’s people like him who keep people like us on our toes.

Godfrey’s premiere made every major headline you could ask for and sold out — even though many patrons hadn’t seen him for 10 years. To many, Godfrey Reggio has become that mythical figure: visiting for a few moments, enough for a few pictures, and dropping 87 minutes of cinematic wonder in your lap that leaves enough questions and moral quandaries in your mind to last the next ten years — when you hope and pray you will be haunted by the bigfoot of legend again. To me, Godfrey is just the best kind of filmmaker: polite, calm, and demanding. The Screen has never looked better than when his work is haunting the room.

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