“Which age is this: the sunset or the dawn?”
A bardic fairy tale about the end of the world and the beginning of a new one.
With Once Within A Time, Godfrey Reggio returns after ten years with a new experimental film unlike any other, which fits in perfectly with the rest of his already daring career.
It will have been 10 years between Godfrey Reggio’s last two films. 10 years ago, I saw Visitors, one of the most beautiful films I’ve ever seen. He’s back with the same co-pilots as on his previous work: Jon Kane on production and editing, and Philip on musical composition.
The 83-year-old director offers us a dystopian tale, tinged with apocalyptic comedy, ravishing cinematography, unforgettable panoramas and the innocence and hopes of a new generation.
Do I really need to mention that the music is epic, touching, vibrant and simply magnificent? After all, this is Philip Glass. But this time, rather than offering an ultra-photographic black-and-white image with long shots containing little movement, he has opted for a sepia-like image, with lots of movement and a frenetic rhythm. The result is simply as incredible as the technique used.
To bring his vision to life, Reggio needed the world’s biggest stage. An epic location, for an epic movie. So he built a virtual stage that became the world’s largest: one hundred feet high, one hundred feet deep and one hundred feet wide. Virtual? Yes, because in reality, this epic film was shot on a ten-by-four-meter stage that someone had created for rear-screen projection.
All the film, all the atmospheres and all the sets are miniatures, then composed of live action shot in front of a green screen. Once the scenes were on the editing table, each shot was digitally redrawn by hand. The result is rather disorientating and, I’d say, it takes 5 or 6 minutes before you swallow it all and begin to appreciate the work for what it is.
But this creative beauty leads to an apocalyptic world in which we can see a planet in despair. Godfrey Reggio says he’s not worried about the future. He doesn’t believe in future catastrophe. When asked if he was worried about the future, he simply replied:
“I’m not worried about it—the catastrophe already happened. This film is for those that are willing to be hopeful, so they can be bold enough to create their own world. A resolute beginning, I call it. And nothing works better than examples. There are 412 shots in the film, and each shot is like an affliction. It should lance and purify; the boil should release the pain. It’s not just: Oh, that’s pretty. Each sound has 33 degrees of layers. You can’t possibly look at it, but it sees you, if you watch it with a reciprocal gaze. Many things are happening at once, each shot hand-painted digitally.”
No, we can’t say it’s all happy. But the director doesn’t just give morals. He uses well-known myths and characters to illustrate his subject. Not to mention the cinematic and artistic references. The music is, at times, a fine example, recalling that of 2001: A space odyssey or The Shining. Nor can we miss the famous rocket that crashes into the face of the moon in A Trip to the Moon, or the shot that reconstructs Botticelli’s Birth of Venus. From a more mythological point of view, there’s the Trojan horse that makes an appearance and, even more important in this tale of the destruction of the world, the presence of Adam and Eve.
The latter serve, among other things, to illustrate the prison that technology is for humans. There’s a character who acts as a sort of guide, leading our two young characters through this tale. You could say he represents capitalism, or overconsumption, the lure of ease. You can see a lot of things. What it shows is that it pushes the 2 characters to pursue their path, with a kind of box on their heads, a prison. All the gadgets, buying all the myths that this guide gives as consumption creates this prison around the characters’ heads. The idea is effectively presented and hits the nail on the head.
There’s so much more to say about this 52-minute film.
Reggio likes to shoot without dialogue. Here’s why:
“When you name something, you limit it. So my films without words are based in a love of the word, but our language perhaps no longer describes the world in which we live. We live in a world of instantaneous. We live in a world where one thing affects the other. It is a global universe. So if you want to reform the language, rename the world.”
With this movie, for which the music was composed at the same time as the images, the director succeeds in offering a film that can be “read” as much by a 7-year-old child as by an old man. Not only because there is no dialogue, but above all because this is a film of sensations, emotions and perceptions. To create this effect, Reggio and Glass worked together to create a kind of score that aimed to reach the reptilian brain, not our logic.
“I write poems. I suggest instruments. And he writes the score. If we have a sound, it becomes an effect. And then I take over the score with Jon Kane and my crew because we can put in additional sounds. We can speak in tongues. We can have liftoffs, we can have whispers in the dark. And that feeds this reptilian brain, not of rationality, but of emotion.”
For those who will see this feature film, you’ll be able to see Mike Tyson. Yes, yes, the former boxer. He plays a rather interesting character: the mentor. He travels all over the world, a world that is coming to an end, to encourage people to follow their own path and not the one dictated by our sick society.
Discover this tale, which is not a fairy tale with a happy ending and moral objectives. Rather, it’s a bardic tale. It’s not about the yellow brick road of gadgetry. It’s not a myth being turned upside down. It’s not Eve eating the apple. We are the apple. We are technology. The children of today are not the children of the future, they are the future. And that’s the ultimate goal of Once Within a Time.
© 2023 Le petit septième