Have this article read to you, listen to it like a podcast
For video artist Michael Gitlin, the old Hollywood adage that warns “Never work with kids or animals” doesn’t seem to apply to moths.
Making its world premiere at the CURRENTS section of the New York Film Festival this year, Gitlin’s fuzzy new treatise on the modern life of moths, The Night Visitors, is at once exploratory and restrained. Durational and succinct at almost 75 minutes in length, with credits. Part diary, part extra-terrestrial travelog, the film plays out like a mixed media collage about an ancient alien species that’s made first contact – more Arrival than Close Encounters.
In sculptural long takes and extreme close-ups, Gitlin catalogs dozens of vibrantly colored moth species found throughout our planet. The alien patterns and textures of a given moth’s “fur” (actually, a series of scales!!!) is spellbinding to observe in this proximity. So entrancing you want to reach out and touch the screen. So entrancing that you become the moth, trying to touch light and glimpse God.
Gitlin incubates these images in evolving phases that are as mesmerizing as the content within it. Tableaux sometimes assembling, then disassembling, themselves before your eyes in a Godardian bath of formal invention and editing. In these moments, The Night Visitors shares as much in common with Harmony Korine’s Spotlight feature of the festival, AGGRO DR1FT, or Eduardo Williams’ Currents feature, The Human Surge 3, as with Richard Attenborough. Films that, in an emerging theme of the festival, owe as much to the grammar of internet videos as traditional arthouse (or even documentary) cinema.
Even despite this manipulation of the footage, the film still comports itself into very traditional documentary modes one might expect from non-fiction: interviews with experts, cold, hard facts and data delivered in voiceover, etc. But a textbook this film is not. It’s an ode and a lament; a poem and requiem for all species – not just moths. Undergirding all of Gitlin’s dreamy imagery is the incipient ecological destruction related to our changing climate. Moths, as he puts it, are simply the new canaries. These precious creatures that are finite, whose erasure is our own. They need our protection.
Beyond that, Gitlin hasn’t made a film with lots of answers to the problem of climate change. His interest lays less in combating an issue than it is in bolstering support. Expanding consciousness. Raising awareness, on behalf of the little moth. Gitlin’s rabbit-holing structure through history traces the lineage of a species that, like us, is also inexplicably drawn to the allure of flickering lights. Perhaps if we view the moth from this context, we might find we have more in common with it than would first appear. And we might also find that we have more in common with each other as well.