Credit: Michael Gitlin/IFFR
by Luke Gorham Featured Film

The Night Visitors — Michael Gitlin [IFFR ’24 Review]

February 8, 2024

“Not a day elapsed which did not bring us news of the decease of some acquaintance. Then, as the fatality increased, we learned to expect daily the loss of some friend. At length we trembled at the approach of every messenger. The very air from the South seemed to us redolent with death. That palsying thought, indeed, took entire possession of my soul. I could neither speak, think, nor dream of any thing else.” This passage from the first paragraph of Edgar Allan’s Poe’s short story “The Sphinx,” drenched in that tale’s Cholera context, feels freshly poignant in a post(?)-Covid present. It’s also, of course, reflective of the author’s career-long preoccupation with death — which Freud would dismiss as mere trauma manifest; how exactly does that reason out in the face of pandemia? — and it later takes form in the story as a giant death’s-head hawkmoth, “far bigger than any ship of the line in existence,” which the narrator regards as a potential omen of his imminent demise.

The description of the moth — garish and just a bit descriptively incoherent in its arch gothicism, in typical Poean fashion — features prominently in director Michael Gitlin’s latest, The Night Visitors. “A movie about moths,” as the film’s Letterboxd description aptly begins, Gitlin’s film doesn’t concern itself with any fear of death, but does recall Freud in its hat tip toward the function of semantic processing, and particularly the way in which our collective regard for moths lacks much of an allegorical or scientific association in the cultural consciousness. Thankfully, Gitlin doesn’t take that as a challenge to make any grand metaphorical statement, but rather embraces the opportunity to engage with the creatures as underappreciated aesthetic objects, and ones that do hold considerable mystery at that (the director even takes a humorous shot at Poe’s “overwrought symbolism”). 

It would be plenty enough in this craterous age of the documentary for Gitlin to simply engage with moths, in all their biodiversity and alien beauty, on aesthetic terms, but he moves beyond the potential passivity of observation to survey moths as poetic bodies, possessors of bounteous meaning and almost uniquely absent much ascribed symbolic representation. He highlights a number of subspecies, often set alternately against black and white backgrounds, considering not their metaphorical heft or indulging any opportunity for anthropomorphic thematizing, but instead wondering in their practical function, the secrets of their behavior, their stunning biological adaptations. That this wonder is mostly achieved in silence, or else in fittingly ethereal accompanying on-screen text, speaks to Gitlin’s trust in viewers to come to the same meditative, near spiritual, conclusions that motivate his project. Sometimes Gitlin’s moths spin as if the work of 3D modeling; sometimes fingers creep into frame, manually expanding wings so as to highlight incredible markings in super hi-def — the awe is always palpable.

A warping, synth-driven soundscape — sometimes skewing neo-industrial, other times lending the texture of insectile clicking — envelops the director’s images, supporting the essential esoterica of the film’s subject of choice. And Gitlin’s willingness to abide concision to the point of dreaminess displays a savvy handle of the material, and makes for a pleasantly mystifying immersion; this is far from a comprehensive microhistory, and so avoids all of the patness that comes with such narrative nonfiction arcs, preferring to function as a toe-dip into a particular otherworldliness. To this end, Gitlin at one point bemoans the insistence of zoocentric documentary filmmaking’s go-to move of using closeup to suggest creature interiority, a cheap trick that speaks to our discomfort in engaging with the world around us in anything but human terms and which subsequently offers more easily digestible art. The Night Visitors commits no such sins, understanding the dulling effect our instant access to information has on existence and the way that didactic art flattens like a bug all instinct for curiosity. Gitlin instead directs viewers’ attention to the mysterious recesses of our world, and so ourselves. Hopefully, like moths to a flame.

Published as part of IFFR 2024 — Dispatch 3.