Trigger Warning: Photosensitive audience members beware as there are several moments of flashing/strobing, close-ups on bulb filament, bright white backgrounds, and other elements which may induce episodes or migraine.
Recently, on a walk with my family, my eldest spoke about how the noise of the cicadas troubled him. “Too loud,” he described it. Not so outlandish given his Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), yet it caused my wife, EoM Editor Crystal Davidson, and I to note how it was but one of a collective of sounds we grew up hearing in our respective childhood homes. Our spring and summer nights full of insect nightlife, singing their songs that would make up a significant portion of our childhood remembrance. It’s there, in the dark, that documentarian Michael Gitlin (Eastern District Terminal) focuses his attention in his latest feature, The Night Visitors, specifically on the moth and its thousands upon thousands of species. Screening during New York Film Festival 2023, Gitlin’s The Night Visitors isn’t a technical dive into the entomological, identifying genus and species or laying out the life cycle (and other species-specific details); rather, the film turns toward a meditation on the ways in which humanity’s insistence to commodify things continually screws up the ecosystem and everything within it all while turning the innocent into the evil.
Over the course of 72 minutes, Gitlin weaves together sights and sounds of nature, while simultaneously layering anecdotal and scientific atop one another. The focus is on the moths, but we need an entry point. So, to start, Gitlin opens with bulbs in posts lighting one-by-one, the light filling the space to reveal a parking lot with a scant number of individuals are seen moving through. Then, shot from a distance, we observe several people standing around what looks like a cylinder lit from within, the people swarming around it with cameras and other tools of study. With this at the frame’s center, surrounded by the darkness of night, Gitlin plays voices who say something that repeats once, its echo clearer than initially, and then another voice chimes in. Before we’ve even seen a single moth, Gitlin conveys the interest in these creatures by presenting humans as similarly flocking in the dark of night, hovering around a bright source of light, drawn to look, to observe, to marvel at what they see. Unexpectedly, Gitlin doesn’t introduce us to any of the people, nor does the documentarian seem to care to. The focus isn’t on the people, made clear when the first moth appears and we’re shown both its common and scientific names, serving not only as clear, intense focus, but also for identification purposes. Rather than talk over these moments, Gitlin allows the camera to linger, to hold still on a shot so that the audience is given space to not see but to examine and take note. We’re given space to visually explore the fine details in the frequently colorful designs of the moth’s coarse fur. We’re given opportunity to travel from antennae to the tip of a wing (when in frame) as the moth rests on an object, almost like still-life. This is roughly how the rest of the documentary functions with Gitlin shifting to a place or an object to discuss himself via a hush-toned voiceover and then presenting a new moth to observe.
Even though Night Visitors is less traditional in its exploration of the moth, it is no less interesting for it. For one, there’s the music that accompanies it throughout. According to the credits, the synth sounds were crafted by Gitlin, yet this Nine Inch Nails fan couldn’t help but conjure reflections of Ghosts I-IV or the recent NIN frontman Trent Reznor and composition partner Atticus Ross’s recent Soul (2020) score. This is to say that the scoring is a tad ethereal yet energetic, creating a rhythm for the still-life, the animations, the evidence, and other aspects Gitlin presents for the audience to engage with on screen. Even as the subjects of the documentary remain still or slow moving, the score grants Night Visitors a propulsion that keeps the audience thoughtful and connected. Then there’s the aforementioned hushed voice over, which makes sense within the context of one of the first on-screen pieces of text displayed — a neon cyan-lit projection of words detailing how Gitlin found himself awake and in the woods past 2 a.m., the text itself growing brighter and dimmer like a cathode tube processing thousands of volts of energy to create the text’s vibrancy. Within this context, it’s as though Gitlin is quietly sharing secrets with the audience, whether it be a story tangentially related to moths but directly to himself, showing some of the first footage of a moth escaping a cocoon captured on film as a means of transitioning to the moth’s relationship to manufactured light, or several other notable moments that signify the moth’s impact on humanity and its ecosystem. We become akin to the people shown at the start of the film, quietly sharing a moment in the dark with Gitlin as he guides us through a meditation of science, art, and consequence.
What does that mean, though? How can there be consequence when it comes to moths? They are but an annoyance in the spring and summer, flitting about our outside lights, wandering about our homes when they manage to get inside. Using historical data, Gitlin walks the audience through the choices made by several individuals whose choices are directly connected to the moth population as it exists today, some of which began as an invasive species. In the first instance, it begins as one man’s drive to rebuild the silk industry in the mid-1800s, but the failure to get the right eggs for cross-breeding resulted in both no silk and an en masse release of moths that spread from New England across North America. This choice lead to farmers using pesticide that have proven almost as ineffectual as the choice to bring over and release a specific fly believed to eat the first invasive species (it did not). In pursuit of commerce and wealth, North America’s ecosystem was forever changed through the propagation of one tiny insect. Included in this are newspaper clipping Gitlin kindly holds on-screen for an extended period so that we may read them, detailing not one, not two, but four moments in history when the arrival of moths into New York City (and its surrounding areas) resulted in the shutting down of businesses and running people off streets. As New York, at the time of this writing, is dealing with massive flooding due to storms, one can’t help but consider, through the evidence Gitlin provides, if nature would be better served by being respected as it is versus manipulated by the greed of humanity.
One does not expect to watch a documentary on moths and walk away slightly enamored. So used to the common moth, to the annoyance of their flitting and fluttering in the warmer seasons, am I that I surprised myself with the excitement from which I began to describe the different genuses Gitlin displays when discussing the film. Even though the documentary isn’t something that will necessarily teach you something about moths specifically beyond their sheer numbers and the striking and elaborate details of their patterns, The Night Visitors will grab hold of your curiosity nonetheless. The Night Visitors will ask you to consider why you’ve never considered these creatures at all, their significance, and the relationship that exists between them and humanity. We ask ourselves all kinds of questions in the dead of night when we think no one else is awake, so why not consider, even for a moment, that these small insects are far more complex than we ever gave them credit for? More than that, why did we ever think, given they’ve existed for millions of years, that we are somehow superior? These are but a few of the questions that arise through Gitlin’s unexpectedly philosophically challenging work.
Screening during New York Film Festival 2023.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.
This piece was written during the SAG-AFTRA strike. Without the labor of the actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn’t exist.