Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Visitor (2006)

As a huge fan of Thomas McCarthy, for some time Ive looked forward to writing about his second film, The Visitor.

I absolutely love all of McCarthys films. As of this writing, he has directed The Station Agent, Win Win, and the subject of this post, The Visitor. He also wrote all of the above plus Up, Pixars masterpiece with its beautiful opening that leaves no dry eye in the house before the actual plot even begins!

You know what happens next. You know you cried.
McCarthy also has quite the acting career; viewers probably know him best from The Wire. McCarthy played Scott Templeton, a journalist whose unchecked ambition drives him to fabulism. See him here trotting out the ignoratio elenchi its in my notes defense…


Thomas McCarthy the Artist 


All of McCarthys screenplays have the same basic structure: a solitary soul finds his life interrupted by an extroverted yet endearing new presence. This intrusion forces him to question himself and change his ways; in so doing, he comes to regard this initially-unwelcome newcomer as a life-changing friend. Despite this ostensible sameness in his work, through pensive dialog and believable characterization, McCarthy deftly avoids the trap of gimmicky self-indulgence into which M. Night Shyamalan long ago fell headlong.

I find it very appropriate that McCarthys films have all received Independent Spirit Award attention. McCarthys direction indeed embodies the spirit of independent film: emphasis on character moments and internal struggle over big-budget spectacle and Hollywood stardom. His photography makes every place he shoots in from rural New Jersey to Manhattan look warm and inviting. His stories have a pensive quietude that I find refreshing and uplifting. He has an uncanny ability to inject warmth, humor, or gravitas into even mundane, quotidian scenes. His films scores put the emphasis on character and scenery; they do their function by staying out of the way.

I could talk for hours about all of McCarthys work, but The Visitor has the most to do with this blog. The film tackles illegal immigration, racial profiling, an intransigent justice system, prison privatization, the ability of music to bring people together, and of course, post-9/11 perceptions of Arabs, all in a beautiful, salutary way.


Illegal Immigration 


In his pre-9/11 days, Dennis Miller once said, [T]his countrys so intolerant right now, they might as well change the plaque at the base of the Statue of Liberty to read, Go the fuck back to Fuckatania!1 Even though Dennis Miller later publicly hurled intolerance of his own, the quote above still aptly describes this storys setting.

The Visitor centers on illegal immigration and the fears of both undocumented residents and the citizens alongside whom they live. Personally, I feel very strongly that we as a country mishandle the issue of illegal immigration entirely. We try to come up with the most creative, dehumanizing ways we can of discouraging or removing undocumented residents (such as turning them away from hospitals, proposing an electrified border fence, calling for a repeal of the Fourteenth Amendment, or functionally making it probable cause to have brown skin in Arizona), but at no point have I ever seen politicians or even most citizens talk about them as human beings.

Ive never even seen a politician ask, Why do people immigrate illegally? Can anyone honestly say that, if they lived in a destitute land with no hope for a bright future, they wouldnt come to America in the hopes of giving that future to themselves or their children? If we cant fix the root causes, and those who immigrate illegally feel like they have to come here, then what can we do to integrate them into our economy?

Draconian treatment of undocumented residents deals with a symptom, not a cause. Such ideas rely on the argument that deliberately overpunishing an existing crime will remove the reason or temptation to commit it. So far, that idea has yet to actually work. At this point, increasing punishments can do little more than it already has. For centuries, people have smuggled themselves into America and lived for years or decades in fear of the quotidian vicissitudes of American life, enduring humiliating privations and menial, physically-deleterious labor. Considering the far rights longstanding, virulent anti-immigration fervor, I refuse to believe that xenophobia, racism, nativism, and American credulity in the face of political scapegoating dont underpin these sentiments to at least some extent. This incarceration also feeds into the private prison lobby, a group of people I consider inimical to American citizens and ideals in every way. The Visitor puts to the audience a rhetorical question: would we still support these measures if we came to know the human beings beyond the infractions?

For other insights on the immigration debate, check out this excellent article by Native rights and immigration writer/orator Aura Bogado, a writer from The Nation. Just last weekend, Bogado delivered a keynote speech at this Energy Action Coalition conference, where she posited a link between climate change and northward immigration. Her words on the effects of immigration on the economy take on an interesting new meaning considering that just this week, The New York Times reported that budget cuts necessitated a mass release of undocumented residents.2

In any case, The Visitor handles this issue with the same degree of fairness and humanity as Dirty Pretty Things and the same frustration and indignation as Machete. Unlike either of those films, I find it apropos that The Visitor takes place in New York City.3 The silent-lipped cries of Ellis Islands mighty, torch-bearing woman of Emma Lazarus famous poem feel like satire at this point.

McCarthy pointedly pans to this private prison wall mural, flanked by forlorn visitors of undocumented inmates.


The Characters

In parallel to post-9/11 perceptions of Arabs and Muslims, the four principal characters of The Visitor all have more to them than what we see. In the course of the film, the protagonist Walter Vale and the other three principals—Tarek, Zainab, and Mouna—all make difficult revelations that change how we view them and make us see the human being under the surface, in all his/her flaws and foibles.

Any other film would probably depict this as a Snidely Whiplash-esque evil smile.
Lebanese-American actor Haaz Sleiman makes the film as Syrian deuteragonist Tarek Khalil. His affable, jocose ebullience and honest, if blithe, demeanor buoys the films first act. Although he serves the same basic role Bobby Cannavale expertly portrayed in The Station Agent and Win Win, I cant say enough about how refreshing it feels to see a kind, well-meaning Arab Muslim on the big screen (especially considering the rise of Islamophobia since even 2007, which this article expertly summarizes). His invocation of Arab Time certainly makes me feel better about my own inability to hold to a schedule!

Tarek becomes the victim of the aforementioned immigration system. He spends the last two acts of the film immured in an anonymous, featureless stone monolith of a private prison, living alongside 300 immigrants, all stuck without their freedoms, their families, most of what defines their identities, or even the slightest clue what awaits them. That this happens to such a nice man, through arguably no fault of his own, only heightens the tragedy.

With each of the films intermittent visits to the facility, we see this arbitrary, pernicious system and its nameless, insensate, indifferent employees grind down his bonhomie, optimism, and hope, as everyone who cares about him watches helplessly.

Tarek puts in a heroic effort resisting the encroaching, inexorable despair, to no avail.
In the films third act, Tarek delivers a monologue to remind us of the films point.

This is not fair. I am not a criminal. I have committed no crime. What do they think? Im a terrorist? There are no terrorists in here! The terrorists have money! They have support! This is just not fair. … I just want to live my life and play my music. Whats so wrong about that?

Similar phrases ring throughout the film. He did nothing wrong.” “It's not fair.

However on-the-nose the dialog sounds, the characters make a valid point with which I agree completely. An intransigent, rapacious, acquisitive, Kafkaesque system has steamrolled right over a life he spent years building for himself, even though he poses no threat to anyone. The detainment center itself, filled with maybe a few genuine criminals amongst an anonymous horde of erstwhile seekers of a better live, stands testament to tacit American consent to the erosion of freedom and civil rights in pursuit of even a transitory feeling of security. The real threats to national security stay in black sites and offshore detention facilities; Tareks facility functions as a mere holding pen for scapegoats.

Tareks incarceration has an interesting effect on the film itself; although he remains in the story, he becomes an unseen character for much of it. We've spent the first act getting to know him in the present, and the later parts of the film now get into his past as remembered by his loving girlfriend and mother. Hearing their recollections of him only makes Tarek seem all the more likeable and, more importantly, human.

Notice how the door frames separate the entire worlds of Walter and Zainab.
American-born, Zimbabwean-raised, NYU-trained actress Danai Guirra plays Tareks Senegalese girlfriend Zainab. Zainab initially dislikes and distrusts Walter. Relative to Tarek, she seems reticent, temperamental, and alarmist. However, these traits have their roots in the very things Tarek lacks. She has greater piety, modesty, and pragmatism than her boyfriend, and her seriousness and remonstrances have proven essential to their survival in a decidedly hostile milieu. While she might seem like a stick in the mud at first glance, as the story progresses, it becomes clear that she genuinely loves Tarek and that her reluctance to trust people comes from bitter experience and her cognizance of the risk inherent in living in America undocumented.

Despite her clear reservations, Zainab ultimately opens up to Walter, as Tareks arrest forces her to make painful confessions and allows her to come to appreciate Walters genuine desire to help her and Tarek.

Hiam Abbass woebegone, careworn face and intelligent eyes say so much more than her words.
Palestinian actress Hiam Abbass (who appeared in Munich and recently directed her first feature) plays Tareks mother Mouna Khalil from Michigan (possibly Dearborn, a community with a 40% Arab-American population, the largest proportion in the country).

In Mouna, we see another positive Arab character, a mother who loves and worries about her son and has to cope with seeing one of her fears realized. As a Syrian immigrant—whose husband spent several years in jail for a newspaper piece he wrote—Mouna has lived too long and seen too much to match her sons passion and optimism. Abbass, who grew up in a Muslim family in Israel, perfectly conveys Mouna’s maternal anxieties, pertinacity, and guilt, especially as we learn later in the film about Mounas own cross to bear.

Mouna ultimately serves two purposes to the story. First, her memories of Syria allow her to draw parallels between her husbands imprisonment and her sons plight. Second, she identifies and sympathizes with Walters need to find meaning in life after losing a spouse.

Walter Vale looks like he attends insurance seminars for fun or writes literary analyses of phone books. But like every other character in this film, more exists than what we see on the surface.
Most importantly, Richard Jenkins plays the protagonist, Walter Vale, a man who initially appears as if someone sucked all emotion out of him. Through his unlikely friendship with Tarek, Walter gains a joie de vivre that he hadnt allowed himself to feel in years. Despite—or perhaps because of—his nondescript appearance, Jenkins nonverbal acting and dramatic timing make Walters transformation absolutely believable.


Themes & Motifs 


The opening shot (obviously).
McCarthy handles the narrative centerpiece—Walters transformation—beautifully. The dichotomy between opening and closing shots drives this home. The film opens with Walter, solitary and cloistered in a patrician estate, beset by impostor syndrome and the loneliness of an empty-nest widower. Walter has punished himself for his wifes passing by allowing his life to descend into a cold perdition of ennui. He waits halfheartedly for his piano lesson, an instrument for which he feels no genuine interest of his own.

In fact, in the first act, we come to see Walter as coasting through life—just killing time, as Peter Cushing famously said. His body language for much of it seems unemotional and semi-apathetic.

The closing shot (also obviously).
Compare that to this closing shot. Walter puts his heart into his hands as he pounds away at the djembe, surrounded by faces, fully cognizant of the strangeness of his appearance, and yet driven by his love for what he does. He wears almost exactly the same attire, but here we see a changed man, reinvigorated and ready to take life on once more.

Walter tries and fails to care about his piano lesson.
Music itself serves as the films dominant theme. The piano, to Walter, represents a musty, stuffy instrument he practices only reluctantly, out of a half-self-deluded sense of obeisance to his late wife. He expresses a particular aversion to rote learning of the instruments rudiments, a necessary evil of learning the instrument.4
McCarthy swears up and down he didn't insert flag imagery to make any kind of political statement… although it really doesn't matter now.

Flag imagery recurs in the film as well (such as in the mural image further up). McCarthy uses images of the American flag to remind us of what we tacitly accept by tolerating such dehumanizing treatment of any residents, with or without papers.

Walter would make an awful home invader.
From a cinematographic perspective, McCarthy shows the same expert touch as he did in The Station Agent. I particularly liked his use of silhouette in this first meeting between Walter and Tarek. The silhouette reminds us to see them as miles apart in mindset, each indignant over a misunderstanding that occurred through no fault of either of them.

Walter looking distinctly alone even on a crowded NYC street. (Incidentally, the back of Thomas McCarthys head cameos in this shot as the guy wearing the hat!)
The solitude that typifies Walters existence in the first act suffuses his presence even in scenes where people surround him. His loneliness in every shot abates only as he gets to know Tarek and learns to see people at more than face value.

Walter starts to look less alone as he eats with his new friends.
The first fissure in the wall that separates Walter from the rest of the world shows itself slightly in this dinner scene… and even then only when Tarek joins the others at the table. In his excellent book How to Read Literature Like a Professor, author Thomas C. Foster posits that eating often represents communion. We see that here as these three characters eat together… and Tarek imbibes alongside Walter (in defiance of Quran 5:90, as Zainab silently admonishes). The act of eating and drinking all but makes the three of them official friends.

As an introvert, I can testify that youll know if an introvert likes you if s/he feels comfortable eating around you.
We see this symbolism again in this scene where Walter eats whilst listening to the drum circle. That he feels comfortable surrounding himself with strangers listening to street music while he eats shows his growing affinity for Tareks world. In McCarthys subdued way, he introduces the seeds of Walters transformation with nuance and subtlety.

Food and drink show up again as a motif several other times. At separate points in the film, Mouna drinks tea with Zainab and eats with Walter, showing her growing relationship with both. Notably, Zainab and Walter never eat together without Tarek around; their mutual desire to help Tarek forms the entirety of their relationship.

Walters first real smile of the movie as Tarek teaches him to play the djembe.
I love the scene that follows shortly after where Tarek and Walter achieve communion through music. Here marks the beginning of a relationship borne of mutual respect and a desire to learn from one another. Ive seen few—if any—films that depict an Arab character in such a positive, nuanced fashion.

Tarek still tests Walter on his rhythm. No adversity can purge Tarek's passion for music.
Even during his imprisonment, Tarek makes sure Walter keeps practicing on that drum. Notice the similarity between this shot and the previous one. Even in an entirely different place, Tarek still cares about imparting on Walter the power of music.

Walter's deceased wife and a collection of her piano recordings.

The exotic, visceral djembe comes to symbolizes Walters life in the now, as opposed to the old, angular, dusty grand piano representing his past, to which he mentally chained himself in remembrance of his wife. The djembe clearly brings out Walters first taste of genuine happiness in years. We even see this in Walters discovery of the music of Tareks idol, Afrobeat legend Fela Kuti, the sound of which infuses Walters music with the vigor that had always eluded him on the piano.

Richard Jenkins, for his part, believes that Walter takes to the djembe because as someone who lives and thinks very linearly, the djembe represents a sort of improvisatory deviation. The djembe, then, represents Walters evolving worldview as he gets to know Tarek and learns to see the world as he hadnt before.

The narrowed focus helps us feel the confinement of Walters Imprisonment by Conference.
McCarthy also makes frequent use of doors, windows, and other rectangular devices to frame his characters so as to communicate their isolation. Enclosed in this doorway, we see Walter on autopilot—imprisoned, if temporarily, in the humdrum world of workshops and lectures while a vibrant city awaits him outside.5

Richard Jenkins accurately conveys how much a djembe's players hands must hurt after a while!
On the other end of the spectrum, we have the drum circle in Central Park, in which Tarek talks Walter into joining him in participating. This marks a watershed in Walters development. According to McCarthy, the drum circle represents the community aspect of music, finally tying Walter to the rest of the world. Just look at how comfortable he looks in the crowd, so unlike every scene up to this point.6 Tarek, by bringing Walter into the drum circle, has brought Walter into an entire new community and possibly an entire new worldview.

I love this shot and its composition. The four layers of the background make for a wonderful effect.

In a similar show of Walters wall of isolation breaking down, we have this shot of the two main characters walking together alongside Sheep Meadow. McCarthy used shots like this in The Station Agent as well—wide angle shots of friends walking together in a gorgeous, sprawling landscape. In this way, he conveys the growing affinity between the characters while at the same time showing off his eye for semi-urban photography.

Throughout the film, Jan Kaczmarek's lambent, airy score subtly complements the diegetic Afrobeat music. Although the two sources of music (alongside the classical piano pieces played diegetically, posthumously off Katharine's CD), the former serves the movie by slowing our pulse down and exhorting us to appreciate the characterization and cinematography, while the latter engages us in the plot and helps us gain an understanding of Tarek's world and personality.

Overall, I strongly recommend this film and all of McCarthy's other works. I actually loved The Station Agent and Win Win even more than I loved this picture (and considering the length of this post, I think that says a lot)! The Station Agent makes the perfect film for unwinding after a long day. Win Win also comments on our flawed legal system and the chasm between moral right and right as defined therein. Above all, McCarthy's films teach us to appreciate human beings for what lies beneath the surface and to appreciate the difference new friends can make. I've seen few films with as positive a depiction of Arabs as The Visitor; I wish there existed a hundred films like it!

1 Miller, Dennis. Twelve Million Angry Men. The Rant Zone. NY: Harper Collins, 2001. 89. Print.
2 Pay special attention to Robert W. Goodlatte's politically loaded phrasing here. He persistently refers to undocumented residents as "criminals," when in fact illegal immigration falls under the banner of a civil violation. Tarek in this film actually gets it right when he says he hasn't committed any criminal offense. (Also notice in Goodlatte's devious words the appeal to fear and the unsupported, implied association of undocumented immigrants with violent offenders.)
3 Premium Rush deals with illegal immigration in New York City as well, but more as a brief divagation than in The Visitors capacity as the backbone of the film.
4 As a pianist myself, I understand his frustration in mastering the fundamentals and proper form, but I also realize the piano has capabilities far beyond what the film symbolizes. I hope this goes without saying, but no symbol has a universal meaning across all films or necessarily even more than one film.
5 Again, from firsthand experience, I can attest that professional conferences have more to them than what we see in this film. See Cedar Rapids for a very funny and largely affectionate treatment thereof… even if it exaggerates in exactly the opposite direction.
6 Both principals studied under Mohammad Naseehu Ali, a Ghanaian-Brooklynite author and musician. Ironically, Richard Jenkins had real-life past experience as a drummer, so he actually proved more adroit on the djembe than Haaz Sleiman! (Haaz, for his part, did practice assiduously.)

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