Before I turn on the tube for the Sunday talk shows and find myself forced to worship at the “mantra of McCain’s triumph,” a mantra that no doubt will be repeated over and over by the so-called Liberal Media about the Obama/McCain event last night, here’s a thought. Senator Obama, most progressives, I think, appreciate your nuanced stances in a nuanced world, your principled campaign and even temperament, your intellectuality and by bi-partisan instincts, but THIS IS AMERICA. Americans don’t think that deeply, and the press is usually part echo chamber and part corporate stooge. You cannot respond to McCain and the Republican attack machine by just responding. This allows McCain to identify the narrative, and define you. You must not only respond to his attacks, you must attack HIM. You must create HIS narrative and define HIM. Here are some possibilities: war monger, hot tempered, never met a war he didn’t like, Bush three. Choose one or find your own. And by the way, why is it that the new anti-Obama screed by our favorite character from Swift Boat fame is being plugged over and over, but other books, like “The Real McCain” are ignored. Tell me that? Is it because the media is plugging the anti-Obama screed in favor of the anti-McCain screed? Or perhaps it’s a purely market driven phenomenon because those on the right are more susceptible to lying screeds than are those on the left?
Grief is both the thematic underpinning and the overarching aura in an absorbing, powerful film called “The Visitor.” While this low-key, underplayed film is humanistic and realistic in the extreme, memories of the dead loom over the characters like silent, watchful ghosts. The Visitor was written and directed by Tom McCarthy, who several years back gave us another extraordinary film, “The Station Agent.” Like that earlier film, The Visitor explores issues of identity and place, belonging and connection, but this film also looks at immigration and other post-9/11 issues, and indicts the US government for its arbitrary, callous policies. It is a mark of McCarthy’s mature sensibility that the film makes this indictment quietly and subtly, by engaging us with a charismatic and likable young man living an attractive, authentic life, and then arbitrarily taking that life away from him. This stands in contrast to more traditional “Hollywood” fare, a movie like “Rendition”, which makes its indictment with a bludgeon. And the immigration issues, while crucial to the plot and deeply disturbing, are clearly secondary to the psychological and interpersonal matters this gifted director wants to explore. His vision is psychologically sound, particularly evident in the way he deals with grief.
“The Visitor” revolves around a depressed, middle aged economics professor named Walter Vale, played by the subtle actor who so memorably played the ghostly Fisher patriarch in my favorite television series of all time, “Six Feet Under.” With his hunched shoulders, immobile expression, furrowed brow and everyman face, Richard Jenkins literally inhabits this character. It’s a restrained performance, yet highly effective. While neither the circumstances of Vale’s wife’s death nor when she died are ever specified, it is clear that Vale continues to carry the weight of his grief, and that grief has transformed him into a silent, somber, disaffected man, lonely and isolated, floating through life, or rather going through the motions of his life, teaching his class, attending faculty meetings, pretending to work on a fourth book, and returning every night to his neatly kept suburban home.
It’s not that he isn’t trying to find some avenue back into the world, and some enjoyment or at least engagement in life. He’s been taking piano lessons, but while it is clear here that both he and his wife loved music, she was the pianist, and as the movie opens we find him dismissing his fourth piano teacher, played to spinsterish perfection by veteran actress Marian Seldes. I can’t help mentioning here that Seldes eerily reminded me in this role of my own elderly spinsterish piano teacher of long ago. Her name was Alma Drum, and she used to place a pencil under my hands just the way this one does with Vale. Miss Drum was as petite as she was stern and humorless, with her helmet of gray hair. Miss Drum would by now be about a hundred and thirty years old. (Hmmm, maybe I should meditate on her for a while, and do a post on her.)
We get some sense that Vale must have been something in his heyday, and we find some hope that he can actually make a spiritual comeback when circumstance forces him goes to present a paper at New York University, and he arrives at a Village apartment he and his late wife owned, but he hasn’t been to in years. There he finds a pair of young, undocumented squatters in residence, Tarek, a Syrian musician played with winning charm and charisma by Haaz Slieiman, and his girlfriend Zainab, who is originally from Senegal and makes jewelry which she sells from a table on the street, the character played with with wary fierceness by exotic beauty Danai Guiria. These two freak out when he arrives; they think they were living in the apartment legally, and they offer to leave immediately. Walter agrees, but then realizes the couple has nowhere else to go, and changes his mind, for reasons even he doesn’t quite grasp. They stay, and Walter befriends them, first Tarek, who embodies youth in all its impetuous enthusiasm, and eventually Zainab, who is aloof and wary at first, but who gradually comes around. Now we begin to see some sparks of life in this graying, somber character, as Tarek introduces him to the lively New York City jazz scene, the filmaker here celebrating New York City in all its diversity. Finally, Walter Vale begins to take the first steps out of his isolation, most particularly in a scene of extraordinary power in which the reluctant Vail joins in an African drumming circle in Washington Square Park, a balding white man in a suit amidst the primarily black, hip drummers, dancers, and percussionists.
But then Tarek is arrested for no wrongdoing while with Walter in the subway, imprisoned in the kind of unnamed, unidentified detention center we’ve been hearing a lot about lately, this one somewhere in Queens. The arrest and the imprisonment are both arbitrary and capricious, a disturbing reminder that human rights are being violated every day in this country. Continue reading
On Sunday evening, like millions of others, I squirmed and suffered through “Recount,” HBO’s dramatization of the battle for the 2000 election, Bush v. Gore. I suffered not because the movie was dull or one-sided, and I definitely recognize that “Recount” was one-sided, though not egregiously or inaccurately or offensively so. (I’m sure my friends on the right were GREATLY offended.) Though I certainly don’t agree that there is an overall or general “liberal bias” in the media (for a great book on this subject check out Eric Alterman’s “What Liberal Media: The Truth about Bias and the News), I do agree with the great film blogger Chuck Tryon who pointed out in his post on the film on Monday that:
It’s difficult to watch the film without being acutely aware , to borrow from Leonard Cohen, that the the good guys lost.
Indeed, I found the film quite lively and even suspenseful, given the predetermined outcome. As a suspense writer, I certainly know that narrative drive and suspense can be produced with out resorting to obvious questions of “who done it, or “who’s going to get it.” (I wish ALL suspense writers knew this, but we’ll leave that aside for the moment.)
In any case, “Recount” was worth watching if only to see the performance of the amazing Laura Dern as Katherine Harris, she of the pursed mouth and “awesome cougar tits” (Check out this Wonkette link to vote on who has better tits, Laura Dern or Katherine Harris). Harris seemed plenty nutty back in the Bush v. Gore day, circa 2000, but went on in history to prove herself one of the great nuts of all time when she ran unsuccessfully for the US Senate on the “win back America for God” ticket.
Tryon goes on to say:
But while the film acknowledges many of the troubling problems that cast doubt on the legitimacy of Florida’s vote–the illegitimate purging of thousands of names from voter rolls, the divergent standards used to identify the “intent” of voters, the problem of political appointees overseeing election results, “Recount” is forced to stop short of asking some of the more troubling questions about how elections are conducted and how they are covered.
Indeed, this point gets at why I was squirming. I squirmed through “Recount” simply because as this interminable primary season grinds to an end (some kind of end, PLEASE!) I couldn’t help but wonder what we have done in the interim to address these myriad election irregularities.
One of my all time favorite literary moments is in Anna Quindlan’s novel, “One True Thing,” when the protagonist, Ellen Gulden, asks her dying mother why she stayed with her philandering father all these years, and her mother says (paraphrasing here) that she sometimes plans to leave him but every morning she gets up and puts the coffee on and begins her day. In other words: INERTIA.
No, I am not making some subtle comment on Hillary Clinton’s reasons for staying (with her philandering husband, I’m not talking here about staying the race), although inertia probably applies, but it is and has always been my contention that about 95% of life is conducted according to the dictates of inertia.
You could probably fill Yankee Stadium with all the reports that have been written just in the last few years by well meaning committees on various pressing subjects. Inertia rules the day. Is there any reason to suspect that anything at all has been done to address the election irregularities revealed by Bush v. Gore, problems like unequal protection, purged voter rolls, wildly uneven standards, elections overseen by political appointees, and so much else?
Just thinking about inertia in the face of all that as we move into general election season is enough to make me squirm.
I also found myself squirming to have to watch Republicans in action vs. Dems in action. How organized and single minded Repubs are. How able to stick to their talking points. Oh, that Baker–so poised, so sure. A brilliant performance by Tom Wilkenson.
I’m sure other smarter folk than I have pointed this out, but Democrats seem constantly undone by their own philosophy of liberalism. You can see this play out in the Democratic primary/caucus mess that has led to the Clinton/Obama situation in which we find ourselves now, the arcane and uneven rules by which in some states there is a winner-take-all and in other states proportional allocation. Democrats are so busy worrying about being fair that they often cut off their noses to spite their faces. We’re so busy allowing a broad selection of all points of view as all good liberals should (see the discussion of the word “liberal” below) that the Republicans with their authoritarian nature and single minded devotion to message run over Democrats time and time again. I’m not sure what the answer is, because I would not have us become what we rail against, but still…
And speaking of Orwellian doublethink, according to my trusty Shorter Oxford, which is hardly short, the word “liberal” means:
directed to a general broadening of the mind free in giving; generous; open handed; unprejudiced, open-minded esp. free from bigotry or unreasonable rprejedice in favor of traditional opinions or established institutions, open to the reception of new ideas; favorable to or respectful of individual rights and freedoms; in politics favoring free trade and gradual political and social reform that tends towrd individual freedom or democracy.
I don’t think most Americans would claim to be proud of being narrow-minded, and so the reason for a general acceptance of the world “liberal” as a derogatory epithet has to lie elsewhere. Here too I think inertia plays a role. Most people are too busy or simply don’t care. It is a psychological truth that when one side yells louder and more often, absent any coherent and equal countervailing message, the louder, more frequent message is most often absorbed.
Dems, are you listening?
I just love Gail Collins. I wish I could have coffee with her every morning. In fact, I do. A few times a week. She’s always good for a laugh or six. Today’s Collins column in the Times was a ten laugh howler. I especially loved the paragraph where she said this:
“You may have heard, by the way, that residents of Saint Mary’s Convent in South Bend, all in their 80s and 90s, showed up to vote Tuesday and were turned away because of Indiana’s strict new voter ID laws. The laws are supposed to keep people from voting under assumed names, and while nobody seems able to demonstrate that ever really happens, they are demonstrably good at protecting the public from a 98-year-old ballot-wielding nun.
But we digress.”
Ah, but digression seems to be lifeblood of this brave new blog world I’ve entered. Linking is the ultimate digression on our digressions. Or, perhaps more accurately, links invite readers to constantly digress.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
There is, however, a lot wrong with certain wiry spinners trying to distract us from what should matter by CREATING false issues like voter IDs and flag pins on lapels, and getting their panties in an uproar over them. Patriotism matters but it has nothing to do with flag pins. I’ll take your Voter ID and raise you a Poll Tax.