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Movie Review: Grief is the backdrop for the wonderful film, “The Visitor”

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

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Parental Grief in China. A call to action for its citizens?

After the devastating earthquake in China, the world was witness to horrifying scenes of parental loss. A May 28th Times article with a headline, PARENTS’ GRIEF TURNS TO RAGE AT CHINESE OFFICIALS, pointed out:

Bereaved parents whose children were crushed to death in their classrooms during the earthquake in Sichuan Province have turned mourning ceremonies into protests in recent days, forcing officials to address growing political repercussions over shoddy construction of public schools.

It seems parents who lost their children were doubly enraged at the Chinese government. Mourning the loss of their only children, these parents first blamed the government for limiting them to one child, and secondly, were enraged at the shoddy construction of their children’s schools, which were reduced to rubble amidst other buildings that remained standing.

Here’s an “if/only” thought: What if the United States had a little more patience and a lot more common sense? Instead of enacting elaborate democratization schemes that attempt the impossible task of imposing democracy at the muzzle of guns and tanks, what if we just “helped along” the righteous indignation of people who are victims of their own government in ways that matter to THEM? Abstract concepts and philosophies mean nothing to people when their babies are being killed. Human beings will eventually rise up naturally (perhaps with a little subtle, smart help) against whomever is killing them and their children. They will object to being killed whether the instrument of death is their own government treachery, or the United States government, however benign its motives, in its misguided wars.

The “resource curse” theory, according to Wikipedia, suggests that “states whose sole source of wealth derives from abundant natural resources, such as oil, often fail to democratize because the well-being of the elite depends more on the direct control of the resource than on the popular support.” This may be true. It is certainly true in the case of Saudi Arabia, one of the most repressive regimes in the world and a so-called ally of the United States. But the answer is still that you can’t impose democracy at the muzzle of a gun.

Thoughts Out There: Say What? Who’s the Elitist?

According to Wikipedia, George Orwell’s dystopian novel, Nineteen Eighty Four defined “doublethink” as …

The power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them . . . . To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just so long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies — all this is indispensably necessary. Even in using the word doublethink it is necessary to exercise doublethink. For by using the word one admits that one is tampering with reality; by a fresh act of doublethink one erases this knowledge; and so on indefinitely, with the lie always one leap ahead of the truth

Evidence that we are living inside a doublethought world is now everywhere, no more need even to hide it. During the last presidential election cycle we had a substantial portion of the population believing that candidate John Kerry, a genuine war hero, was actually the traitor in the race, while the deserter George Bush was the patriot. Now we seem to have a substantial portion of the population believing that candidate Barack Obama, the African American son of a single mother, is the elitist in the race, while John McCain, whose family’s storied history, according to Salon, stretches back to Carroll County, Miss., where McCain’s great-great grandfather William Alexander McCain owned a plantation, and owned 52 slaves, is actually the  …er, what? Man of the people?

How can this be?

Thoughts Out There

Have we been so dizzied by our all-spun-all-the-time culture that we cannot see the truth?

Has the white fog of desire created by a profit-obsessed consumerism blinded us?

Can we breathe and feel like human beings, or have we been shrink-wrapped and drained of blood like the chicken parts on our supermarket shelves?