17 January 2009

The Visitor

Immigration is an issue that is extremely close to my heart and very important to me - if it were up to me, the borders would be open and anyone could come and go and stay as long as they liked - so it's not exactly surprising that I loved this movie. It's the story of a university professor who befriends a pair of illegal immigrants whom he discovers squatting in his apartment. But it's also a story about a guy who is lonely and sad and meets a group of people who change his life. Maybe it's a little cliche - it's definitely somewhat sentimental - but it's quite well done, and extremely powerful.

I often think of Chinua Achebe's complaint about Heart of Darkness, that really it's about this white guy trying to figure himself out and all of Africa is just there as a backdrop, totally flat psychologically (like whoa, Africans have interiority? WHAT?!?). I don't fully agree with Achebe's reading  - I suppose I give Conrad's use of irony more credit than he does - but it remains, for me, a valuable rubric for assessing other films. So one of the things that I appreciated about The Visitor is that yes, it's ultimately a film about a white guy trying to find himself. And no, the film doesn't go on to follow the other characters once they've left his life. I imagine some people out there will loudly complain that this is continued eurocentrism, bla bla bla. Well, no. It's a movie about the white guy. The supporting cast is just that, a supporting cast. Sorry. But they nonetheless have a real depth and complexity. They matter. They are people, not just stock props. The choices they make are interesting and important and compelling. They have their own tensions and dramas, even if those get less screen time.

I suppose one can also complain that in some sense, all the characters are a bit too good to be true. Indeed. They probably are. But isn't it nice to see good people doing the right thing sometimes? In this film, the problems are not the results of characters screwing up - they're the result of a system that is screwed up. The point is to hammer in exactly how fucked up the immigration system is, and while you might want to say that the same argument could be made without such idealized characters, the point is, the system really is that fucked. And while the argument that no one should be deported applies just as much to people who've committed minor crimes as it does to those who have never done anything wrong, it'll be a lot more compelling to doubters (aka haters) this way. So yeah, for me, politics trumps art on this one. 

Finally, I actually really sympathized with, and cared about, the central character, played with great restraint by Richard Jenkins. I LOVED watching him fall in love with drumming and rock out to Fela. It just made me happy inside. He's great at playing men consumed with misery who manage to find a glimmer of happiness in the world.

A good movie. Recommended.

Ah! I forgot to mention that another thing I really liked about the movie was the way it subtly pointed out class markers in immigrant stereotypes. What some will consider the most improbable part of the movie - Richard Jenkins' willingness to help, and interest in sharing Tarek and Zainab's experiences, was my favorite part. It leads to two great scenes; one where Jenkins (ie Walter) is sitting in front of a table of jewelry in a suit trying to sell it, and many others where he plays the drums in the park. There's something shocking about a white guy in a suit engaging in these activities - and the shock makes you realize that these aren't neutral things to do, just regular everyday activities for regular old people - they're tied to expectations or beliefs about class, education, etc. Which is really messed up. 
  I also liked this because it was a nice visualization of sympathy, the act of putting yourself in the position of the other. In the movie, it's implied that it's because he's so lost in his own life that Walter can be moved in this way. His position is less fixed, shall we say, so he can try out other ones. And his doing so creates a shock in the viewer that, I think, pushes them to imagine themselves in the position of each other characters in the film. Some might claim that you're prone to do this in movies anyhow, but I don't think that's true - I think you identify with certain characters, but probably not all of them. In this movie, I think, because of its way of focusing closely on one person at a time, and also because of this imaginative leap being performed for you once, you are inclined to try out identifying with each of them.
Finally, a nice aspect, though not so pleasant to watch - the movie illustrates clearly the horror that is deportation. Deportation is atrocious. It's easy not to think about this, but deportation really, really sucks. This is not because the places people get deported to are so awful - they might well be quite pleasant even - but because it means getting jerked out of your life and dropped off somewhere else, with no possibility of return. It's very easy to not think about, but it's really a terrifying thing. 

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