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Submitted by Justin Krebs on Fri, 04/11/2008 - 12:00am.
The emotional impact of Thomas McCarthy's new film, The Visitor, does not emanate from the fact it is set in post-9/11 New York City. The story, that of a graying economics professor who makes fast friends with a Syrian immigrant, only to have the latter detained and potentially deported to his home country without so much as a hearing, could easily have been set, with a few adjustments here and there, in Soviet Russia, or a theocratic banana republic, and it'd still be equally heartbreaking. But it's not set somewhere else, and the fact it doesn't spend too much time harping on that particular "this shouldn't be happening here" trump card, but instead largely allows the audience to recognize and stew silently in that irony - there's maybe one shot that lasts too long of an American flag, a glance at the Statue of Liberty that's perhaps a touch too ironic - is what makes The Visitor such an effective advocate for human dignity, and the best film of the year thus far.
The economics professor is Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins), a lecturer at Connecticut College who, in his early 60s, is already a ghost of a man, ambling slowly to the one class he's consistently taught for the last twenty years, a bloodlessly basic Principles of Economics course. When we meet him at the beginning of the film, he talks in clipped sentences, communicating with the minimum words required to be grammatically correct, as if each word elicited its own unique quantum of pain. He maintains eye contact only when necessary. There are periodic references to an earlier, fuller life - a concert pianist wife who passed away years ago, perhaps a normal family life - but how he got to his current state is never fully explained. (Even though we spend virtually the entire film in Vale's presence, it is only once, an hour into the film, that he briefly mentions that he has a son living in London.) This is someone who knows that he has a certain allotment of life he is condemned to complete, and is hoping to get through it with at little further self-extension as possible - so when a departmental obligation requires him to travel to New York University to present a paper at a conference on globalization, he hems and haws at the invitation, doing what he can to get out of it. But the sentence is iron-clad, and he finds himself driving to his long-empty Manhattan apartment.
Only the apartment is not alone - an unscrupulous landlord has pawned it off as abandoned to the couple Tarek Khalil (Haaz Sleiman), a musician originally from Syria, and his girlfriend, a Senegalese artist named Zainab (Daina Gurira), who have been living in the apartment on their own. Unable to witness them leaving the apartment into a big apple where they have nowhere to stay, Walter, in the first act of kindness we see him offer in the film, offers them the ability to stay until they find a more permanent housing solution. Tarek and Walter bond over music, with the former's African drum serving as a sort of universal language between them.
And it is here while The Visitor really begins to shine, in the quiet, clever ways it details the ripening of a friendship. This is not, obviously new material, and the pitfalls for flagrant (and offensive) cliche here are obvious - an uptight white man learns to live life a little more openly and loudly with the help of an unerringly positive friend of color, you say? One who seems more at ease with his physical presence? Why, that sounds positively uplifting!
But it works, not just because of the stellar performances by Jenkins and Sleiman (more on that later), but because McCarthy foresees and corrects for the most obvious problem - turning Tarek and Zainab into "magical negroes" without real personalities, who exist primarily as inspiring foils for our white protagonists. Instead, these are genuine characters, with genuine flaws - Tarek's propensity to dismiss suggestions that everything will not be alright, Zainab's inability to trust in the goodness of people. And when we see that friendship develop, one notices that, unlike so many films, there's never one scene where Vale "decides" to open up a little more - it just happens gradually, his willingness to talk about himself becoming less forced and more free-flowing. (But even then, not that free-flowing - there is no magical transformation, and by the end of the film, he is still essentially a quiet man, albeit a quiet man with a few more outlets for his inner pathos.)
And then, disaster strikes - a few days into Vale's visit, Tarek is taken into custody by police in a subway station, and taken in for questioning, a questioning that turns into detention, a detention that turns into a potential deportation. Tarek's mother, Mouna (Hiam Abbass), leaves her Michigan household to visit the apartment, worried that she hasn't had her calls returned for the past five days. I won't say much more, for risk of spoiling the unspeakably dark and wonderful surprises of the second half, except that the film is primarily concerned from this point on with joint sufferings as they deal with the legal wrangling of a system that feels intentionally kafkaesque, trying to prevent Tarek's deportation on specious charges.
I will say this, though: "it's not fair!" becomes a sort of refrain in the film, a sort of security blanket for minds that're otherwise unable to process the sheer enormity of what they're facing. Like song lyrics, its credibility lies primarily in its delivery, and the delivery with which Jenkins imbues this line gives us more than enough credibility. Jenkins has long been one of my favorite character actors, particularly in the David O. Rusell films like Flirting With Disaster and I Heart Huckabees. However, finally given the lead role in a film, a development that would launch some actors into clearly-milking-it scene-chewing hysteria, Jenkins instead delivers a heartbreaking performance, entirely convincing as a shy man who realizes that his shyness, for once, may not cut it.
If I've given the impression the film is all dourness and thunderstorms, I apologize - The Visitor, for all of the misfortune it displays, is a story about the courage it takes to step outside of a holding pattern in your life. McCarthy's film is not just a plea for us to stand up to injustice, but to enjoy life for those who can not do so as a result of injustice. When The Visitor was over, I left the screening room in midtown Manhattan to find that the sky was overcast, rendering the whole afternoon an industrial gray. I walked uptown a few blocks, wondering who among the people I walked past and never spoke to could have been friends in another life. I wondered why everyone's face seemed to look so harried and strange. I made a mental note to look up and learn more about immigration policy and immigrant rights. And I called my mother.
Both the first shot and the last shot of the film show Jenkins approaching a musical instrument. In the first shot, he has his back to us in the privacy of his home, merely contemplating the piano in front of him, the instrument of his wife, alone. In the last shot, he has his newly acquired African drum splayed out in front of him, playing his heart out in one of the most public places imaginable, the platform bench of a busy New York City subway station, an action that would've been unimaginable to him a mere week earlier. The Visitor is about a man who realizes the unfairness in his own life, the unfairness that he uses to justify his own sadness and cruelty, is not the only unfairness worth ruminating over. That alone makes it one of the most important films for progressives in a long time.
Submitted by Justin Krebs on Thu, 04/10/2008 - 12:00am.
Reading Liberally Page Turner
There's very little to say about Abortion Without Apology: A Radical History for the 1990s that isn't actively nauseating. Between a step by step guide to how to fill a vagina with blood and bits from a cow's liver in order to get a hospital to perform a D&C, and realizing that the dreams of the initial pro-choice activists would never be filled, the whole book was somewhat distressing.
The book talks about the three women who gave birth to the organization that eventually became NARAL and their impetus for becoming abortion activists. One of them married at 15 because of her family's extreme poverty, was told she would probably die if she gave birth to a second child, and then wasn't given information about or access to birth control.
The book also discusses groups like JANE, a Chicago-based women's liberation group that provided low cost abortions done by laypeople in a friendly and cookie-filled atmosphere before being shut down by the government, and feminist groups that encouraged their members to learn more about their bodies and think about how they would like to change their role in society.
I don't want to have the government controlling my body and when I reproduce (they'd have to start by giving me a federally-mandated dating class—did you know that when a guy offers to pay for dinner you're not supposed to say "Sorry, that would make blood pour out of my eyeballs?" I had no idea.). On the other hand, there is something to be said for having federal standards for medical care. I don't think I'm a radical right winger for thinking it might be safer to get an abortion from a professional, instead of by having a women repeatedly stick her thumbs through her cervix, or with an apparatus made with "a mason jar, a cork with two holes in it, two lengths of fish tank tuning, and a syringe." Do I think people who practice medicine without a license should be penalized? Absolutely not, but unlike the author of the book, it's not what I would hold up as an ideal--although with fewer medical students learning how to perform abortions it might be the only option in the future.
Abortion Without Apology ultimately conjured in me a kind of nostalgia—not for the days of living-room abortion classes or feminist abortion collectives, but for eighteen years ago when the author, Ninia Baehr, thought it a somewhat obtainable dream to hope for a day when there were no laws regulating or controlling abortions. I just hope that my daughters aren't going to have to give themselves abortions with their thumbs. Baehr's dream of a world where women have complete reproductive freedoms seems to be retreating behind a phalanx of voters who place no value on a women's right to control her body and her future.
Submitted by Justin Krebs on Wed, 04/09/2008 - 12:00am.
Laughing Liberally To Keep From Crying
Last week Lou Dobbs told his viewers "I can’t say ‘I love you’ to a fellow in San Francisco." Me think he doth protest too much. Who was he talking about anyway?
Dobbs "came out" about having “one of those days” when “some folks are kind of just on you.” Specifically, New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez and San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom "got on Lou" for hating on anyone who thinks that immigrants are human beings and not aliens. Menendez softened his criticism of Dobbs by saying "I love you, Lou" but a relentless Newsom spoke of "cable TV, where careers are literally being saved and salvaged, like Lou Dobbs."
Lovable Lou responded by saying "Senator Menendez said he loved me, and so I'm going to say I love you back. I can't say 'I love you' to a fellow in San Francisco I suppose." (Think Progress has the video.)
Hmmm. Is Lou engaging in some good old fashioned "Made in America" homophobia? Or is he trying to tell us something? Would saying I love you to Gavin Newsom be too close for comfort? I mean if there's one man who could awaken the latent homosexuality that lurks in the heart of another man, it would have to be Gavin "I can't believe he's not gay except I can because if he were he wouldn't be this comfortable with gay people and with legalizing gay marriage" Newsom. His sex appeal is so disarming, lesbians literally line up to get a piece, as this photo shows.
A version of this post originally appeared on Nerve Scanner.
Submitted by Justin Krebs on Tue, 04/08/2008 - 12:00am.
Submitted by Justin Krebs on Mon, 04/07/2008 - 12:00am.
Eating Liberally Food For Thought
Yes, there’s gloating galore in our Mac-happy household over the news that “even the briefest exposure to the Apple logo may make you behave more creatively,” according to a new study in the Journal of Consumer Research. No wonder we are just bursting with ideas that our cramped Manhattan apartment can barely contain; we’ve got more Macs per capita than you’ll find anywhere outside of an Apple store. (My Mac consultant husband) Matt would put one in the bathroom if I let him, which I won’t, because that’s my one tech-free haven in our hyper-wired world.
The study, conducted by researchers at Duke University and the University of Waterloo, Canada, found that even a split-second glimpse of the iconic Apple logo is enough to inspire folks to “think different”:
As Duke professor Tanya Chartrand noted, “Apple has worked for many years to develop a brand character associated with nonconformity, innovation and creativity.” IBM’s logo, on the other hand, conveys an image to consumers that is “traditional, smart and responsible,” i.e., safe and dull.
Apples have a long tradition of tempting mankind to flout convention—just ask Adam and Eve. And don’t forget Johnny Appleseed, who was running around literally sowing the seeds of the conservation movement a couple hundred years ago, before voluntary simplicity and animal rights were even trendy.
The Beatles beat Steve Jobs by a few years, too, leading to a branding battle between Apple Corp. and Apple Inc., which rocked our collective world with their revolutionary music and machines, respectively.
That lawsuit was settled last year, but now Apple’s gone and picked another fight, this time with the Big Apple, which unveiled a new apple logo for its GreeNYC campaign to inspire New Yorkers “to walk, bike and unplug appliances when not in use,” as the New York Times reports.
Apple is reportedly concerned that the supposed similarity between the two logos could create “consumer confusion resulting in damage and injury.” But as the Times notes, the two apples are decidedly distinctive varieties. Yeah, they’re both apples, but New York City’s hasn’t had a bite taken out of it, and it’s green, whereas Apple’s trademark logo has evolved from its hippy-dippy rainbow phase into the more minimalist black/white spectrum.
Steve Jobs is reportedly worried that GreeNYC’s logo is going to lead to “dilution of the distinctiveness” of the Apple brand. Will people really confuse the two logos? I doubt it, but I’d be happy if they did; after all, if just flashing folks with an image of an apple is enough to encourage our brains to be more receptive to new ideas, it can only boost GreeNYC’s prospects for encouraging conservation. It seems only fair that the fruit that got us evicted from Eden in the first place should help us find our way back.
Submitted by Justin Krebs on Fri, 04/04/2008 - 12:00am.
Traveling Liberally Passport To Change
A quick note - in the post below, I talk about my first time visiting Birmingham, Montgomery, Atlanta and other crucial locations in the civil rights struggles of the 1950's and 1960's - all of them places which resonate on today's anniversary. I know other Open Lefters have visited, worked and lived in these locations, and I would love your reflections below.
My family is not rich, but I'd be willing to wager that I received the greatest graduation present of any college graduate in the United States last year, hands down.
A months-long trek through Europe? A garage full of foreign cars? Long-stowed-away wine collections?
Nah, considerably less decadent, but way cooler. My immediate family (mom, pop, middle brother Jeremy, youngest sister Ilana) haven't been on vacation together in a very long time - schedules clashed, schoolyears interfered and it somehow just wasn't meant to be. We'd had blocked away the second half of December to do something - something that hadn't yet been determined. My graduation present? Determine that something within a certain set of time/budget parameters, parameters likely to make it a roadtrip of roughly a week in length, likely in the eastern two-thirds of the continental United States.
For me, the decision was simple - as a good liberal American history buff, I wanted to go on a civil rights history roadtrip, with a focus on the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I wanted to walk the steps of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, a block away from the city's Civil Rights Institute. I wanted to see the bus station in Montgomery where the freedom riders were surrounded. I wanted to walk the halls of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in the Sweet Auburn neighborhood of Atlanta. I wanted to find a supermarket that still sells Mr. Pibb, which is virtually nonexistent in my home base of NYC. On the 40th anniversary of Dr. King's assassination at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, I want to share a little bit about this trip, which brought us through Birmingham, New Orleans, Montgomery, and, finally, Atlanta.
I hate to have to include this disclaimer, but I feel it necessary: I'm aware of the pitfalls here. I'm aware of the stereotype red-alert: a privileged college graduate beset by white liberal guilt goes on a 'civil rights history vacation,' implying not only that 'civil rights history' is finished, that there are no civil rights battles left to be fought so we can just classify the whole topic under 'history,' but also that we can visit the streets of Birmingham where children were firehosed and attacked by dogs the same way we can visit the beaches of Cancun with a pina colada in hand - or, worse still, to approach it as something to mark off a checklist. Yes, I am well-aware of the the risk of dishonoring sacred places by the camera hanging around the neck of your Hawaiian t-shirt, the ease of forgetting that in the schools of Jena and neighborhoods of St. Bernard's Parish and in countless border towns and so many other places there are still daily injustices, etc. etc. etc. I am setting myself up as quite the easy target.
1. I did my best over the course of this trip to do good. To make it clear that the civil rights battles we were discussing are not closed cases, to volunteer in New Orleans and to see the poor neighborhoods of Montgomery not far from Ralph Abernathy's 1st Baptist Church. To provide educational materials beyond the standard "MLK talked about having a dream while visiting DC, and then did nothing much else for the five years before his death" spiel. To listen to Taylor Branch's America In The King Years series on audiotape in the car and watch "4 Little Girls" and "When The Levees Broke" in the various hotel rooms along the long trip from Central New Jersey to central Alabama.
2. There is a point at which the fear of looking bad while examining the past means that one never, in fact, looks at the past. "If I go on a trip to the Birmingham City Jail, I might look like a rich liberal white kid." So you don't go to Birmingham. And you never get the chance to visit that jail. And an experience that might have made you a better ally in the fight to take America forward never happens, all because you were afraid of looking like a bad ally. Of being tacky. I can't tear the CD player from my parent's minivan when we drive by poor neighborhoods. And if I had to, family members who might have an enlightening experience in these areas wouldn't have gone on the trip in the first place.
(Before I delve into the itinerary, huge credit is due to my sister, Ilana, who took most of the below photos, as well as to A Traveler's Guide to the Civil Rights Movement, which was an indispensable resource.)
The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (which, tragically, does not allow pictures to be taken inside its exhibit hall) is literally across the street from Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth's Sixteenth Street Baptist Church of Birmingham, the site of the infamous September 1963 bombing which claimed the lives of four little girls.
This is the view from the steps of the church - the statue you see in the front of the BCRI is a sculpture of Shuttlesworth.
New Orleans/St. Bernard's Parish.
I wish I were sharp enough to initially realize, as I did later, that New Orleans was the intended destination of the Freedom Rides - however, no choice to visit New Orleans was quite that eloquent. Instead, I knew that if we went to some of the most famous locations in American civil rights history, without contributing something back in the area which most obviously indicates that those fights are still ongoing, that we'd be making an egregious mistake. As such, we made a two-day stop to volunteer in St. Bernard's Parish, next to New Orleans - one of the areas hit hardest by the negligence surrounding Katrina.
There are some great new organizations doing work in the gulf coast generally and New Orleans specifically, with Hands On New Orleans being a particular stand-out, but we decided to go ahead with Habitat For Humanity New Orleans, which assigned us to a storm-hit elementary school that was slowly, in a multi-year project, being repaired and brought back to a usable state.
A room assigned to a group of volunteers to paint.
It's impossible to communicate just how nauseating the state of the area was that late December, a full 26 months after Katrina first made landfall - I can only do my best.
The car windows were fogged by our pressed-up faces, part of us knowing that we looked like schoolkids passing by a horrendous pile-up by the side of the road, knowing just how voyeuristic we were being, and yet, being unable to help ourselves - the horror of the moment outweighing our more reserved instincts.
But there's a peril to emphasizing this horror, which is the fear that you'll discourage tourism to New Orleans - which is why I'll note that the tourism-friendly parts of New Orleans, e.g. the French Quarter, look much the same. (There's something really sad about this balancing act - that one must try to accurately report the horrors while also requiring a tacky mention of tourism potential - but in a world where the aid isn't coming from our federal government, there ain't much other choice.)
The entrance to the Southern Poverty Law Center's Civil Rights Memorial Center, whose centerpiece sculpture is portrayed at the top of the post.
The ethereal view from below of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, where King served as the chief pastor from 1954 to 1960.
I include this picture because it epitomizes a phenomenon I found myself silently remarking upon throughout the entire trip. On the left side of this picture, in the background, you see the Albama State Capitol, a site of so much history - the first capitol of the confederacy, the end-point of the march from Selma, the building from which George Wallace reigned as Governor - and, literally down the street, is the church whose basement served as the incubator for the Montgomery bus boycotts, the formation of the SCLC (though it started in the Montgomery Improvement Association), and so much more. All within a 1000-foot radius. One has a similar feeling in Birmingham (where the Baptist Church is just a few blocks away from crucial sites in the children's crusade) and in...
...where the Ebenezer Baptist Church seems like a sort of nucleus around a map of vital history.
Across the street from the Baptist church were King's father pastored, until King took over those duties in 1960, is the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site, which includes MLK Center for Nonviolent Social Change, King's childhood home, and his final resting place.
There is, of course, so much we didn't get to see, but perhaps the site I missed the most was one nowhere near the intended freedom ride path - Memphis, TN, which today, and for the rest of the weekend is hosting The Dream Reborn conference on a green economy; it's good enough to know that not everyone has forgotten that the dream didn't end in 1968.
Submitted by Justin Krebs on Thu, 04/03/2008 - 12:55pm.
As Americans face a home mortgage crisis,
As new violence erupted in Iraq,
As the media enjoysed McCain on Letterman,
For April Fools Day, McCain & his media fans
Forget the fools & find the friendly fun
Submitted by KAT on Wed, 04/02/2008 - 12:00am.
Eating Liberally Food For Thought
America suffers from a collective case of do-gooder deafness: we have a hard time hearing a message when it's delivered by a dorky academic or an unattractive activist. We're all ears, though, when celebrities speak out about their pet causes, or their pets, or whatever. So, in acknowledgement of the fact that I, as a mere blogger, can only hope to influence so many people, I'd like to enlist the aid of some of our most ogled and Googled celebrities to help America combat climate change and overconsumption:1. Britney Spears: Britney's evidently on the road to recovery after some much needed r 'n' r. Here are three more "r's" I'd love to see Britney promote: reduce, reuse and recycle. Our landfills are overflowing with post-consumer crap and the oceans are clogged up with plastic; what better time for Britney to redefine white trash! Recommended reading/viewing: Garbage Land by Elizabeth Royte; The Story of Stuff by Annie Leonard.
2. Paris Hilton: A rolling stone gathers no moss, but a globe-trotting Paris Hilton gathers dross. You're just fossil-fueling yourself, sweetie; stop running around the world making geographical gaffes and hyping your hybrid SUV. Take a page out of No Impact Man's playbook and see if you can stay a little closer to home for a year. Borrow a bike from Ed Begley Jr., and pedal your way to penitence. Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping will bless you.
3. Lindsay Lohan: Lindsay confided to Elle magazine last fall that she feels bad about the fact that media coverage of her shenanigans "is distracting from the other things that are important, like global warming and that kind of stuff." So, Lindsay, why not use that media glare to highlight the hazards of climate change? You'll get a glow, and it won't be from global warming. Go on David Gershon's Low Carbon Diet, school yourself with the hot eco-doc Everything's Cool, and you'll be cool, too.
4. David Beckham: The soccer superstar and style icon's receding hairline has the blogosphere all abuzz. Stressing about your thinning tresses, Becks? Imagine how folks in West Virginia feel about the bald spots the coal-mining industry's leaving on their beloved Appalachian mountains. The tragedy of male pattern baldness pales besides the heartbreak of mountaintop coal removal. Once you've covered your semi-nude noggin with pricey plugs, why not get out and stump on behalf of your adopted home's oldest mountain range before they blast the last tree to smithereens? Recommended reading/viewing: Coal River by Michael Shnayerson, Burning the Future: Coal In America.
5. Madonna: America's most famous ex-pat has set down roots as deep as her brown hair in Britain, so she's the perfect candidate to publicize the plight of Britain's endangered red squirrels, whose very future is imperiled by an invasion of deadly pox-carrying gray American squirrels. How about an animated PSA to the tune of "Who's That Squirrel?" in which she helps Squirrel Nutkin knock Rocky J. Squirrel's block right off the island? At the very least, the pop princess could follow Prince Charles' royal lead and become a patron of Save Our Squirrels.
6. Donald Trump: The Lowbrow Baron of the High-Rise isn't getting very far with his bullying and bulldozing these days. From his proposed golf course development in Scotland to his Long Island "Trump on the Ocean" project, The Donald's grandiose plans keep running aground in the face of stiff opposition from locals. Is his stature diminishing? Here's a new mantra for the author of Think BIG and Kick Ass in Business and Life: Think small and DO GOOD. Recommended reading/viewing: Deep Economy by Bill McKibben; Garbage Warrior, coming to a theater near you on April 2nd!
7. Rush Limbaugh: Yes, Limbaugh's a noxious gasbag, but scientists are making great strides these days converting methane gases from manure into energy. Limbaugh is the nadir of climate change naysayers, and it's a safe bet that he'll continue to pooh-pooh the notion that global warming's a threat to the planet, so why not harness the harmful nonsense he spews and turn it into a useful source of energy? Recommended viewing: Biogas, The Movie:
8. Amy Winehouse: Winehouse is, alas, goin' back to rehab, so she presumably won't be available to do any kind of pr for awhile. But once she's bounced back from her latest crack-up, I'd love to see Amy put her beehive'd head to work on raising awareness of colony collapse disorder, the mystery disease that's killing bees all over the U.S. and Europe. Come to think of it, she'd be a great spokesperson to raise awareness of white nose syndrome, too--that's the deadly illness that's decimating the northeast's bat population. Recommended viewing: Every Third Bite, coming soon!
9. Chuck Norris: Now that Mike Huckabee's presidential bid is over, Norris presumably has some free time, so I'd like to suggest that the legendary martial arts megastar turn his attention from black belts to green belts and use his status as America's number one action star to slay the developer dragons and strip-mall monsters. Who better than a diehard conservative to champion conservation? Recommended reading/viewing: The Long Emergency by James Howard Kuntler; The Unforeseen.
Originally posted on TakePart.com.
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