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Screening Liberally Big Picture

Shyness, Unfairness and The Visitor

TheVisitorPoster.jpg
Screening Liberally Big Picture
by Josh Bolotsky

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.

The Pitfalls of Married Life, or, Breaking Bechdel's Law in Style

Screening Liberally Big Picture
by Josh Bolotsky

I'd like to begin with a brief exercise. (Paper and pencil are not required, although they are recommended.)

Don't worry, we'll get to the review of Married Life, the black-as-night comedy released last Friday, in just a moment, but before we do, we need to establish something first, and quickly.

Ready? Let's begin:

1. Write down the names of every film you remember seeing in the last two months - in the theater, on television, old, new, whatever. You technically only need one, although this works better with more.

2. Cross out every film that did not have at least two significant female characters.

3. Of those remaining, cross out every film that did not feature at least one scene where two female characters spoke to each other.

4. Now, if you have any films left, put a circle around those films where they were talking about something other than a man.

Pencils down.

If you're like me, you love film - love love love it. You try to indulge yourself in a late-afternoon or early morning cinema trip whenever time allows it. But check to see if you aren't given pause when you do this exercise.

Consider this - I've written full-length reviews for seven films at OpenLeft.com, with a smattering of shorter reviews here and there. Of those seven films, five fail this particular test - The Candidate, Rendition, The Kingdom, I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry, and No End In Sight - and two pass it - Margot At The Wedding (in which Nicole Kidman and Jennifer Jason Leigh talk about their frayed relationship), and The Mist (in which Laurie Holden and Marcia Gay Harden talk about the monster.) This is, for Hollywood films, a pretty good batting average, which is really saying something.

Alas, I can't take full or even partial credit for the exercise. The original concept is called Bechdel's Law or the Bechdel Test - the name refers to Alison Bechdel, the creator of the long-running strip Dykes To Watch Out For, who first introduced this idea in this 1985 installment:

bechdel.jpgNow, let me be clear: I do not believe that every work can or should meet the requirements of Bechdel's Law. In fact, I think it's often a lot less useful to apply to an individual film than as a tool for looking at the aggregate - as in a lot of things, it's often less the individual choice than it is the sheer ubiquity of the overall pattern. And like a lot of general principles, there are exceptions - one such exception occurs to one towards the end of Married Life, a film which totally flunks the strict outline of Bechdel's Law.

Well, less an exception than a proposed addendum: it can be broken with impunity if the film satisfactorily explains, explicitly or implicitly, why it's being violated. Under this critera, Married Life passes with flying colors.

Harry Allen (Chris Cooper), a milquetoast business executive living in a highly stylized version of early 50's city life, is a man with a surplus of potential confidantes. His wife, Pat (Patricia Clarkson), shows him no end of expressed affection; his best friend, Richard (Pierce Brosnan), is almost a parody of the professional bachelor best friend with whom such nebbish characters are supposed to share their wildest plans; and his mistress, Kay (Rachel McAdams) is the very picture of a demure, pre-Friedan vision of womanhood, always willing to listen, too afraid of burdening to ever share much of anything.

Harry, it turns out has a lot to confide. As he tells Richard at the film's beginning, he is planning to leave Pat. Richard, dumbfounded at the dissolution of a marriage that appeared rock-solid, asks why on our behalf, and Harry divulges - Pat is just too focused on sex, and that will not do.

His new mistress, Kay, on the other hand, doesn't seem to care much for sex, but loves him for who he is, never questioning him, always listening to him expound upon this or that topic. (That this is because Kay never lets herself question or say much about anything goes unnoticed by Harry, but not by the film.) Just as he's explaining to Richard how he is scheming to leave Pat for Kay, Richard begins silently scheming how he's going to "steal" Kay.

And so the heart of the film begins - we'll spend the next two hours examining each man's machinations, machinations which take on a Hitchcockian tone as they run through a gamut that includes betrayal, deception and potential homicide. The key phrase being "each man's machinations" - neither of the two female characters is up to any scheming of their own, partially because they're not flagrantly unethical, partially because they're not in a world that allows them to exhibit much agency.

I love it when films make you feel like you're given a pair of binoculars peeking into another time or place. The set design and costuming of Married Life is so perfectly tuned to give a certain sense of nostalgia, of an idealized post-war aesthetic, that we are particularly shocked and our nostalgia dashed when it forms a backdrop for the heartbreaking portrayals of Kay and Pat. In one scene, Pat's golden retriever, the only real companion she has left in her lonely life now that Harry is drifting apart, has died in the night. Throughout the pet's burial, in which Harry is brusque at best, the obviously devastated Pat has to keep up the veneer of what a housewife is supposed to do - being gracious to the point of absurdity, always using the proper phrasing, and so on.

It is in this scene that it hits us the hardest - Married Life is quite aware that it is depicting a world in which women, painfully, are allowed no public display of agency. The point is only driven home later in the film, where we learn that Pat has a few secrets of her own - secrets she can't share because, well, that wouldn't look right. In fact, the vast majority of dialogue uttered by either Clarkson or McAdams is either a. about a man, or b. a required nicety - even if a heartfelt nicety, it is nonetheless required.

It is only towards the end of Married Life that the two female characters get a chance to talk to each other, and very briefly - and then, it's about a man who is getting married. We can hardly begrudge them this. After all, it's all they're allowed to talk about.

Speaking Your Peace for the Chicago 10

Screening Liberally Big Picture

It's rare that we talk here about the selling of movies, preferring to talk about the movies themselves. But tonight we make an exception, with a quick note about the recent film about the post-1968 Chicago convention trial, Chicago 10.

The standard method for selling a Hollywood movie is, well, pretty standard. You spend a lot of money saturating the market with ad buys, posters at bus stops, morning talk show interviews, and so on. Then, it either catches on, or it doesn't. But Chicago 10 is doing something a little different, something which might could help illustrate the potential for smaller films to become a little bigger thanks for the evangelizing of their most fervent fans.

This is the kick-off bid, by Morgan Spurlock, in a contest being held by Participant Media and DeclareYourself.com. Essentially, the associated website provides extensive video and audio clips to visitors, which they can utilize in their own videos. The idea is that you combine your own footage with the Chicago 10 materials to create a PSA on the issue you most care about in the upcoming Presidential election, with the winner selected by director Brett Morgen to be featured on the film's DVD.

Is this game-changing? No - there've been plenty of create-your-own-significant-length contests paired with the launch of relatively major films before. But it is the first such contest I can remember making such heavy use of a liberal distribution of the original film footage itself, and thait is a very exciting step in a positive direction.

A Conversation with Chris Metzler, Director of "Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea"

Screening Liberally Big Picture
By Josh Bolotsky

We recently had the opportunity to have a conversation with Chris Metzler, director of Screening Liberally NYC's February selection, the critically acclaimed Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea. We talked about Sonny Bono, John Waters and where his film fits (or doesn't fit) into the recent spate of eco-documentaries.

How did you come to this project?

Like a lot of things in life, it was purely coincidence. I grew up in the Midwest - I didn't even know that the Salton Sea existed when I moved out to Los Angeles for school - and one day, decided to take an exploratory road trip, camping with a friend and maybe checking out other parts of the dessert - you take a few wrong turns here and there, and you wind up upon this huge body of water, the Salton Sea, and just kind of quickly fall in love with it, just based on water being out in the desert in such huge amounts, but secondly, the kind of apocalyptic landscape, which was my own fascination. That's got things started. Congressman Sonny Bono had been interested in restoring the Salton Sea, seeing it as both an environmental wetland, and also a place for resorts and boating and fishing…as a result of this discussion about making Sonny’s dream come true, we wanted to explore how those attempts at restoring the Salton Sea were going to go.

It seems like the residents of the Salon area have become used to extravagant promises laid at their feet every couple years, whether it be through Sonny Bono, or the [longstanding] hope it will become a large retirement community - in making the film, was that something you had to consciously overcome in gaining their trust, that you weren’t going to be someone coming in with promises as happens every few years.

That was one of the difficult things that Jeff [Springer, co-director] and I anticipated from the beginning – we knew that the Salton Sea had this long history of nothing ever being done, and that most of the film and news coverage of the Salton Sea had been very negative. Given how just complicated a place this was, [we figured] it deserved some unbiased, entertaining journalism. Once we started meeting people in the community, there was something that drew them to us - we didn't have to overcome any inherent skepticism… and most embraced us from the get-go. Maybe it’s just because so much of the other coverage of the Salton Sea often dealt with politicians and scientists and they really just appreciated that we were going straight ot the people who had lived in, thrived and struggled in the community for so many years.

One unique aspect of the film is that you're talking about an potential ecological crisis which, unlike a lot of the eco-documentaries that came out in the last several years, is not directly related to climate change..Have you had difficulty explaining to people this is a separate issue?
The Salton sea being such an obscure issue…drawing attention to it and explaining why it's an important film in addition to being entertaining does present a problem. That's one of the reasons why when we market the film and present it to people, we [emphasize] the carnivalesque factor. 'Come and watch this movie about what these unique people have created in this place you’ve never heard of.' In a lot of discussions we try to have with people after the screening, [we tend to present it as] a microcosm of these larger environmental issues that are going on in other parts of the US and the world…Some of the things you see going on down there could, through climate change, happen elsewhere. It’s a great example of the environment run amok, whether you discuss the flooding that happened in the 1970’s, and how that relates to Hurricane Katrina, or the rapid evaporation of the water of the Salton Sea, and the dust storms that might be affected, that relates to climate change, [similar to those in] other parts of the world, where, if temperatures continue to rise, you’ll have more exposed dried lake-beds…In a way the Salton Sea is a parable to other things that the larger part of society might have to deal with in upcoming years.

How did you get John Waters? His voice is so perfect for the film.

At first we didn’t really want a narrator, because we wanted to let the people of the Salton Sea to speak for themselves. But given some of the larger issues which were difficult to condense and explain in interviews, we decided we needed to rely on a narrator, and we thought, if we needed to use as narrator, we needed some a little unorthodox and untraditional, and John Waters came to mind given his unique voice, but also his own deep affection for people who live on the fringe…As we started doing a little bit more research on John Waters, and watching his films from a different perspective we also recognized that while we often associate his films with comedy, with a camp value, all of them deal with these undercurrents of larger social issues…Coincidentally, he was friends with Sonny Bono from his film Hairspray, and kind of liked the idea of doing this as a payback to Sonny, who had done something really important for him.

What are your next projects after Plagues?

Both Jeff and I are drawn to projects about outsiders – we think those are the ones who are the real risk-takers in society because they've decided to live life in the way they want to. We have some projects going on [in this vein,] one about evangelical backpackers Christians following the path of the Apostle Paul, a documentary on gay truck drivers, another on outsider artists in the south – the documentary coming out later this year is one on the black punk band Fishbone…We try to disguise our films as entertainment, with a lot of information in there.

Screening Liberally Big Picture: When All The Standard Horror Flicks Are Rented Out...

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By Josh Bolotsky

There's only a few hours left until the end of the Halloween season. (Isn't it kind of amazing how Halloween has entered that hallowed realm of holidays which aren't a mere day, but commercialized enough to warrant their own 'holiday season'?) And, if you and/or your children don't have costumes prepped, then chances are that you are finding yourself on Halloween night with nothing Halloween-related to do. For shame.

There really aren't much more options left, typically. The ninth-hour costumes don't much extend past the "hey, I'm going out as an overstressed information worker, i.e. me" variety. Bars on Halloween without a costume feel foreign at best, and at worst, um, interesting. And any trip to the video store will find the horror section just about ransacked. Every obvious choice - Michael, Freddy, Jason - is long past rented out. (You want desperate? Some poor fool has spent actual money to rent Friday The 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan.) In fact, it seems like the last refuge of the poorly planned Halloween, sharing the couch with your beau or friends for some scare flick, is simply not to be.

This is where Screening Liberally comes in and saves your ass.
There is one last-minute Halloween suggestion that is not just creepy as hell, but also hilarious, a good date film, an improbable crowd-pleaser, one of the most politically savvy films of the last 15 years, truly thought-provoking and obscure enough that the chances someone rented it out are low indeed. What is this overlooked miracle film? None other than 1996's The Last Supper, a twisted melange of black comedy, horror and political satire that is truly sui generis in its originality, and not something you are likely to see replicated anytime soon.