Truth at 24 frames per second

By Steve Sedlak

The cinema of Japan in the late 1920s and early 1930s was characterized by a new kind of movie: the “tendency” or “society” film. These films often took up issues of class (like Mizoguchi’s “Tokyo March”) and the effects of the Depression on the common man (see Ozu’s “Tokyo Chorus”). They were in no way leftist documentaries, but they sympathetically fictionalized the plights of individuals who were in turn members of larger social groups. While it’s hard to say what anyone’s intentions were at the time, the films seem more to me than just tools of a politically progressive agenda. Instead, they seem more like a locus for the expression of social anxieties.Nearly 80 years later, Thomas McCarthy’s “The Visitor” (2007) shows some striking similarities. You might remember McCarthy for his directorial debut with “The Station Agent” back in 2003. “The Visitor” opens onto the sickeningly boring life of a white, upper-middle class college Economics professor from Connecticut. He goes to New York to present a paper that he “co-authored” (read “read over”) at NYU. When he opens the door to his little-used apartment in the city, he finds that a young couple has moved in. Anxiety sets in.

But what are these anxieties? Watching the film, I felt as though my mind were whirling about trying to follow them all, but perhaps I’ll attempt to distill a few of my thoughts for you.

First and foremost there is the anxiety of the Other. It turns out that the couple the professor meets in his apartment are not only people of color, but also immigrants. The professor first encounters the couple in the darkness of the semi-lit hallways of a basement apartment at night, making their race hard to discern. There is shouting in English and French (possibly another language I couldn’t recognize) before everyone realizes there’s been a huge misunderstanding. In the end, the professor lets the couple stay and begins to build a strong friendship with Tarek, Zainab’s boyfriend, as Tarek teaches him the drum.

However, (spoiler alert!) it turns out that Tarek and Zainab are not legal U.S. citizens. Tarek is put in detention after a misunderstanding with the cops. The professor tries to get him out, but his efforts are fruitless and Tarek is deported.

This anxiety of self-inefficacy is another strong theme of the film. In a post-1960s world (a time that this economics professor, now very grey, must have lived through), there are causes crying out for someone to do something. As the professor drives to work, he makes eye contact with a large “bring our troops back home” sign on the highway, but he seems indifferent to it all.

Later, when the professor meets the human beings that have lived under the world he has formed via theory (his specialty being Third-World economics and the couple he has befriended being from Syria and Senegal), he suddenly seems conflicted, but maybe a little empowered. The harsh, cruel way of thinking economically becomes meaningless to him, and he talks less and less about his own work as the film progresses. The ultimate metaphorical representations of this professor’s inefficacy are his and Tarek’s conversations through a wall of glass at the detention center.

I could go on and on about the tensions of this film, all of which seem symptomatic of the post-9/11 world, but it would be best for you to just see the movie and make your own judgments. It is a sympathetic and well-written fictionalization of the real fears of the 2000s as well as the plight of first generation immigrants in America.

“The Visitor” will be playing at the Riverview Theater at 5:00 p.m. starting this evening.