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A Reflective Peek at Closed America: Tom McCarthy’s The Visitor

By Nick Braune
Mid-Valley Town Crier
by permission

This week I veer from my usual political harangues to recommend a recent (2008) Hollywood movie, available at Blockbuster everywhere. Don’t be hypercritical; it’s been over a year since I have recommended a movie.

It’s The Visitor — and I was enjoyably surprised this week that its lead, Richard Jenkins, received an Academy Award nomination for best actor, even though he is not very well known and the movie is fairly low budget. Although the title, The Visitor, first reminded me of those scary 1950’s horror movies like The Thing, it is a simple, quiet film, deceptively sleepy, about a college professor, Walter, who is approaching retirement age and is stuck like a cliché in a rut. My favorite scene is when he takes out last semester’s syllabus and a bottle of “white-out.” Removing last semester’s date on the top of the syllabus, he then handwrites the new semester’s date onto the page. Beginning another semester, Walter will stand up and teach the same old stuff, again.

He is supposedly writing a book, asking his department for fewer classes so he can complete it, but we can tell his heart is not in that either. He supposedly has written an important conference paper with another professor, but we find that he barely knows what the paper is about. We are given one scene of Walter in front of a classroom and he seems animated enough, but we can’t help remembering that syllabus — he has been recycling this course for years.

To say Walter is in a rut, however, does not identify the problem accurately. His real problem is that he has made himself unteachable.

In an opening scene of The Visitor, we see Walter trying almost valiantly to learn to play the piano on the weekend. But he becomes totally disgusted with the piano teacher, who usually gives lessons to children. Commenting that Walter should let his fingers be curved, arched up, more when he plays, the piano teacher tells him to think of his hands and fingers arched up as a tunnel so a miniature train could run underneath. Walter frowns, feeling this advice is better suited for a child, and he cancels further lessons with the teacher. He later admits this is the fourth piano teacher he has canned.

Letting the train get through is a wonderful image, and incidentally it is a subtle reference to another film. The writer and director of The Visitor is a Hollywood newcomer, Tom McCarthy, and this is only his second film. But his first movie caused a little quiet stir too, The Station Agent. (My daughter, who is in grad school in Philosophy and is my cell phone link to popular culture, has seen The Station Agent three times.) It opens with a dwarf working with model trains. I will not review The Station Agent, although it also reminds us that we must struggle with ourselves to become teachable. (If you haven’t seen them, Tom McCarthy’s two films, I suggest you see The Visitor first — it’s better — but I suspect the two films are somehow part of an emerging trilogy…McCarthy will have something else, new, roaring down the miniature train track soon.)

I’m reminded of a medieval philosophy class I once took — I know I should use a better transition here — which discussed the virtue of “docility,” which did not imply passivity as it does today. Almost opposite to today’s connotation, to be “docile” meant to be teachable, which requires an active process. Docility is an openness to others and to the wider “Being” of life and the world. (Medieval Church thinkers like Aquinas reminded people to not get too focused on this particular task or this little concern, this particular “being” or that particular “being,” but people should develop a certain awe for the “Being” of it all, all life and all existence.)

Anyway, my Medieval Philosophy professor once explained “docility’’ to our class with a personal example. Although my professor always prided himself on being open to reality and life, one day he noticed that he strangely disliked learning from people younger than himself. I can picture my old prof at a conference, staring up at the podium to some younger scholar and just being so tense and closed, but then suddenly shaking himself and saying, “Oops, what’s wrong with me? I am lacking docility. Aquinas would be disappointed.”

Be teachable. Learn from everyone, learn from life, learn from Being. That is Aquinas’ message (or at least the Aquinas I like), and it’s Tom McCarthy’s theme too.

The Visitor is my New Years gift. Walter, the economist and professor, does finally open himself up and does find a new rhythm in life…I will not spoil the movie for you, but he begins to learn from the young, the Other. The movie is also valuable in the way it portrays Walter discovering how America is locking up the Other in detention centers, refusing to welcome, to visit, to be teachable.

Frankly, the only reason I first rented The Visitor was that I had heard about its nested discussion of a detention center, and in the film we are surely shown some of the pain our immigration system is causing and the vulnerability of our undocumented workers. A young couple, both undocumented, a young musician from Syria and his girlfriend from Senegal — both characters are splendidly cast by McCarthy — are in love and are obviously the hope of America. But Walter, the comfortable economics professor, learns that his America does not want the young couple here.

Although clearly mocking America’s closed attitudes, The Visitor — one referent for the title is that Walter visits the detention center — is not a movie exposing some startling truth about American immigration policy; the detention center in New York is no secret. It is right there, that medium-sized building on that block.

What is important to me about the film is its discussion of education and proper docility, although it is not like Dead Poet’s Society or other films where a dynamic teacher inspires the young to learn. This film is about “youth as reason” (a concept I borrow from radical philosopher Raya Dunayevskaya), about youth teaching. And if we listen to each other and hold our hands just right, we all, old timers as well, can let the train go through.

I promise a regular grumpy political article next week.

By mopress

Writer, Editor, Social Democrat

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