catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 7, Num 10 :: 2008.05.16 — 2008.05.30


Annealing life on the anvil

Have you ever pondered the process of annealing, by which metals are refined under intense heat and pressure? Perhaps you can recall the Marines advertising campaign featuring a sword, pulled from the fire and being beaten on the anvil. This annealing process is analogous to life. Bliss coupled with burden results in a refining process—an annealing of life on the anvil of time.

I use this analogy because it’s visually stimulating for me. There’s a clear process by which we are changed, refined into something better than we currently are. We’re purified, made more useful, which is the great addiction of humanity—usefulness unto oneself. Contrary to this analogy, I sense that for many of us, being refined or made better is appealing but the arduous nature of refinement is not. The less friction we have in our lives the better, both physically and emotionally.

One of the ways we sustain this lifestyle of avoiding refinement (though ultimately we can’t) is by living vicariously through stories. By experiencing something second-hand, we’re allowed a cathartic effect. Movies are just one example of how stories provide a myriad of associative means to draw from, i.e. music, locales, cultures, themes, etc. A basic idea or theme, like mundane life, can be manifested in characters, cities, music and more. Basically, a concept becomes organic—it grows and permeates a vast array of personal and communal identity refiners. One such movie that typifies this quality is Todd McCarthy’s The Visitor.

Returning to the director’s chair five years after his award winning debut, The Station Agent (2003), writer/director Thomas McCarthy (also an actor, Dr. Bob in Meet the Parents) delivers a film that explores an array of complexities in the American dream. It’s the story of a man who has lost sight of this great dream and a young couple who’d do anything to realize it.

Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins) is an empty man caught in life’s mundane habits. He “pretends” he’s busy. A bit persnickety, this widower has lost the vigor of his work as an economics professor in Connecticut. While in town for a conference, he visits the Manhattan apartment he owns and once shared with his wife only to discover that an immigrant couple has been occupying it. Tarek (Haaz Sleiman), a Syrian, and his Senegalese girlfriend Zainab (Danai Gurira), are quickly evicted before Walter reconsiders, opening his home to the couple.

Walter’s stagnant life takes a turn when he, with his taciturn mannerisms, awkwardly but innocently explores Tarek’s African drum situated in the living room. It’s a poignant picture of aged innocence and curiosity. Tarek begins to teach Walter and both of their worlds are opened as Walter’s vapid life is revitalized in NYC jazz clubs and Central Park drum circles. But when Tarek is arrested and held for deportation, their lives unravel even further, taking them all on a journey of discovery and rediscovery. 

The crux of Visitor (or most any story) is the “re-” of life: the rediscovery, the redeeming of life’s losses. This recapturing of that which is lost is the essence of the human story. It’s what makes the moving image so compelling. The experience that shifts and changes our lives at any moment is rarely, if ever, what we expect. It’s the unforeseen that accentuates our finitude. It’s in that duress that we, if only for a brief vicarious moment, realize that real change isn’t an isolated moment but a preponderance of moments that encompass both our losses and those of others.

The Visitor is a pleasant and troubling film. Good stories keep us engaged, guide us, but without overstating or hyperbolizing. Visitor captures this by engaging us with both characters with whom we can relate and others who surpass our experience. The narrative guides without forcing and it asks some important questions along the way.

At the heart of the film is rhythm, the rhythm of life and of music accentuated by Oscar winning composer Jan A.P. Kaczamarek (Finding Neverland). Richard Jenkins’ rare leading role is a real gem and McCarthy shows patience with his narrative and engages us with genuine characters and visceral emotions.

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