One of the things about living in a country not your own is how aware you become of your own cultural identity and homeland, and how the distance works to allow you to see your country from a different perspective. For instance, one of the first things I had to stop doing when I moved to Poland is stop using “How are you?” as a greeting. In America, the question is often used as a substitution for “Hello” with no particular emphasis on being answered. In Poland, I discovered that when I was walking down the street and used “How are you?” as a greeting, often the people would stop and then proceed to explicitly answer the question: “Not so good, not so good, Christian,” one would begin. This, of course, would never happen in the States, because we are always in the perpetual state of “fine” and “okay”.
This week I’d like to look at some of the movies that have affected me in ways which would’ve been impossible if I hadn’t the experience of living abroad for the last six years.
Take Lost in Translation, for instance. I have yet to meet an expat who doesn’t appreciate this movie. While the love story is perfectly entertaining in its own right, it’s the little details of watching Bill Murray’s character acclimate himself into a clearly-overwhelming culture that makes the movie so effective. The way he holds out his open hand with change for the bartender to pick the correct amount, or the Russian roulette way of ordering from a foreign menu, are good honest examples that make you grin with recognition. Julie Delpy’s 2 Days in Paris does a spot-on job of exploring the strengths and precariousness of a multi-cultured relationship, its opportunities for miscommunication and the joy of defying two overpowering forces of cultural conditioning, that had me and my wife simultaneously laughing and cringing throughout the film’s run time.
While I won’t get into details about dramatically off the mark this year’s Oscar choices are (the exclusion of Tarsem Singh’s The Fall is embarrassing on so many different levels), I will admit that I was pleasantly surprised to see that Richard Jenkins was nominated for Best Actor for his work in The Visitor. Along with The Fall, The Visitor is the movie I keep returning to both in terms of consideration and viewing.
The story of Walter Vale, a professor who passively moves through life, until one day he has an unexpected encounter with two illegal immigrants who have been living in his apartment in New York City, is a thing of beauty in terms of its minimalism and ability to say more in what’s unsaid than said. In its own way, The Visitor works like a Donald Barthelme story without all the metafictional trappings, particularly on its theme of adults being interchangeable with children in a world where bad things happen just because (“You can’t just take people away like that. Do you hear me? He was a good man, a good person. It’s not fair! We are not just helpless children!”). Another one of the themes in the film that Barthelme would’ve recognized is the inability to effectively communicate your pain and isolation with words, as Vale tries fruitlessly to learn how to play the piano as a way to hold on to the memory of his dead wife. The latter theme is encapsulated beautifully in its final scene when Jenkins manages to express his anger and solitude without saying a single word.
But more importantly, it’s The Visitor’s portrayal of America that makes it so effective. Vale, however jaded and disillusioned, represents the old romantic idea of America, while the immigrants Tarek – the Syrian musician – and Zainab – Tarek’s Senegalese girlfriend – represent what America can be. This idea is subtly reinforced throughout the movie as Vale, wallowing in mundanity, takes the country for granted, and Tarek and Zainab find new ways to appreciate America. There’s a scene in the movie where Vale takes Zainab and Moona – Tarek’s mother – on the Staten Island ferry. Zainab and Moona are enthusiastic, with Zainab explaining how Tarek used to jump up and down whenever he saw the Statue of Liberty. When Moona asks Vale questions about the Statue of Liberty, he is unable to answer them. While our sympathies are with Vale in his journey to reconnect emotionally, it is the emphasis of immigrants as representing the real America through their vibrancy and enthusiasm that makes The Visitor so compelling. Even the title, meant to reflect the immigrants in the story, could easily be thrown at Vale, a man so disconnected that he may as well be a visitor in his own homeland.
In terms of a cinematic representation of America, I believe The Visitor might be one of the most important films of the decade.
One movie that hit me hard emotionally was Spike Lee’s 25th Hour. There is already a lot to like with the movie. The script is top-notch, somehow made even better by the performances, and the directing and pacing is sharp. But it’s the way that – once the movie moves past the post-9/11 imagery and the gimmicky, yet still effective, monologues – 25th Hour is a love letter to America. The final ten minutes of the movie, particularly with Brian Cox’s monologue, where he is encouraging his son to flee instead of going to prison, is one of the finest moments in cinema.
What begins as a father’s supplication transforms into a sort of personification of the American Dream’s plead to the audience to take advantage of the country’s possibilities. The words, coupled with the stunning imagery of America, are gold:
We’ll drive. Keep driving. Head out to the middle of nowhere, take that road as far as it takes us. You’ve never been west of Philly, have ya? This is a beautiful country, Monty. It’s beautiful out there, like a different world. Mountains, hills, cows, farms, and white churches. I drove out west with your mother one time, before you was born. Brooklyn to the Pacific in three days. Just enough money for gas, sandwiches, and coffee, but we made it. Every man, woman, and child alive should see the desert one time before they die. Nothin’ at all for miles around. Nothin’ but sand and rocks and cactus and blue sky. Not a soul in sight. No sirens. No car alarms. Nobody honkin’ atcha. No madmen cursin’ or pissin’ in the streets. You find the silence out there, you find the peace. You can find God. So we drive west, keep driving till we find a nice little town. These towns out in the desert, you know why they got there? People wanted to get way from somewhere else. The desert’s for startin’ over. Find a bar and I’ll buy us drinks. I haven’t had a drink in two years, but I’ll have one with you, one last whisky with my boy. Take our time with it, taste the barley, let it linger. And then I’ll go. I’ll tell you don’t ever write me, don’t ever visit, I’ll tell you I believe in God’s kingdom and I’ll see you and your mother again, but not in this lifetime. You’ll get a job somewhere, a job that pays cash, a boss who doesn’t ask questions, and you make a new life and you never come back. Monty, people like you, it’s a gift, you’ll make friends wherever you go. You’re going to work hard, you’re going to keep your head down and your mouth shut. You’re going to make yourself a new home out there. You’re a New Yorker, that won’t ever change. You got New York in your bones. Spend the rest of your life out west but you’re still a New Yorker. You’ll miss your friends, you’ll miss your dog, but you’re strong. You got your mother’s backbone in you – you’re strong like she was. You find the right people, and you get yourself papers, a driver’s license. You forget your old life, you can’t come back, you can’t call, you can’t write. You never look back. You make a new life for yourself and you live it, you hear me? You live your life the way it should have been. But maybe, this is dangerous, but maybe after a few years you send word to Naturelle. You get yourself a new family and you raise them right, you hear me? Give them a good life, Monty. Give them what they need. You have a son, maybe you name him James, it’s a good strong name, and maybe one day years from now, years after I’m dead and gone, reunited with your dear ma, you gather your whole family around and tell them the truth, who you are, where you come from, you tell them the whole story. Then you ask them if they know how lucky they are to be there. It all came so close to never happening. This life came so close to never happening.
When the credits rolled and the lights came on for 25th Hour, I remember being close to tears. It was the first time I truly missed being in America. That speech – I couldn’t imagine anyone but Brian Cox pulling it off – rattled me. The monologue touches on everything that makes America so compelling, from its Manifest Destiny to its ability to facilitate multiple rebirths to its need to tell its stories to its “there’s always a way” can-do attitude. This is the America I believed I left behind, the romantic land full of gods and trinkets.
A few hours later when I returned home, I remember turning on the computer to see a news article about Bush and all my doubts quickly disappeared.
This is TOO SOON.