Review by A. O. SCOTT
Professor as Student of His Life and Others’
When we first meet Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins), he is in a state of emotional inertia that clinicians might identify as depression. He does not seem acutely unhappy, but then again, he doesn’t seem to feel much at all, locking whatever inner life he might have behind an aloof, unfailingly polite demeanor and keeping a glass of red wine handy in case further anesthesia should prove necessary.
A professor of economics at Connecticut College and a widower, Walter plods through an existence that looks comfortable and easy enough, but also profoundly tedious. He recycles old syllabuses and lecture notes for his classes, and suffers through piano lessons in a half-hearted effort to sustain some kind of connection to his wife, who was a classical concert pianist.
Early in “The Visitor,” Tom McCarthy’s second film as writer and director (the first was “The Station Agent”), it seems inevitable that something will come along to shake Walter out of his malaise. And sure enough, when he reluctantly travels to New York to deliver a paper at a conference, Walter finds that the Manhattan apartment he keeps but rarely visits has been surreptitiously rented to Tarek (Haaz Sleiman), a drummer from Syria, and Zainab (Danai Gurira), his Senegalese girlfriend, who sells handmade jewelry at flea markets. Walter’s initial dismay and irritation gives way to an instinctive flicker of compassion, and he invites the couple to stay, at least for a short while.
The curious thing about “The Visitor” is that even as it goes more or less where you think it will, it still manages to surprise you along the way. Tarek and Walter quickly become friends, though Zainab is more reserved and also clearly more suspicious of her new housemate and benefactor. Walter takes up drumming, and begins to feel his zest for life and his appreciation of New York returning after a long period of dormancy.
This urban, multicultural idyll is shattered when Tarek, who, like Zainab, is in the United States illegally, is picked up by the police and taken to a detention center in Queens. Shortly thereafter, his mother, Mouna, played by the wonderful Israeli Arab actress Hiam Abbass, arrives from Michigan, to make Walter’s life still more interesting and complicated.
To summarize Mr. McCarthy’s film as I have is to acknowledge some of the risks he has taken. It is possible to imagine a version of this story — the tale of a square, middle-aged white man liberated from his uptightness by an infusion of Third World soulfulness, attached to an exposé of the cruelty of post-9/11 immigration policies — that would be obvious and sentimental, an exercise in cultural condescension and liberal masochism. Indeed, it’s nearly impossible to imagine it any other way.
And yet, astonishingly enough, Mr. McCarthy has. Much as “The Station Agent” nimbly evaded the obstacles of cuteness and willful eccentricity it had strewn in its own path, so does “The Visitor,” with impressive grace and understatement, resist potential triteness and phony uplift.
A few false notes remain. Tarek’s friendliness is too emphatic, and the blossoming of his friendship with Walter proceeds a little too quickly and smoothly to be entirely credible. Long-term houseguests, however appealing and exotic, would surely test the patience of even the saintliest economist, to say nothing of an evident curmudgeon like Walter.
But these objections are, for the most part, dissolved by the clarity and simplicity of Mr. McCarthy’s direction and, even more, by the quiet precision of Mr. Jenkins’s performance. An actor himself (he recently played Scott Templeton, the journalistic rat on “The Wire”), Mr. McCarthy scrupulously avoids big moments and telegraphed emotions, and Mr. Jenkins, a durable character actor known to HBO subscribers as the spectral father on “Six Feet Under,” plays his repressed, circumspect character with exquisite tact. Walter loses his composure only once, and even then Mr. Jenkins keeps the outburst within the boundaries of his shy, professorial temperament.
Walter is fundamentally diffident, decent and disinclined to call attention to himself, traits that pose an obvious challenge to Mr. Jenkins, who must still make this man interesting enough, vivid enough, to carry the film’s dramatic burden. Walter himself, at his best, might insist that the story is not really about him. He, after all, leads a life of privilege and entitlement, and is unlikely ever to be faced with homelessness, exile or deportation. And yet the film’s title refers to him — a transient presence in his own life —as much as it does to Tarek, who seems at home wherever he is.
Mr. Jenkins manages at once to deflect and to earn the audience’s sympathy, and to convey an inner transformation brought about by a shy, unselfish engagement with other people. How does he do it? Great acting is always, almost by definition, something of a mystery, a blend of technique and instinct for which no identifiable formula exists. Mr. Jenkins’s posture, his balked smile, the occasional fidget of his hands or pause in his stride — all of these almost subliminally communicate something about who Walter is, so that by the end of the film we feel we know him very well. And more than that, that he is someone worth knowing.
“The Visitor” is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). It has some profanity.
Written and directed by Tom McCarthy; director of photography, Oliver Bokelberg; edited by Tom McArdle; music by Jan A. P. Kaczmarek; production designer, John Paino; produced by Mary Jane Skalski and Michael London; released by Overture Films. Running time: 1 hour 43 minutes.
THIS ASSIGNMENT HAS FOUR SEPARATE PARTS.
IN PART I OF THE ASSIGNMENT, YOU HAVE THREE EXERCISES FROM CHAPTER 7 IN YOUR TEXTBOOK TO COMPLETE.
- Type your assignment using MLA formatting.
- Your due date is 3 June 2013.
- Your title will be: Part I: Chapter 7 Exercises.
- It is fine if your assignment surpasses one page.
Part I: Support Writing & Grammar
Read Chapter 7 “Diction, Tone, Style.” (Page 114 – 135) Chapter Introduction: “Your decisions about words and sentences set the tone and style of your writing. Not only do you choose sentence strategies for correctness and effectiveness, but you also choose words for accuracy and effect. Sentences must be clear and effective; so must words. Diction deals broadly with words, not in isolation but as parts of sentences, paragraphs, and essays. Every time you write and revise, diction comes into play.
- Complete the exercise in orange on the bottom of page 114.
- Write the entire passage over and underline the concrete terms as directed in the instructions.
- Complete the exercise in orange on the bottom of page 116.
- Write both the question and your response.
- Complete the exercise in orange on the bottom of page 131.
- Write the sentence and then your response(s) beneath each.
PART II: Major Writing Assignment (50% of your grade)
In the above referenced review by New York Times writer, A.O. Cotton, uses exceptional diction, sentences, and phrases to illustrate main character Walter Jenkins’ attitude toward life and his newfound friends and experiences. During class on Monday, May 20, 2013 the following took place:
- We viewed the first hour of the film,
- Read through portions of the movie review,
- You recorded highlighted words that I deemed challenging.
- I demonstrated how to utilize your online thesaurus to discover the meanings of words and their synonyms and antonyms.
- I referred you to corresponding pages in Chapter 1 to identify the four purposes of writing (inform, entertain, persuade, express), the significance of audience, and the three qualities of good writing (Fresh thinking, sense of style, and effective organization).
I’ve extracted the following words for you to refer to when completing the Part II assignment.
inertia, aloof, demeanor, tedious, reluctant, malaise, surreptitious, dormancy, idyll, infusion, condescension, masochism strewn, curmudgeon, scrupulous, spectral, circumspect, diffident, disinclined, exile, transient, deflect.
Write a ONE PAGE, three paragraph essay (Introduction, Body, Conclusion) from the student who was told by Professor Walter Jenkins that late work could not be accepted.
Give voice to the student and explain in the essay why the work was late, does the student offer an apology in the essay? Explain the specific personal circumstances the student mentioned, and further address why the student feels the work should be accepted late.
Use a minimum of 12 of the words from the list above when composing your essay. BOLD AND UNDERLINE EACH WORD USED.
Type your essay using MLA formatting.
Your due date is 3 June 2013.
The title for Part II assignment is:
Part II: Letter to Professor Jenkins.
Part III: Major Writing Assignment (50% of your grade)
Write a two paragraph note to Tarek from Walter. The tone of the paragraph will be humorous and entertaining. Allow Walter to give Tarek an update on both his progress and practice with playing the Djembe. Express a tone of gratitude and include how the transition from piano to drum has fortified Walter’s life. The note will be left in the apartment for Tarek upon his release; Walter has returned to Connecticut.
- Type your paper using MLA formatting guidelines.
- Your due date is June 3, 2013
- The title for your paragraph paper will be: Part III: Thank you Tarek!
Part IV: Support Writing and Grammar
Revise the following letter written by Zainab. Remember that Tarek instructed Walter to not bring Zainab to the detention center in Queens. The letter will be delivered by Walter and held up to the window for Tarek to read. She remains tremendously upset that Tarek has been arrested, but still feels a need to emphasize how all of this could have been avoided if he had just not been on “Arab Time.”
It is imperative that you refer to Chapter 7, Pages 132 - 134 which address Irony, Wordiness, Euphemisms, Cliches and Mixed Metaphors. I am including all of the aforementioned culprits in my paragraph(s), you will REVISE by identifying, eliminating, and replacing each. Tighten the language and ultimately offering a clear and succinct letter of communication that maintains a tone of “heartfelt emotion” but also inhabits strong diction, tone, and style.
REVISE BY TAKING LANGUAGE AWAY, DO NOT ADD UNLESS IT IS FOR THE SAKE OF GRAMMAR (pronouns, articles, etc.)
Tarek my love.
I miss you dearly and wish that you would allow me to visit you in the place they’ve taken you. The events that have occurred are dreadful and scary. What if I am sent back to Senegal? What if you are sent back to Syria? What if you are never released? What if we never see one another again? What if Walter makes us move afterall? What if he tries to hurt me while you’re away? I have been burning the midnight oil to make jewelry to have the almighty dollar that means so much to Americans. I know you heard me clear as a bell when I instructed you to not be late. All I wanted was for you to pick-up my table on time. I warned you, “No Arab time.” Why didn’t you listen to me Tarek? Why? I am sick as a dog with fear and worry and while I know being patient is easier said than done, I am working so hard to remain cool as a cucumber until the immigration attorney Walter hired can have you released. It is my fundamental belief that your mother, Mouna, arriving to the U.S. will help the validity of your case and it’s ultimate finality. I miss you Tarek. Last but not least, it goes without saying that Walter is driving me stark mad by practicing your Djembe everynight. With every beat, the drum speaks a language known to only you and I. I guess all three of us miss you. Hurry home to me please. Be as strong as the man you were the day we met under a warm sun that sang a love song called forever.
Directions for Part IV
- Type your paper following MLA formatting guidelines.
- Your due date is 3 June 2013
- Your title is:
- Part IV: Dear Tarek, I Miss you
ON MONDAY, JUNE 3, 2013 ALL OF THIS ASSIGNMENT IS DUE. YOU WILL TURN IN HARD COPIES. NO UPLOADS OR EMAILS WILL BE ACCEPTED.
STAPLE ALL OF YOUR ASSIGNMENT TOGETHER BEGINNING WITH PART I AND ENDING WITH PART IV. YOU WILL NOT NEED TO LABEL THEM Part I, II, III, or IV as I have already given you directions that will differentiate them by being specific with titles.
Note: DO NOT STAPLE YOUR EXTRA CREDIT “DREAMGIRLS” ASSIGNMENT TO THIS. Again, that is extra credit, not mandatory.
YOU SHOULD NOT BE TURNING IN MORE THAN FIVE SHEETS OF PAPER: Part I should not surpass two pages, and Parts II, III, and IV should each be limited to ONE PAGE EACH
YOUR HANDOUT ON “Run-on Sentences” is also due June 3, 2013.
NO LATE WORK WILL BE ACCEPTED.
This assignment was developed and published at 3:15 p.m. on Monday, May 20, 2013. I will additionally send you a Blackboard message to your FSCJ star email accounts letting you know that the assignment has been posted.
There is no class on Monday, May 27, 2013 (Memorial Day) so you have TWO WEEKS, 14 DAYS, and 336 HOURS TO COMPLETE ALL OF THE LESSONS IN THIS ASSIGNMENT.
I EXPECT ZERO WHINING OR EXCUSES ON June 3, 2013.
Here’s to good writing!