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.
PART I: Major Writing Assignment (50% of your grade)
The above referenced review is written by New York Times writer, A.O. Cotton who employs exceptional diction, sentences, and phrases to illustrate main character Walter Vale’s attitude toward life and his newfound friends and experiences.
Write a ONE PAGE, three paragraph essay (Introduction, Body, Conclusion) from Professor Walter Vale to the student. Explain from the professor’s perspective WHY he is so indifferent, why he has not given a syllabus, and why he will not accept late work.
Challenge yourself to use FORMAL-HIGHER LEVEL diction as demonstrated in the New York Times article at the beginning of this post. (There is no need to underline, bold, or quote your higher diction as I will recognize it “smile”).
REACH FOR THE HIGHER ACADEMIC WORD. Remember, diction is word choice.
Integrate the three qualities of good writing:
Fresh Thinking, Sense of Style, and Good Organization.
Type your essay using MLA formatting.
Your due date is Monday, 14 July 2014.
The title for the Part I assignment is:
Part I: Letter to My Student.
INSTRUCTOR COMPOSED ESSAY SAMPLE IS PASTED BELOW.
DO NOT DUPLICATE THIS ESSAY.
AVOID STARTING SENTENCES WITH THE “SUBJECTIVE I”
PLEASE REFER TO YOUR WRITING RUBRIC (Please?)
Also, please remember to indent each paragraph five tab spaces. (For some reason the formatting changed on my sample; do what I say, not what I do.)
ENC1101 – Summer C6 2014
14 July 2014
Part I: Letter to my Student
Good for you Mr. Brian Johnson. You are the single student in my Economic’s course who questioned my failure to distribute a syllabus this semester. Give yourself a hearty round of applause, a firm handshake, and let’s all bow down to your genius discovery. You are the mastermind who knows more than Professor Walter Vale and should therefore be the instructor in my stead. Wait, a better idea beckons my intellect: why don’t we appoint you President of Connecticut College?
The first item on your agenda will be to adjust your emotion’s stance. Students do not believe professors have lives. In my humble opinion, students are self-centered, excuse prone whiners who are unreasonable and express astounding demands. In addition, they harbor insurmountable personal problems that result in late work. They enroll in universities all over the country to learn from seasoned professors like myself; however, in the first semester, they become overnight experts on all things collegiate.
Pardon my sarcasm President Johnson, but my current posture has evolved. As a tenured professor and published researcher, I am fed up with all students and didn’t feel compelled to devise a syllabus you and your peers would ultimately ignore. Furthermore, my beloved wife suffered a heart attack and died two-weeks ago, and the university only offered four bereavement days. The latter is the impetus for my current behavior; systemic dynamics have challenged my enthusiasm to the point of disinterest.
Again, your assignment is due on Monday 14 July 2014
ONE PAGE ONLY; Three paragraphs
Every paper will have the same title:
Part I: Letter to my Student
No late assignments will be accepted.
If you have any questions, please email me: firstname.lastname@example.org
Part II: 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 21 July 2014
- The title for your paragraph will be: Part II: Thank you Tarek!
Part III: Support Writing and Grammar (15% of your grade)
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 READ and REFER to Chapter 7, Pages 134 – 138 which address Irony, Wordiness, Euphemisms, Cliches and Mixed Metaphors. I am including some, but not all, of the aforementioned culprits in my paragraph(s), you will REVISE by identifying, eliminating, and replacing each. Tighten the language and ultimately offer 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.) Eliminate and or replace the SLANG and JARGON. GET RID OF THE CLICHES (Please!)
Note: Less is more
- Type your paper using MLA formatting guidelines.
- TBD (To Be Determined after books arrive)
- The title for your paragraph paper will be:
- Part III: Dear Zainab
Zainab my love,
I am such a sorry S.O.B. You are a beautiful, wonderful, loyal, talented woman who has always had my best interest at heart. I should have listened to you and not been on Arab time. The table that helps you make the almighty dollar was of the utmost importance for your welfare and mine. I’m an idiot, but a doggone idiot that loves me some you. We are both now in a great big old spectactular mess of monumental proportions that could get you sent back to Senegal and me to Syria. Walter is now aware that neither of us are legal but he is a great and generous white dude who stays as cool as a cucumber don’t you think? I mean really, ya know? He let us live in his apartment, he was open to me teaching him how to play the djembe after he hated playing the piano, he helped me get a legal eagle, and he has religiously and valiantly and happily and without fail come to visit me. Dang baby, I miss you. What if we never see one another again? As muslims we must remember to genuflect and pray seven times a day so that the fate of our Mohammad will err in our favor and our lives will return to the way they were before I was sent to this place and got us in this fiasco of a mess. What if I am sent back to Syria? What if I am never released? What if we never see one another again? What if Walter makes us move afterall? What if he tries to hurt you while I am away? I know you have been burning the midnight oil to make jewelry and I heard you clear as a bell when you instructed me not be late. “No Arab time.” Why didn’t I listen to you Zainab? 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 hard to keep my feelings in tact until the immigration attorney Walter hired can have me released. It is my fundamental belief that when my mother, Mouna, arrives to the U.S. it will help the validity of my case and it’s ultimate finality. Last but not least, it goes without saying that Walter is prob driving yoiu stark mad by beating the Djembe every night, but with every beat, the drum speaks a language known to only you and I. Be as strong as the woman you were the day we met under a warm sun that sang a love song called forever.
Penny Dickerson 2014