The Visitor — Unity amid Diversity

Film:The Visitor Movie Poster

The Visitor, 2007

Starring Richard Jenkins, Haaz Sleiman, Danai Jekesai Gurira, and Hiam Abbass.

Synopsis (from NetFlix):

Widowed professor Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins, in an Oscar-nominated role) discovers an immigrant couple, Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and Zainab (Danai Gurira), squatting in his Manhattan flat and becomes wrapped up in their lives when Tarek is thrown into a detention center. A wonderful Hiam Abbass co-stars as Tarek’s mother, who forges an unlikely connection with Walter. Director Thomas McCarthy’s indie drama was nominated for three Independent Spirit Awards.

My Thoughts (warning… after paragraph one there be spoilers):

First of all, wow.  When I finished watching this movie I wanted to run and hug every member of my family.  Unfortunately nobody was home.  This movie does not sugar coat.  I would still call it a “feel good” movie, despite it’s painfully realistic ending, and highly recommend it to all who have not seen it.  It is an example of when art can transcend and speak to the soul, at least for me.  And with that, onto the content and discussion.

The film opens with scenes from Walter’s (Richard Jenkins) life.  It becomes pretty clear early on that he is a sad and isolated person, a widower who has not gotten over his wife’s death and has been living much of his life on auto-pilot.  I think this can happen to a lot of us, especially in grief.  Depression runs rampant in America as we all struggle to connect, to find our place and purpose in life.  It can be overwhelming to feel so alone.

He strives to learn the piano, which we discover later was his late wife’s instrument.  Music is his way of reaching out and trying to stay connected, and when he fails to perfect the piano his hope seems lost.  People often talk about the power of music, and it is true that it can uplift us.

We, verily, have made music as a ladder for your souls, a means whereby they may be lifted up unto the realm on high…  ~Bahá’u’lláh

The trajectory of his life changes as he is forced to go to New York for a conference.  It turns out Walter has kept an apartment there.  Presumably it is where he and his wife used to live, so he cannot bear to part with it but also has not lived there in a while due to the memories.  When he arrives he discovers a couple living there, unaware that he owned the place.  Zainab, from Senegal, and Tarik, from Syria, are a French speaking, Muslim couple who happen to also be illegal immigrants.

Walter initially kicks them out, but his heart warms when he realizes they have no place to go, so he allows them to stay.  Perhaps it was compassion, perhaps it was curiosity, or perhaps it was his soul crying out to end his lonliness.  This choice turns out to change his life, or rather to reawaken him.

I would like to pause here and talk about how amazing this premise is.  It really brings me hope.  Here are people from three continents, working and living together, to break through cultural barriers to learn about one another and the grow and share.  I find that absolutely beautiful.  New York City has often been described as the capital of the world, and the most diverse place on earth, but I think that all throughout the world more mixing is taking place.  Just look at the President of the United States.  Barack Obama is not just the first Black US President, but he is the first mixed-race US President, with a family that spans from Kansas, to Hawaii, to Kenya, and Indonesia.

Tarik takes the time to show Walter how to drum.  Tarik has taken an African drum and Middle Eastern musical influences and brought them together with jazz into a band.  He shows Walter this style, and slowly but surely coaxes him through it.  Walter loves it.  He may not be able to connect to the piano the way his wife had, but he can drum and through the music a smile is brought back to his face, and courage to his heart.

Unfortunately, after Tarik took Walter to a drum circle in Washington Park, he was stopped in the Subway and taken into custody for being Syrian.  Tarik was sent to a detention center waiting deportation.  Neither Zainab nor Tarik’s mother Moona could visit because their status was also in jeopardy. Walter takes it on as his duty to visit Tarik, being the only one who can.  Tarik opened his heart to Walter and shared his music, and Walter wanted to show love in return.

This is where the movie gets pretty sad.  Despite Tarik having applied for asylum due to persecution, it was not granted.  Everyone had to wait, and despite lawyers and appeals, it was to no avail: Tarik was deported.  Walter, however, was changed, and the film ends with him performing the drums in the subway, the way Tarik wished he had been able to do.

This film really plays with the notions of citizenship and of justice.  In this global world people strive to make new homes in new places.  Immigration is a controversial issue in America, and land born of immigrants.  If there were not global inequalities and injustices people would not become desparate enough to leave their home and family to come to NYC.  Walter had been a professor of Economics, studying Development in Third-World/non-Western/Developing countries, yet he had no solution.  This is more than just an economic, but a spiritual issue.

It is not for him to pride himself who loveth his own country, but rather for him who loveth the whole world. The earth  is but one country, and mankind its citizens.  ~ Bahá’u’lláh

Or as The Bible put it in Leviticus, and reaffirmed by Jesus Christ in Matthew:

Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.

In this modern world, with global travel and the internet, everyone has become our neighbors.  We may not be able to solve the large problems, after all the security became tight in response to terrorism, but we can work on the small ones.  Tarik did by helping Walter through a difficult time, and through showing love and compassion.  Walter did the same by trying his best to support Tarik, even if all he could do was visit.

There are small things we can all do, whether it is visiting a neighbor, or trying to learn more about other cultures and peoples, that can help the world through this time of transition.  We are no longer tribes, or even countries, but the world as one, and this film tried to wrestle with a topic we are all wrestling with in one way or another.

Your thoughts?


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WALL-E — Honoring our environment and ourselves

Film:WALL-E Movie Poster

WALL-E, 2008

Synopsis (from NetFlix):

In a futuristic world, human beings have destroyed Earth and evacuated the planet, leaving the cleanup to an army of robots they’ve programmed to do their dirty work. Due to a mishap, the dutiful WALL-E is the only one left. But with the arrival of a female probe named EVE, the monotony of WALL-E’s existence is broken — and he experiences love for the first time. Andrew Stanton directs this Golden Globe-winning Pixar tale with a sci-fi twist.

My Thoughts:

This film transcends its medium.  It speaks to us on multiple levels, from plot, to social commentary, from personal transformation, to collective responsibility.  There are several themes which are quite profound and that people struggle with (or struggle to ignore) daily.

One theme is of hope, and specifically how it can overcome even the greatest obstacles.  We see this exhibited through WALL-E himself.  He is the last of his kind, alone attempting to accomplish an impossible task.  Yet instead of giving up hope he works diligently, gleaning what good he can from the mess that is left of earth.  When EVE comes, he is so happy, and patient with her initially cold (robotic? 🙂 ) reaction to him.

Just as the earth bears those who dig into her, it is best to bear with those who despise us.”  ~TiruVuluvar (the Jain saint)

The theme of hope is also exhibited in the greater society as they send forth the EVE droids in search of a habitable planet.  While it has been 700 years or more, they still go out searching for plant life.  Hope has been a large component of 2008, the year this film came out, and even more so I would say in 2009 as the world embraces the new US President Barack Obama and his message.  Over the last year the world has seen the largest economic collapse since the great depression, with countries like Iceland going bankrupt.  We have seen wars and conflict, from the most recent installment of Israel/Palestine, to the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, to the horrible act of terrorism in Mumbai.  This film is part of the greater conversation of hope, a way to help both children and families engage in this conversation in a more uplifting way than the nightly news might.  If we can keep this conversation going, then maybe we can transform the words into deeds and come up with the small, daily solutions that together can build toward peace.

Release yourselves, O nightingales of God, from the thorns and brambles of wretchedness and misery, and wing your flight to the rose-garden of unfading splendor.” ~Bahá’u’lláh

WALL-E did not worry about the insurmountable task at hand, cleaning up the entire world, a mess that he did not create but that was his mission to fix.  He just went out each day and did what he could, bit by bit, and while it may have seemed like emptying the ocean one teaspoon at a time, it had an effect.  I think that is a lesson for all of us.

One must work on what is not yet there.

One must put in order what is not yet confused.

A tree trunk the size of a fathom grows from a blade as thin as a hair.

A tower nine stories high is built from a small heap of earth.

A journey of a thousand miles starts in front of your feet.” ~ The Dao De Jing, II:64

It is so easy to look at the world and see how enormous these problems are and to be overwhelmed by them.  In doing that we can willfully isolate ourselves, and seek escape.  I do think though, that if we each try to do our small part, collectively it will have an effect.  Through the actions of WALL-E, EVE, and the Captain to fight the system that was trying to keep the status-quo in place they were able to inspire others to action.  I think this is what the great religions, in their pure form, try to do.  If you take out the politics of people who try to manipulate religion to suit their own purpose, the spiritual content of religion is meant to inspire people to transform, to make themselves, and therefore the world, a better place.  It brings people hope, gives them purpose and direction.

The other major theme of WALL-E was responsibility.  WALL-E and EVE each had directives, responsibilities they had to fulfill.  When WALL-E was the last of his class of robot still functioning, alone with nobody to keep him accountable, he still worked hard and was responsible.  This is part of what made him our hero, he had a strong character.  Yes, he had his haven full of the trinkets he collected, and his musicals to keep him company, but I think that is evidence of the other virtue of moderation.  Even robots need down time and can’t survive being workaholics.  WALL-E needed solar power, much like we humans need sleep.  I think in American society we suffer from extremes of working hard, often too hard, and then relaxing too “hard” also.  People veg out on the weekends to recover from the week, sometimes practically comatose.

In the film people had all their needs met and no longer had any real responsibility.  They became fat and sedentary.  Instead of taking responsibility for the waste produced on earth, they ran away.  This did not actually make them happy though.  Clearly this is a cautionary tale for what we are struggling with today when it comes to the environment.  Our society has been designed around consumerism and materialism and this has both social and environmental costs.  Without spirituality and ethics to temper these insatiable desires we can see where the world could end up.  Responsibility is a virtue that we all need to work on.  It is something I struggle with daily, and when achieved is a sign of maturity.

“Maturity: It’s when you stop doing the stuff you have to make excuses for and when you stop making excuses for the stuff you have to do.” ~ Marilyn Vos Savant

Our planet is going through its adolescence, so to speak.  Let us hope we mature to handle the tests of global warming, global waste management, and the myriad of other tests our society is going through.  In the film, many characters learned to overcome selfishness and to think of the others, and the collective.  EVE had a directive and was single-minded in her goals.  It was how she was programmed.  But over time, through WALL-E’s influence she was able to overcome her programming and do right (though her programming was pretty good too, seeing as the Captain turned out to be the only other ally initially).  I think this is also allegorical.  We have all been “programmed” so to speak.  Society is full of conflicting messages, and through our independent investigation of reality, hopefully in time we can each learn to make good decisions and to filter out the good from the bad in media.  Some of the programming is good, and some is not.  Let us hope that like EVE in time we can figure out which is which and work to change.

There is so much more I could write about, but I think I would like to end with an excerpt from the Song of Solomon.  This film is all about love, and hope, and the spring (growth) following the winter (barrenness) and made me think of this beautiful passage:

My lover spoke and said to me,

‘Arise my darling, my beautiful one, and come with me.

See! The winter is past; the rains are over and gone.

Flowers appear on the earth; the season of singing has come, the cooing of doves is heard in our land.

The fig tree forms its early fruit; the blossoming vines spread their fragrance.

Arise, come, my darling; my beautiful one, come with me.’

~ Excerpt from The Song of Songs (The Song of Solomon)

Your thoughts?

Dolores Claiborne — Prejudice, Justice, Truth, and Forgiveness

Film:Dolores Claiborne Poster

Dolores Claiborne, 1995

Starring Kathy Bates, Jennifer Jason Leigh, David Strathairn, Christopher Plummer, John C. Reilly, and Judy Parfit.

Synopsis (from IMDB):

Dolores Claiborne works as a maid for a wealthy woman in remote Maine. When she is indicted for the elderly woman’s murder, Dolores’ daughter Selena returns from New York, where she has become a big-shot reporter. In the course of working out the details of what has happened, as well as some shady questions from the past and Selina’s troubled childhood, many difficult truths are revealed about their family’s domestic strife. This is cleverly portrayed with present reality shot in cool blue tones blending seamlessly into flashbacks shot in vivid color. As small town justice relentlessly grinds forward, surprises lie in store for the viewers

My Thoughts (SPOILERS!!):

I had seen this movie when it first came out years ago, but just recently caught it again on HBO.  Since that time I have doubled in age and gained some perspective.  See this movie, if you haven’t, because it’s really quite good.  Stephen King wrote the part with Kathy Bates in mind after her stunning performance in Misery (1990).

This film challenges our perceptions and our thoughts of what justice is.  It opens on an event that we can only hear but not fully see.  Two women are arguing and then we see one fall down the stairs (we’ll discover later to be Vera), before the other soon runs after her (Dolores).  She proceeds to run frantically to the kitchen in search of a weapon only to return with a rolling pin held high above her head.  But she can’t do it, she stands there mustering the strength, the will, but can’t do it.  Vera (Judy Parfit) passes on, and the door is opened by the mailman who spots Dolores (Kathy Bates).

This is the inciting incident, the incident that begins the inquest, the incident that colors our perception of who Dolores is and what she’s done, and the incident that drags Dolores’ daughter Selena (Jennifer Jason Leigh) back to Maine from New York City after 15 years away.

But is it the truth?  Was it a crime?

Through out the film we will eventually find the answers to these questions, or at least a broader perspective in which to come to our own conclusions, but not before finding out a lot more about Dolores Claiborne and Selena St. George.  And no, the name difference is not arbitrary, it is representative of the conflict between them that has kept them apart for so long.

“Is it possible for one member of a family to be subjected to the utmost misery and to abject poverty and for the rest of the family to be comfortable? It is impossible unless those members of the family be senseless, atrophied, inhospitable, unkind.” ~‘Abdu’l-Bahá

Nearly two decades before Dolores was involved in another incident, which was ruled an accident, though the chief investigator (Christopher Plummer) was sure was murder: the death of her husband (David Strathairn).  Dolores husband was no prince.  He was an abusive drunk.  Selena, however, does not remember him that way.  She remembers the good, and only that Dolores was somehow involved in his death and therefore responsible for destroying the family.  Since then Selena has had a nervous breakdown and is on several medications, none of which seem to be keeping her fully stable.

But is this the truth?  Was it Dolores who destroyed the family?

“In order to find truth we must give up our prejudices, our own small trivial notions; an open receptive mind is essential. If our chalice is full of self, there is no room in it for the water of life. The fact that we imagine ourselves to be right and everybody else wrong is the greatest of all obstacles in the path towards unity, and unity is essential if we would reach Truth, for Truth is one.” ~ ‘Abdu’l-Bahá

Dolores had worked hard for Vera Donovan for a long long time.  She started at $40 a week and eventually was making $80 a week as a live-in maid/nurse.  Yes, a whole whopping $0.20 an hour.  It was hard labor and Vera was a demanding boss, so why did Dolores stay?  Initially to make money to pay for Selena to go to college.  Over time she had saved over $3,000.

She put up with Joe’s abuse for a while, but soon it became too much and she fought back.  Joe had been sneaky though, never abusing her in front of Selena, but Dolores, defensive not sly, was caught by Selena having hit back, Joe’s face bloody.  Selena, having only seen the end of the fight, thought Dolores was crazy, much like how the mailman must have in the first scene we saw.

Dolores became more crazy when Selena’s grades started dropping and she was getting moody and depressed.  Selena was going through puberty and there must have been a boy involved.  Except it wasn’t a boy, it was a man, it was Joe.

Dolores went straight to the bank to get the money she’d been saving so that she could take Selena and leave.  Except the money was gone.  Turns out Joe had found out about it and because it was a custodial account and he was the other parent, was able to access it.

Dolores: It’s because I’m a woman ain’t it?  If it had been the other way around, if I had been the one passing out the ferry story, how I’d lost a passbook and asked for a new one… if I had been the one drawing out what took 11 years to put in… you would’ve called Joe.

This scene is indicative of the sexism in society, back then and now, just as the domestic abuse was and continues to be a problem not just in America but world wide.

“And among the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh is the equality of women and men. The world of humanity has two wings—one is women and the other men. Not until both wings are equally developed can the bird fly. Should one wing remain weak, flight is impossible.” ~ Abdu’l-Bahá

It is in this context, broken and alone, fearing the safety of her daughter and without the means to protect her, that Dolores falls apart in Vera’s living room.  It is the first time her guard is let down in the entire movie and her vulnerability is exposed.  It also is when her shift in personality from well-behaved and hard working, to bitchy and bitter takes shape.  Vera councils her:

Vera Donovan: Husbands die every day, Dolores. Why… one is probably dying right now while you’re sitting here weeping. They die… and leave their wives their money. I should know, shouldn’t I? Sometimes they’re driving home from their mistress’ aparment and their brakes suddenly fail.

Vera Donovan: It’s a depressingly masculine world, Dolores.

Vera Donovan: Sometimes you have to be a high-riding bitch to survive. Sometimes being a bitch is all a woman has to hold onto.

So we see how Dolores could be driven to do what she did to her husband, but what exactly did she do?  She supplied him with alcohol, but he was the one who chose to get drunk.  She provoked him, but he was the one that chose violence.  She led him to where the abandoned well was, but he fell in, she didn’t push him.  She did choose not to help him out though.

Is it a crime to choose not to save someones life?  We see reporters do it all the time when they film atrocities but do not get involved, but this is not the same as that.  Is it the same as murder?  Is leading someone to their death knowing it the same as killing someone?

Maybe this is why Dolores stayed so long in that awful job afterwards.  She committed this deed to protect her daughter who only then despised her for it.  In fact Selena had repressed the memory of her father’s sexual abuse so she also could not fathom what drove her mother to commit that act, an act nobody even had proof of but merely conjecture.  There were no witnesses to her father’s death and he was a known drunk so it logically could’ve been an accident.

Also, Vera understoon Dolores and her problems the way nobody else had.  This is also why it becomes clear that Dolores would not have murdered her, despite the $1.6 Million she stood to inherit.  In the end we see that it was Vera who had thrown herself down the stairs.

Dolores Claiborne: [sobbing] Why? Why’d you do this, Vera?
Vera Donovan: Because I hate the smell of being old.

Vera then asked Dolores to help her, which spawned the frantic search for the rolling pin, but in the end Dolores couldn’t.  There is a difference between passively setting up a scenario which could lead to a persons death and actively killing someone after all. And we are reminded that this is how the movie began, and this is the case the detective is prosecuting, not Joe St. George’s death 18 years prior:

Selena St. George: Eighteen years ago, my father drank a bottle of scotch and fell down a well. Detective Mackey didn’t think it was an accident, which is… why we’re here today.
Det. John Mackey: And what do you think, Selena?
Selena St. George: I think I owe you an apology. I called you a son of a *****. You said you thought we were a lot alike, and you were right. We both spent the past 18 years prosecuting this woman. We came out here- I know I did- believing she was guilty. We forgot this case is about Vera Donovan. Not my father.
Det. John Mackey: And what if it wasn’t an accident?
Det. John Mackey: Look. It’s been 18 years. I don’t know what this has done to you, but let me tell you, it’s consumed me. I have lived with this every day of my life. Every day. I was wrong and I won’t do it any more. And if I can say that, my God, can’t you?

Selena came to terms with what had happened, both to her and her father.  She was able to finally forgive her mother because she could understand the motivation.  As for the current death, she knew her mother would not have been capable.

“Divine civilization, however, so traineth every member of society that no one, with the exception of a negligible few, will undertake to commit a crime. There is thus a great difference between the prevention of crime through measures that are violent and retaliatory, and so training the people, and enlightening them, and spiritualizing them, that without any fear of punishment or vengeance to come, they will shun all criminal acts. They will, indeed, look upon the very commission of a crime as a great disgrace and in itself the harshest of punishments.” ~ ‘Abdu’l-Bahá

I feel like for Dolores this was the case.  She did not want to do what she did, and she knew it was wrong, and it consumed not only her but her daughter for these 18 years.  She punished herself through her bitterness and isolation.  She serves as a warning that even crime committed for the most desperate and understandable of reasons is polluting to the spirit and soul.  Maybe now with new found understanding between daughter and mother she can be forgiven and redeemed.

“O Lord! Have pity on these ignorant ones, and look upon them with the eye of forgiveness and pardon. Extinguish this fire, so that these dense clouds which obscure the horizon may be scattered, the Sun of Reality shine forth with the rays of conciliation, this intense gloom be dispelled and the resplendent light of peace shed its radiance upon all countries.”

~ ‘Abdu’l-Bahá

I find Dolores Claiborne to be an intriguing film that challenges us a lot.  Dolores was treated with injustice and acted in desparation and I think that a lot of crime happens for this reason.  What does this mean for our society?  We must seek justice.  Women need to be treated fairly.  Children need to be protected.  Joe St. George was a criminal who may never have been brought to justice, and while Dolores should not have taken the law into her own hands it is understandable as to how that impulse would arise.

Your Thoughts?