Elia Kazan still couldn’t get out of his HUAC shadow in 1972. His disturbing, Straw Dogs-like film The Visitors puts a whistle-blower at the center of its anti-war narrative.
Bill Schmidt (a young James Woods) is a passive man living with his girlfriend Martha (Patricia Joyce) and her war vet father Harry (Patrick McVey). When two of Bill’s former soldier buddies come to visit him, tensions quickly go on the rise.
It’s not hard to find similarities between The Visitors and On the Waterfront, or even Panic in the Streets or A Face in the Crowd. Kazan frequently deals with acquiescent lead characters forced to confront a past and/or to “name names.” In this case, Bill’s past interactions with Mike (Steve Railsback) and Tony (Chico Martinez) landed the latter two in military prison.
There are plenty of problems with The Visitors. For one, Martha is a complex, albeit weak and unfairly fickle character. Her flirtations with Mike can be seen as revenge on her overly subservient boyfriend and his inability to deal with any kind of violent reality, but given that said flirtations occur after Bill has revealed his difficult, though semi-heroic past to her, she seems simply cowardly and revenge-seeking. It’s not that Bill and Martha’s relationship isn’t fleshed out enough. It is. It’s that Martha’s actions seem less like a plea for real human closeness and more like an unnecessary slap in the face that makes her less sympathetic and weakens the ending.
Kazan lays the symbolism on thick. Harry, Mike and Tony are mans-men. They like shooting guns, watching football, drinking, and eating steak. Bill, on the other hand, prefers to watch idly as the three men kill the neighbors dog, and to make snide comments on the sporting event, hardly touch his whiskey, and give Harry the knife to carve the steak. It’s a good parallel but a bit overdone. By the time several long sequences of the above are done…we get it.
Still, The Visitors is effective, if for no other reason, because the ending is telegraphed, harrowing, and inevitable. It’s also difficult to watch, and there’s no room for reprieve. Kazan’s thesis seems to be that war kills everything – not just those that die in battle. It kills the human spirit entirely.
There’s one slightly heavy-handed but still strong crosscut that I really dug in The Visitors. You’ll notice the production value in the stills below. This is a low budget film, before James Woods was a name, shot on 16mm film in mundane (sometimes picturesque) locations. It’s pretty interesting to see this within Kazan’s oeuvre considering that it’s bookended by The Arrangment with household names Kirk Douglas and Faye Dunaway, and followed by the extravagant The Last Tycoon which reads like a laundry list of stars young and old: De Niro, Mitchum, Nicholson, Curtis, Moreau, Milland.
Here’s that crosscut, which starts with Harry, Mike and Tony standing over a dead dog as Bill watches:
Bill goes inside, and the crosscut continues as the three men drag the dog over to the neighbors’ house:
It’s not revelatory, but I like the simplicity of this. Inside is shot tightly while outside is huge and allowed to breathe. It puts Bill’s character in more of a box and gives the intruders freedom. It also further separates the men from the boy.
Kazan favors a lot of repeat frames in The Visitors. One such example:
Reminiscent of a famous shot from The Graduate, the director prefers his interlopers to loom in the foreground, occupying much of the frame, and making those intruded upon look and feel quite small.
These types of shots are echoed in others like this one-
Where Martha and Mike sit in the foreground looking into a crib (or through prison bars), while Bill hovers harmlessly in the background, physically between Martha and Mike, but not as enough of a presence to actually push them apart.
Like Someone in Love
Abbas Kiarostami has been on a true roll of late. His film Like Someone in Love picks up where his masterful Certified Copy let off. It doesn’t tread a ton of new ground, but it’s still playful and really fun to watch.
You can read my formal review of the film HERE.
It’s tough to talk about Like Someone in Love without giving too much away, so my comments will be brief, a bit rambling, and rely mostly on the link.
This is a film that seems to be “about” themes, rather than any strict narrative. For me it’s about obsessive, unrequited love, the consequences therein, and the point-of-view.
As evidence of the former: Watanabe (Tadashi Okuno) is obsessed with Akiko (Rin Takanashi); he even starts shunning his job on account of her. The nosy neighbor is obsessed with Watanabe though she never had the chance to be with him. Akiko is obsessed with her grandmother (Kaneko Kubota), whom she platonically pines for. She’s also obsessed with the safety she finds in Watanabe, though those two might be the same thing. Akiko’s fiance Noriaki (the really excellent Ryo Kase) is overwhelmingly obsessed with Akiko.
This is reflected in the constant references to paintings, lookalikes and copies. People resemble each other. Akiko says “people always tell me I look like someone,” Then she looks like the painting and (maybe) like Watanabe’s wife and daughter; her fiance mistakes him for her grandfather; the neighbor mistakes her for his granddaughter. It’s obsession with an image and with something that is seemingly unattainable.
Kiarostami leaves much hidden in Like Someone in Love and he does so largely by the use of off-screen sound. We frequently don’t see the action transpiring but are forced to witness it aurally and make a judgment, which is often altered when we are granted visual access. The point-of-view factors prominently in here as well.
The first shot of the film is an extended POV, and one the source of which (whose eyes we are looking through) takes some time to reveal. Later that neighbor spends much time watching through her kitchen curtains. Watanabe watches (or doesn’t watch) Akiko undress, and then later watches Noriaki as the latter waits for Akiko outside of the school.
All of these strategies result in a film that feels beautifully ambiguous and always hinting at some hidden motivation or something deeper than which is ultimately on-screen. A lot of this is due to the strong performances and compelling characters as well.