Thursday, July 22, 2010

102. US director Elia Kazan’s “The Visitors” (1972) (USA): Remarkable and disturbing cinema that forces the viewer to introspect

The Visitors is a remarkable film on a dark subject that becomes even more significant if you are aware of the dark side of the talented director. And more interestingly most American film critics have either ignored this work or trashed it.

The Visitors begins with hardly a sound on the soundtrack. The camera captures, in a long shot, a snowbound house. It is apparently early morning. Tree branches are covered in snow and icicles. A dog roams outdoors. It is evident the director, Elia Kazan, wishes to begin the ‘cinematic narration’ of the tale with a visual metaphorical distance. Lights come on in the darkened house as the inmates wake up. You see a male and a female figure come down from the bedroom upstairs to the living room as they peer outside from the window at the bleak snow covered exterior. There is some subtle body language that suggests that they tolerate each other, that they are comfortable with each other and yet somehow that they are not madly in love. Kazan deliberately does not add music to the soundtrack to please the viewer. The director suggests a cold and sombre tale is to unfold. And the film does prove to be a sombre, thought-provoking tale.

The Visitors ends with the same duo alone in the house. Only now both the camera and the two individuals shown at start of the film are inside the house. The indoors are dark and shadows seem to win over the light, unlike the beginning where light won over shadows. There is a new distance between the couple. There is no physical touching between the couple as in the opening sequence. The body language accentuates a distance between the duo. At the same time you note a discrete new bonding between the two that was obviously missing in the opening sequence as they look at each other. And again there is no sound on the soundtrack. Elia Kazan, the master director, in a way has captured a scream or a wail without the noise—and the silent scream or wail comes from within the director’s heart. This is Elia Kazan of East of Eden (1955) or On the Waterfront (1954) all over again. Yet strangely most Americans wish away The Visitors for some reason. Many would not realize that the The Visitors made the competition grade at Cannes, the year it was made. [It lost out on the major awards at Cannes ‘72 to three equally remarkable films, Francesco Rosi’s The Mattei Case (Italy) , Elio Petri’s The working class goes to heaven (Italy), and Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solyaris (Solaris) (USSR).]

In between the two sequences that I have described, Elia Kazan brings on screen an original script by his son Chris Kazan that obliquely mirrors the dark side of his father’s actions and its consequences in real life for his father. The Visitors is a tale of war crimes and the ripple effect of the revelations of such crimes. In Vietnam, two American army men rape and kill a young defenceless Vietnamese woman. A third American watches, does not participate even when asked to, and eventually testifies against his comrades in war. The perpetrators of the crime are punished. The man who was watching is tormented that he did not stop the rape and killing. He eventually becomes a pacifist after he is court-martialled following his testimony.

Chris Kazan’s story is about the aftermath of the incident. Will the soldiers who were punished forgive the man who testified against them? Will the 'father-in-law' of a pacifist ever come to terms with his 'son-in-law', when he himself is a war veteran of a different war, loves the traditions of the army and is still trigger happy, killing dogs instead of enemy soldiers?

The story on screen written by Chris Kazan has an uncanny parallel with his father Elia Kazan’s (the director of the film) life. Elia Kazan, a brilliant director, a former Communist in the US, chose to testify at the now-Infamous Joseph McCarthy hearings on Un-American Activities at the height of his career. He and some others like actor Robert Taylor named “names” following which several bright minds of Hollywood were blacklisted for life because they were suspected of being “Communists.” Some examples of the victims of this witch-hunt, direct and indirect, were talented directors Charles Chaplin and Abraham Polonsky. Many believe that the famous screen line that actor Marlon Brando shouts in On the Waterfront “I am glad what I done, you hear me? Glad what I done” reflected the thoughts of Kazan after his testimony. And like the Vietnamese war crime testifier, Elia Kazan had equal numbers of supporters as he had detractors. At the Oscar ceremony, where he was conferred a lifetime achievement award, several notable Hollywood invitees opted to remain seated and not applaud the recipient. Kazan had to bear the brunt of his testimony just as the anti-hero of The Visitors. The silent end of the The Visitors is a more powerful antithesis of the torment that made Brando's character shout the famous last lines of On the waterfront.

The two Kazans, Elia and son Chris, present a trenchant tale that provides a moral dilemma for the viewer. Can a military man squeal on his colleagues? Is morality higher than unwritten codes of military honor? In The Visitors, the anti-hero Bill (a worthy debut performance by actor James Woods) has testified against his comrades-in-arms and does not regret it. What he does regret is that he did not have the courage to stop the war crime. He carries the moral burden alone and does not reveal the details to his spouse Martha even though they have child through their live-in relationship, until she confronts him and asks for the facts. Martha’s father is a World War veteran, who gives more importance to military codes of honor and has scant respect towards the father of his grandchild, when he learns of the Vietnam incident from the visitors to his daughter’s house. The visitors are the perpetrators of the Vietnamese war crime who have served their time and are now visiting the man who sent them behind bars.

The film is interesting beyond the obvious interaction between “the whistle-blower” and the criminals. It looks at the characters on the periphery. Martha, who wears glasses and long skirts before the arrival of the visitors, opts to discard the glasses and wear short skirts, which adds another dimension to the straight development of the story. Martha’s father, viewing a game on television, equates life to two teams, nothing more, as it is in war. The Kazans develop a character who, like Martha, seems to give sanction to the events that follow. He even invites the un-invited visitors to stay on.

I believe The Visitors is a well thought out collaboration between father and son exploring the trauma of a man ostracized, a man not considered a virile man when you are a pacifist, a man who believes in his values that might not concur with the majority. Further the film explores the psychology of various characters in the film and their individual grey values. Does a man who says “I forgive you” really mean it? Can a woman who had earlier appreciated the moral stance of her spouse, allow an evil-doer to dance and hug her shortly after the appreciation of her spouse's moral stand? These are grey areas on which questions only a tormented man can ask. I believe this is a Kazan film from the heart of the filmmaker, more explosive, more personal and introspective than any of his previous films. Just as David Lean’s film Ryan’s Daughter was trashed by critics for myopic reasons, Kazan’s The Visitors has a rare individuality and maturity that you only glimpse in his other films. It deserves to be widely seen and re-evaluated now. The importance of the disturbing film is captured and distilled in the final sequence of the film, silent and yet so evocative!