Thursday, November 21, 2013

The Visitor, Solnit & Story: "To Love Someone is to Put Yourself in Their Place"

“To love someone is to put yourself in their place, we say, which is to put yourself in their story, or figure out how to tell yourself their story.” ~Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby

I watched “The Visitor” for the seventeenth (? I’ve lost count) time last night, to introduce my boyfriend to one of my favorite storytellers, writer/director/actor Tom McCarthy. 

In the movie, Walter (I love you, Richard Jenkins!) enters into the story of a younger couple, Tarek and Zainab, immigrants to NYC from Syria and Senegal, respectively. The film holds up, even after 17 times. I was a part of their stories that unexpectedly collided and intertwined – the subtly of the performances infused with the small moments of humor, beauty, and music that surround us daily, if we only pay attention.

I used the film to teach English to my advanced ESL class in Kosovo a few years ago, turning on the subtitles to help with the accents and unknown vocabulary. We watched it one night, and the six students returned with questions, words to guess via context, and themes to discuss: immigration and what it means to be connected in a busy, disconnected city.

As we gathered in a small room that reeked of the cigarette smoke that is omnipresent in Pristina, we heard a muffled drumbeat. Not the usual sound from the crowded Korza below, a pedestrian-only street surrounded by shops, office buildings, and peppered with street carts selling small house wares or roasted chestnuts in the winter.

Opening the window, the sound of drumming grew louder, a group of musicians jamming below. Pieter from Bulgaria eyed the circle, looked back at us, and said, “Perhaps it’s Walter!” We had all felt a part of the story, and suddenly, it appeared to have found us and joined our plot.

Solnit goes on to write that “We tell ourselves stories in order to live, or to justify taking lives, even our own, by violence or by numbness and the failure to live.”  Before watching the film, I’d had a day of craving numbness, no story. Feeling overwhelmed with anxiety, I’d wished I could simply check out, disengage.  Watching “The Visitor” brought me back to my own story, connecting with the larger story of us all through the intimate glimpse into a few weeks of Walter’s life.

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