The Films of Others

June 10, 2008

After a bit of an argy-bargy with a friend the other day about how much he hated The Visitor, I thought I’d better go see the damn thing. Tom McCarthy’s The Visitor is that film that your neighbors who see a couple of films a year went to see and loved. And with fairly good reason: as a crowd-pleaser for thinking people it’s not bad. It’s well-made and well-meaning, it tickles the emotions, and it’s smart without being too challenging. And that started me thinking why my friend was so angry about it. There are plenty of far worse films out there deserving of his scorn. The Visitor may be safe, it may be predictable, it may be pandering to white, middle-class liberal guilt… but there are so few films out there for The Visitor‘s target audience that to complain about it seems selfish. And then that reminded me that said friend had also hated last year’s arthouse crowd-pleaser: The Lives of Others, a film equally beloved by pretty much the same audience. And suddenly it struck me that The Visitor and The Lives of Others are practically the same film! Think about it: a lonely, middle-aged man who has shut himself off emotionally from the world suddenly finds himself in the presence of a young, vivacious, artistic couple who are everything that he is not. Through cohabiting (in one way or another) with these strangers and becoming exposed to their passions (where The Lives of Others had Beethoven, The Visitor has Fela Kuti) and creativity he loosens up and starts to enjoy life. But when the dark forces of a tyrannical regime (the Stasi/the INS) intrude and threaten his new friends he discovers hidden wells of passion and goodness in himself. See?!

I’m not accusing Tom McCarthy of plagiarism (though given the character he played on the last season of The Wire that’s tempting), but he sure seems to have tapped into a perfect formula for middle-class, middle-aged, middle-of-the-road feel-good cinema.



  1. Interesting! I haven’t seen THE VISITOR yet, and probably won’t, but that’s a fascinating connection within this certain brand of middlebrow/middleclass indie/foreign films…

  2. My emotions were certainly not tickled, nor would I ever use the word “smart” when describing any facet of this film, and that’s really my problem with it, for I feel McCarthy’s heart was in the right place.

    That there are far worse films out there is, in my opinion, irrelevant. A film shouldn’t be gauged by how it sizes up to the other films at the multiplex.

    The Visitor may be safe, it may be predictable, it may be pandering to white, middle-class liberal guilt… but there are so few films out there for The Visitor’s target audience that to complain about it seems selfish. This is in line with just about every review of the film I read, and I find this approach to film criticism a bit disconcerting. Why give it a pass if it’s predictable, unsubtle, and guilty of pandering? Why is there this need to praise mediocrity?

    As for The Lives of Others, the problem with that film was that people bought (hook, line, and sinker) the director’s ridiculous portrayal of life in the former East Germany.

    But yes, both films are equally dumbed-down, predictable and pandering tales of middle-aged men.

    This friend of yours sounds like he knows what he’s talking about. ;-)

  3. Stuff White People Like, then?! Lives of Others deserves a good kicking and anyone who can hold it down while someone else does so is doing cinephilia a service. A film for people who despise cinema. Two dimensional tedium larded with bogus sentimentality and redemption. Nice decors though: a Wallpaper* ironist’s wet dream.

  4. I may be too young to know this but what was ridiculous about the portrayal of life in East Germany in the Lives of Others?

  5. Yeah Filmbrain, tell us!

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