January 16, 2020

Serge Daney on Elia Kazan's THE VISITORS [1972]

The Visitors
by Serge Daney

The Visitors (LES VISITEURS). American film in color Super-16mm blown up to 35 by Elia Kazan. Script: Chris Kazan. Cinematography: Nick Proferes. Sound: Dale Whitman, Nina Shulman. Editing: Nick Proferes. With: Patrick McVey (Harry Wayne), Patricia Joyce (Martha Wayne), James Woods (Bill Schmidt), Chico Martinez (Tony Rodriguez), Steve Railsback (Mike Nickerson). Production: Chris Kazan, Nick Proferes, 1972. Distribution: Associated Artists.


Two American soldiers rape and kill a young Vietnamese woman, possibly a Vietcong. A third soldier turns them in; they go to jail. The same characters, now demobilized, in the USA: one soldier rapes the wife of the informer.

Hard to say if the Vietnamese woman was a Vietcong. Reality is ambiguous and all dinks look the same. It’s hard to say if she enjoyed being raped as well: not enough time for that.

Conversely, the young American woman presents herself as a pacifist, a “radical”: she continues to protest against the war, she truly belongs to the other side: the internal opposition. Or that’s what she thought before she was “visited”. One could put forward that being raped didn't really displease her, the proof being that she would have given herself away for nothing. And she came, that’s obvious. 

Everyone noticed that parallel (though no one managed to make anything of it). But there's a second parallel that the bourgeois and liberal critics – in their immarcescible stupidity – had to be blind to.

On the one hand, Elia Kazan, fiendish organizer of an extremely effective suspense, wraps the audience in his trap, says two or three disturbing things, and subjects them to (makes them accomplices of) a long-brewing violence.

On the other hand, the bourgeois, progressive, anti-fascist critics, those opposing American imperialism and crying over the horrors of the war, begin to falter in front of this film-that-is-reality-itself, sufficiently well put together to appear to everybody (and without causing any problems whatsoever) as a direct consequence of the Vietnam war. Once again, it’s the reality that criticizes.

One rape makes the woman forget her convictions, one film makes the critics forget they are “left-wing”. Strange convictions and strange Left, says Kazan (this is his message), that delights in being “disturbed”. And what do they write? “We leave the theater depressed but hats off to the director” (Gilles Jacob). “Gripping, the film will stay with you” (Jean-Louis Bory). We praise Kazan for making things clear: Left-wing men and women are always fooled, it’s in their nature.

The critics’ stupidity is nothing new. Forever incapable of putting things in perspective (critically, theoretically, politically), especially not the Hollywood system, and too busy gasping in admiration, how could they properly evaluate what, in a product like The Visitors, appears to create a rupture with the system? Forever underestimating the rule, how could they not overestimate the exception?

First delusion: an American director filming in 16mm, at home and in the snow, cannot be making reactionary films. The frivolous Henri Chapier (who, by the way, directed Salut, Jérusalem [1972])  is a good example of how Kazan’s rupture with the system is seen analogously as progressive. From there, so many things are worthy of praise: that the production looks like a family affair, the non-professional actors, the humility of the Auteur caught working without safety nets, at home, etc.

Second delusion: Kazan’s usual “courage” drives him to make a film about/on the margins of/on the subject of (we don’t really know) the Vietnam war, a war that we know is absent from American cinema screens. Kazan is then credited with another rupture, another progress: he breaks from the limits and conventions of the (otherwise rather boring) “film genre”. Whereas in a classical war film like The Green Berets, what justifies the war is the existence of the “war film genre”, in a modern film like Kazan’s, the referent (the guarantee without which the audience’s investment would be void, or at a loss) is subject to a transformation: it becomes factual, historical. It is no longer inherent to the film genre, it is perfectly in line with social practice.

In line with his stated principle that any form of courage has its reverse side of cowardice, Kazan understands very well that casting the whole film under the shadow of the crushing (and also current, traumatic and emotive for Americans) referent that is the Vietnam War is paradoxically the best shelter. Making it the monstrous and intimidating context of the film was the best way to sell his rubbish, rubbish that then comparatively comes across as exemplary and derisory, as exemplarily derisory, the submerged part of a supposedly understood iceberg, the fortunate consequence of a context all the more crushing in that it’s stubbornly absent, not shown, of a context that includes and exceeds it.

Hence the extreme timidity, the puritanism, of the critics who fell into the trap, as if The Visitors had become a part of the Vietnam War, a film that we could only go through, and that reading it (to read the film as it has been made, in a certain way, at a certain time, by certain people) would be pointless or sacrilege, that it would be sidestepping the war. But this non-reading (let’s however acknowledge two lucid interventions by Gérard Lenne in Telerama and especially by George Kiejman in the censured TV program “Long Live the Cinema”) doesn’t prevent the film from making its nauseating refrain heard, to act as the evidence that (among other things) the internal policy of the USA is truly in line with its foreign policy. Same enemies, same methods. 

As a film-about-the-Vietnam-War-shot-in-16mm, The Visitors renounces nothing essential of what makes up the Hollywood system, ensuring its ideological efficiency.  The burning topic, the light technique, Kazan positioning himself as marginal, all allows him to achieve what has never been done successfully: to use the formal apparatus of the Hollywood system (and its underpinning ideology), absolutely consciously, to offer us a lightweight, efficient, economical model of what no longer functions very well (and especially in Hollywood).

The formal apparatus: a certain idea of fiction, of the place of the spectator, of characters and representation, of continuity and transparency, of figuration and sequence, of the visible and invisible, of obviousness and ambiguity. 

Absolutely conscious: of a cause that is anything but progressive to say the least*.

And one would have to be as naïve (naïve?) as Maurin to see Kazan’s problem as “that of an auteur who, by mixing contradictory elements regarding his characters, ends up obscuring in part his purpose and his intentions”. As if the act of obscuring had not always been Kazan’s purpose! Only the extreme collapse of the ideological struggle that he is not leading, leads the revisionist Maurin to try to win the middle ground without criticising it (and to label the center the most pernicious Right).

What makes the fiction of The Visitors possible? Certainly not the Vietnam War, twice absent from the film since it doesn’t feature in it, nor is it the subject of any discourse. The Visitors is the abstract analysis of an abstract situation, a potluck where anyone can bring a dish, even if it means vomit.

The fiction of The Visitors comes from a doubt, the doubt about the identity of the Vietnamese woman, a doubt that neither soldier has the time to dispel since “all Vietnamese look the same” and that their faces don’t show their ideologies. All ambiguities, deceptions, errors are possible: to let the enemy go or to shoot at an ally. What seems to be the problem for Kazan is not so much the rape or the summary execution, which are assumed to be common practices, but the risk of raping or killing the “wrong culprit”.

The wrong culprit: the one that all appearances overwhelm. We are in the thick of Hollywood cinema, of metaphysics. Underneath the games of light and shadow, the perpetual shedding of disguises (whatever they may be: uniforms, team shirts, ideals…) to show the glimmer of another world, truer, barer, deeper than itself. But what Kazan’s film allows us to grasp is that this shedding, to which Bazin (cf. “The Screen of Fantasy”, Cahiers 236-237) attributed the sole powers of the camera, of an eye that objectively sees more and more, is in fact the product of a desire, of a will at the service of an ideology, of a policy. What Kazan proves is that the “fetishism of the real”, the naturalism, the “as if by chance”, the lived experience, all require what they seem to be the opposite of: intervention.

An intervention that we mustn’t avoid in any way. Intervention in Vietnam, intervention of the filmmaker: the film considered as questioning, as torture. If the skin of history is shed, it’s because one has let it shed. Each bit of shed skin is a lie, a shameful and despicable travesty. 

The specificity of Vietnam for Kazan, is just that, and nothing else. Vietnam (like human nature) is split. There is Good and Evil, mixed up together, confusingly. And if sight is no longer enough to spot the difference in times of war, there is always the means to make one talk. And since we are so intent on singing the praises of filmmakers who can “make the real talk” (undoubtedly so it’s the reality that criticizes), let’s refer the chorus back to this film which shows what making one talk really means. 

We see that there is also a bit of difference between Hawks (who wanted to make a film on the Vietnam War) and Kazan: with the former, the hero always knows how to outmaneuver the tricks of his dressed up adversary thanks to his subtlety and gift of observation. But Hawks forecloses what Kazan brings to the fore: the fascination for any fight if it is unequal, for any inequality if it’s “natural”. What Kazan implies is something like: is one really wrong when one rapes (or executes) summarily?

It’s this question not asked by the film (the film must show everything but say nothing) that Kazan keeps answering. He answers it via his alter ego in the film: the old writer. He’s a substantial character who is shown in the first shots of the film near some sheets of paper where one can distinctly read the word “Renegade”. Kazan is too well aware of what he has done, and too well aware that we know it, to have left this mark innocently. We must believe that this inscription works like a quasi-signature, like a stealth admission. Kazan doesn’t exonerate himself. He tries to prove to anyone who’ll still listen that they too are potential snitches, possible pigs. It’s a well-known argument that Paulhan called the “argument of the alikes”; it works by saying “you’re another one of those” and to add in a low voice “therefore I am not”.

So, the old writer, watching a football game on TV with the two soldiers, and after a few drinks, gives a speech, a rare one in the film, like a first response to the question. He says that the greatness of the sport is that we always know who is the enemy (not what he wants, what he thinks, but where he is located): one only needs to look at the color of his shirt. Unlike life, full of deceptive appearances and inconclusive travesties (how can one be surprised by torture or summary executions?), the stadium offers the ideal image of an apartheid that is only a game, of a violence “healthily” given free rein. 

But this speech is nothing but a denial. It’s because the old writer holds on to it that he’s so ridiculous, that everything eludes him, that he must constantly sublimate his desire (incestuous with his daughter, homosexual with the soldiers). He lacks the understanding that new wars, infinitely more perverse, make his speech even more naïve (as naïve as the westerns that we imagine he writes: the nostalgic confrontations between stereotyped Indians and whites).  

Any war today kills many more than the official enemies. Kazan’s entire demonstration is to prove (through the rape episode for example) that stray bullets always reach those potentially guilty.

This is what makes the frequent praising of Kazan for avoiding “simplistic Manicheism” even more idiotic (an idiocy that seems incurable). It’s the likes of Chapier, Cluny, Tristan Renaud, etc who are simplistic. How could they not see that Kazan has only loaded the old writer with the fault of simplistic Manicheism in order to divert attention, and make believe that he, Kazan, is clearly above all this. What he needs is the obsolete and metaphysical theme according to which each is an agent and stake in a fight between Good and Evil, between light and shadow. Manicheism isn’t avoided, it’s generalised. From then on, all problems, even political ones, are but the individual cases of one rule: everyone is a persecutor, a victim.  

Let’s take the character of the old writer as an example. Admittedly, he is a paternal, fallen, disqualified figure. This mediocre writer, a has-been, earns a lot of money, suspicious money (earned writing war novels) which allows him to own a house that has all the appearances of a haven of peace. And when the visitors arrive, they believe the house belongs to the young couple. The image of this insolent material wealth shocks them just as much as it shocked the audience, to whom this domestic happiness was plainly displayed in the first scenes of the film. The omission is that the couple only occupy the house as guardians, that the house belongs to the father. When the omission is rectified, it’s too late to erase the images of idyllic happiness from the first shots. The audience is – and that’s how the film works, on all levels – presented with a fait accompli. Kazan’s trick is to make us forget, or at least to make it difficult to imagine, that the couple is also without wealth, that they live in the father’s house, this house representing America’s metonymy where, abusing the exaggerated affections given to them, pacifists remain parasites (another Poujadist theme in the film, among many). On the opposite side are the penniless visitors, whose acts we know very well while also seeing that they too are victims, victims of a “civil” society who never recognizes its killers, who lacks recognition (the usual right-wing crocodile tears). Who benefits from whom? Who exploits who? Kazan ensures that any asset of a character has a weakness on its reverse side.

This simple Manicheism is replaced by another, more pernicious, more radical Manicheism that does everything to come across as evident and natural. The opposing terms (a face-off present in every character, waiting for a turn of events) are for example: violence and non-violence, deeds and ideas, persecutors and victims, men and women, active and passive. The Visitors is a good example of such a permanent metaphorical shift along this chain, a chain that we know engages all the major ideologems of the fascistic petite-bourgeoisie**

(So it is not sufficient to see the film as a documentary on the “scars that the Vietnam war left on certain strata of the American middle class” [Maurin] without fighting vigorously against the specific manner in which the middle classes use these scars as fetishes.)

Hence two remarks. First, the weight of the sexual overdetermination over each of the oppositions in the chain. Second, the importance of the well-known Kazanian themes: denunciation, renunciation, betrayal. The Visitors is proof that the two are linked. And if idealist cinema has always sought to pleasure the audience with always simulated transformations (see again “The Screen of Fantasy”), Kazan offers one of the most radical images of this simulacrum. With him, in his films, the One only becomes the Other by renouncing itself (just like Johannes becomes Joe Arness at the end of America America), a renunciation that is only an inversion, transforming one into its obscure and repressed other, always-already-there since participating in a split inherent to “human nature”. One could talk more crudely about a repressed inversion, repressed and repressing since it doesn’t present itself for what it is: political. The repression of the political is performed by a repression of the sexual, to the benefit of an erogenization on all levels. 

Renunciation, shedding: it is the same theme, the same story of “dropping the masks”. Everything is already settled (including the audience) from the first shots of the film. The conditions leading to the final violence are already gathered. What’s in these first shots? Early morning, behind a window, a man and a woman have just gotten up: the woman, exasperated, moves aside the hand of the man that caresses her. We don’t know what it’s about, but the film is already under the sign of women’s dissatisfaction. 

It’s now well-known that any fiction is the bringing of a desire to play, on a screen or in the theatre. In the theatre, the audience awaits the happening of something. But Kazan begins his film with a long description of marital happiness, flawless and history-less. What could possibly follow these idyllic images if not, necessarily, the risk, the unease, the danger, everything that is already written with the hand gesture?

To place the audience in the position of a voyeur, to make it an accomplice. An accomplice more and more anxious, worried (unable to invest in the slippery, sliding, ambiguous characters), who must be led to no longer submit to the suspense but – reactively – wish to end it, even if it means exacerbating it, hastening it. The Visitors is built in a such a way that the audience must sooner or later part with the “positive” characters (the couple) and confusingly wishes for what then appears inevitable: the rape. In short, the audience too must renounce itself during the film. 

The audience gets considerable help from the key scene of the film where Martha, a pacifist (therefore) unsatisfied, talks with the soldier in the dark. A key scene not so much in what it teaches us, but because it brings together the conditions of Martha’s rape. It is necessary that Martha – by a coup de force – renounces to overburden the soldier, admits that she doesn’t know what she’s talking about, and begins to dance. The soldier in civilian clothes and the woman who has just shed her ideological garb. Kazan does not say anything bad about pacifism; he doesn’t even pretend that a woman, having sexual organs, cannot have ideas; he simply shows us that these ideas must be renounced – as soon as one takes her desire into account. 

For what would be left of the demonstration of the film if Martha had not been raped? Almost nothing. So, by a simple conflation, contiguity, the rape, even if abstract, distant, horrible is somewhat justified, explained. It’s as if it was duplicated, but in slow motion. As for the famous sliding from the political to the sexual that is specific to American cinema, Kazan could (in other times, with more courage, under another political regime) formulate it this way: you might not be my political opponent, but even if I was wrong in raping you, don’t tell me you didn’t enjoy it: the only good Vietnamese is a dead Vietnamese. 

– Serge Daney

* “I care about everything in the US, even the right-wing tradition, John Wayne-style.” (interview with G. Glayman, Télérama).
** For Kazan, any gap between acts and ideas is a cause for scandal rather than a motive for study or questioning. What is at stake in this fascistic ideology is the status of what we hesitate to call theory, let’s say thinking. Either the thinking redoubles the acts (or operates as their trailer: the visitors say what they do) in which case it is purely redundant. Or it doesn’t coincide exactly with the acts (the old writer and the couple do not do what they say, and vice versa) and therefore it is completely disqualified. Kazan’s extreme dexterity is serving an apology for obscurantism. We think of Claude Lelouch from L’aventure c’est l’aventure where Lelouch presented himself at the onset as nuts (we can understand that). Kazan presents himself as renegade (we know that).
The opposition between violence and non-violence is another couple whose relevance is internal to the said ideology. Not the reflection on violence in society (with physical violence a mere incarnation, the most spectacular) but the opposition between physical and intellectual violence (insidious, hidden, whose model for Kazan is denunciation). What makes this opposition feasible is that all physical violence has sexual assault as a model, that all abstract violence has impotence as a model. 

First published in Cahiers du cinema, issue 240, July-Aug 1972.
Reprinted in La maison cinéma et le monde. Volume 1:
Le temps des Cahiers 1962-1981, P.O.L., 2001.
Translation by Laurent Kretzschmar and Andy Rector.

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