Could 1979’s ‘The Visitor’ Be the Best Film of 2013?

By  · Published on November 12th, 2013

Last week, Rob Hunter was so befuddled and inspired by Drafthouse Films’s newest resurrection project The Visitor that he coined a term to make sense of it: “WTF Cinema.” Says FSR’s resident critic Lorde Mayor,

“Basically, these are movies that consistently challenge expectations (both visual and narrative) to the point that viewers have literally no idea what to expect. This has nothing to do with plot twists, reveals, or shock endings, and instead has everything to do with leaving an audience in a frequent state of head-scratching awe as the unexpected appears onscreen again and again.”

Hunter’s coinage is a useful idiom to describe (or express one’s total failure to describe) a certain type of movie that defies easy comprehension or simple justification for its existence. But I think there’s another aspect of The Visitor worth focusing on that tells us a lot about why it’s taken on this wonderful WTF currency: The Visitor, despite not having been re-edited since its initial theatrical run, is in no way the same film it was when originally released. The Visitor is a film of 2013 more than it ever was a film of 1979.

Helmed by Fellini’s assistant director on Guilio Paradisi (working here under the incredible pseudonym of Michael J. Paradise), The Visitor features an improbable cast led by legendary filmmaker John Huston who, as the film’s protagonist, is some sort of otherwordly cult follower who travels to then-modern day Atlanta to kill an eight-year-old girl who possesses demonic tendencies that run the gamut from ruining basketball games to violently abusing the disabled to laying down F-bombs with a full-throated Georgia accent and bravura after-school-special delivery. Huston, fresh off Chinatown and perfectly content with funneling most of his acting skills toward his considerable talent for being tall, inexplicably takes his damn time ridding the peach state of the young demon spawn, and doesn’t even lift a finger when the girl shoots her mother during a birthday party. Oh, and Lance Henriksen, Glenn Ford, Sam Peckinpah, and Shelly Winters fill the bill, with an uncredited Franco Nero rounding out the cast as a bleach-haired Christ figure.

As batshit as it might sound, The Visitor is not without context. The film attempted to bank off of the popularity of prior horror films about possessed or demonic children (The Exorcist and The Omen) while at the same time seeking to benefit from the recent sci-fi craze (several moments starkly resemble – i.e., rip directly off of – Close Encounters of the Third Kind). Yet these efforts at genre relevance make The Visitor into something of a narrative soup that never mixes quite right. Yet in terms of its originating historical context, it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine that the same 1970s which gave us Logan’s Run and The Man Who Fell to Earth also gave us something as fuck-you-freakish as The Visitor.

But that’s exactly the point – now that the film has been “rediscovered,” re-released, and reconsidered outside of its initial commercial context, The Visitor’s excesses, narrative incoherence, and outright bizarre stylistic choices come across as original and inventive, as a frame entirely without a reference. It feels as if one is watching a mainstream narrative film as might be seen by space aliens. That which was tired and derivative upon The Visitor’s initial release now comes across as brazenly unorthodox and downright avant-garde. It’s not that The Visitor is a great film (note: The Visitor is not a great film), but as a film that has existed almost entirely without a past up until this point, The Visitor resonates as a bizarre lost annal of film history that feels like it never should or could have existed, despite the fact that it most certainly, adamantly does. It’s not a film that was too good or forward-thinking in its time, but is simply one that can be better appreciated in ours, like an insipid wine that somehow came to a delicious peak after 34 years. Except instead of wine, The Visitor is more like confetti-flavored moonshine.

As I’ve written about elsewhere, cinephilia can be a difficult and frustrating practice in the information age. Discovery and surprise are increasingly hard to come by, so it’s something of a wonder that The Visitor (as with other Drafthouse titles) didn’t see a natural cult progression; after all, The Visitor was never a “lost” film. It’s been right under our noses in databases, videostores, and the occasional cable run for decades; what exists now is a framework provided by a distributor known for its sincere affection for the belligerently weird.

So despite the fact that The Visitor was theatrically released in 1979, can it properly be considered a film of 2013, where it is clearly (even amongst the few who have seen it) more beloved than it ever was? After all, Drafthouse isn’t staging this as a re-release like the restoration of Metropolis; the distributor supposed (and quite rightly so) than none of us ever knew the film existed in the first place. It’s a re-release staged as a coming out.

The Visitor isn’t the first film to pose this question. Few but notable films have held the strange honor of witnessing a championed release years or decades after their completion and exhibition elsewhere. In 2006, Army of Shadows, Jean-Pierre Melville’s masterful depiction of the French Resistance against the Nazis, was theatrically released for the very first time on US screens, a long 37 years after its French release. The film made it to the very top of several of that year’s Top 10 lists alongside more contemporaneous films like Children of Men and Pan’s Labyrinth. Released in the US 33 years after the death of its director, Army of Shadows spoke volumes more to the film culture and business of 1969 than it did to that of 2006. Yet the film’s trans-continental exhibition circumstances made it, for all intents and purposes, a “2006 film.”

The delineations by which critics choose their top 10 lists are often arbitrary and sometimes confusing, based within an assumed allegiance to either the timing of festivals or tabs on the commercial release calendar (which many festival films don’t ever see). We moreover rarely deal with the distance between production and release. Many films released during the same year could have been made during a variety of intervals in the past. At what point in that past, then, does a “newly” released film seem not to belong to the year of its release?

This question proved particularly intriguing with the long-awaited of Kenneth Lonnergan’s Margaret. Shot in 2005, the film was shelved and subject to some serious legal entanglements over its length (previously running over 3 hours). Margaret was finally released, sans promotion, in spurts, championed by critics and word-of-mouth, beginning in the late fall of 2011. Sporting performances by an evidently younger Anna Paquin and Olivia Thirlby, and overflowing with themes of post-9/11 malaise, Margaret feels strangely yet profoundly 2005, and seeing the film after years of delay felt less like the belated unveiling of a timeless masterwork and more like looking into a potently insightful time capsule of a history so recent one would think it’d be impossible to feel dated.

We’re used to seeing films whose trajectories toward release seem streamlined and largely without incident, as moviegoers and critics are typically shielded from the ever-uncertain process of filmmaking inside and outside studios. But the path from a film’s production to meeting the eyes of audiences is an unwieldy one, a path that never guarantees an arrival at the intended destination. The timing of a film’s release can have strikingly little to do with the context of its making.

The Visitor likely won’t make it onto many critics’ top ten lists. This piece isn’t my attempt to champion that. Beyond its existence as a strange and wonderful piece of entertainment, The Visitor’s release and coverage says a lot about the peculiar temporal relationship to films that we are so often anchored into by their deceptively ordered patterns of release. As you see critics scramble to assemble their top ten lists in the next few weeks (including this one) in order to come up with some definition of this movie “year,” The Visitor serves as a necessary reminder that, like a potty-mouthed demon with telekinetic powers, all of this trouble is a really a product of the mind.

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