This is the first of a regular series of columns in NLR on the cinema. Alan Lovell writes: “I am not aiming at a comprehensive coverage of what is happening in the cinema. I intend to write only about films or developments in the cinema which are important and which interest me. I will try to write about films which have a fair chance of being seen throughout Britain, or films which are so important that I think people ought to know about them, even if they never get a chance to see them.”
You won’t see The Visit at your local cinema. Its subject is uncommercial, it only runs for half an hour, and it’s slow. It’s also one of the most remarkable pictures ever made in Britain.
The Visit is about an unmarried daughter who looks after her elderly parents. One day the unvarying pattern of their lives is disturbed by a visit from a young nephew and his fiancee. This visit forces the daughter to remember all the opportunities in life she has missed.
Jack Gold, who wrote and directed the picture, didn’t choose the easy way to do it. Apart from avoiding the conventional dangers (the parents are shown to be rather unpleasant, there is no emotional “kick” to the ending), he has treated the subject in a very original manner. The film is highly stylised. The rhythm is much slower than normal, shots are held for a very long time, camera angles seem awkward, and compositions are formal. Sound is used in a very sparing and calculated way.
The main effect of this method is to distance the audience from the film. It would be very easy, with a subject like this, to let the audience come away feeling that they had resolved the situation by identifying with the characters and showing sympathy for them. You can’t do that with The Visit. The slowness of the film means that after you have made the first automatic identification with the people and the situation you see on the screen, you have time to stop and think about your experience. Because you are able to disengage yourself in this way, the picture remains obstinately outside you, not something you can come to easy terms with. After the picture the people and the situation remain with you. Pain and unhappiness are not things you can get rid of by a thirty minutes emotional bath in a cinema.
The stylisation has other important effects. Because of it you do not feel that the picture is about one particular situation but that it is representative of a common situation. The rhythm of the picture makes you feel that the situation has a long history and will have a long future. It is not just one isolated moment in time. Because sound is used so sparingly, it has a very powerful effect when it is used. The first time it is used is when the boy and his fiancee are walking along the street to the old people’s house. The sudden burst of music makes the whole scene extraordinarily lyrical.
I think it’s important to notice that the stylisation of The Visit is not imposed from outside. It springs naturally from its subject matter. The rhythm of the picture reflects the rhythm of the characters’ lives, the formality and awkwardness of the groupings and camera set-ups match the formality and awkwardness of working class homes.