Category: Column

Photo from the 2014 film Güeros.

There is a moment in Alonso Ruizpalacio’s 2014 film, Güeros, that has stayed with me since my first viewing: following a confrontation with an angry neighbor, the film’s trio flees the scene by car, and Sombra, the protagonist’s older brother, lies in the backseat undergoing what is clearly meant to be an audiovisual representation of a panic attack.

The scene owes much of its haunting memorability to its experimental track. A selection of ambient sounds—an eerie screech, a low rumble, and an incessant beep—intensify in sync to Sombra’s deteriorating mental condition, blurring his vision and muting the pleading voice of his younger brother (shown above) until his whole existence is reduced to the mere sound of frantic breaths against the backdrop of perilous sonic waves, which are evidently threatening to overtake him.

The reason this scene continues to leave such a lasting impression on me is simple: I, too, suffer from anxiety, and the scene’s mise-en-scène (everything that physically appears before the camera) seamlessly blends with the avant-garde dreaminess and apprehension of the score to elicit a convincing and uniform reproduction of my mental affliction.

In fact, when I first saw this film, two years ago, I was in the midst of my own personal Crisis. This took place seconds after I realized it was mathematically impossible for me to pass one of my CS classes, and that, consequently, I would be unable to graduate from Columbia within the traditional four-year span. Suffice to say, this colossal failure (“colossal,” insofar as it was the only notable one in my life thus far) amplified my anxiety-inducing imposter syndrome to the point where I physically couldn’t leave my room; the specificities of what followed, however, are for another time.

For now, I wish to briefly ruminate on one of cinema’s most sacred, primordial powers, illustrated by the aforementioned example: its ability to instill in the viewer catharsis (Greek: “katharsis,” meaning “purification” or “cleansing”) through poignant verisimilitude, especially as it relates to life’s immanently tragic nature.

As Aristotle teaches us in his seminal work on tragedy, Poetics, this experience is marked by a profoundly satisfying purgation of “negative” emotions, especially those characterized by fear and pity. In the end—if all has gone well—the viewer reemerges with the consoling reaffirmation that, despite one’s misfortunes, they will be able to cope nonetheless; in other words, that everything will end up okay.

But, on a more primal level, why do we experience catharsis at the movies at all?

Here it is helpful to quote the German Continental philosopher, Hans-Georg Gadamer, who is best known for his 1960 work on hermeneutics, Truth and Method, in which he writes:

“What is experienced in such an excess of tragic suffering is something truly common. The spectator recognizes himself and his finiteness in the face of the power of fate…To see that ‘this is how it is’ is a kind of self-knowledge for the spectator, who emerges with new insight from the illusions he, like everyone else, lives.” (132)

The first step in reaching catharsis, “recognition,” is not to be misunderstood as something immediate, for this is the process by which the artist aims to get the viewer to empathize with the protagonist on at least some level (this implies neither likeability nor relatability—think Walter White from Breaking Bad). Neither should it be seen as “contextual” recognition: after all, who else has ever found themselves literally trapped by a boulder in a remote slot canyon in southeastern Utah (127 Hours)? The recognition, then, is a thematic one: to use the previous example, the viewer is familiar with the general feeling of being suddenly pitted against a formidable obstacle which, despite your initial off-guardedness, will come to test the limits of your resolution.

The instant of catharsis occurs when the character’s suffering reaches its crescendo because it is here that the “power of fate” is most viscerally felt. Having been emotionally “led on” by the artist, the character has become us in the abstract sense, so that their trials and tribulations are likewise our own. Hence, we too are subjected to the great emotional weight of intense suffering when the crescendo arrives. It is here that the recognition realizes its consummate form as an utterly affective phenomenon.

It is the aim of the artist to lead the viewer to this step of “affective immersion,” without which the next step is not possible: the acquisition of what Gadamer terms “self-knowledge,” or “new insight.” This is the most important stage of catharsis, for it is here that art fulfills its primordial power: the viewer can now walk away with a rejuvenating, newfound emotional clarity. All that is left is the dissection of this clarity and the study of its personal implications.

For me, after watching Güeros, this meant sitting in shock for several hours, letting the weight of time slowly crush me as I slowly accepted the terrifying reality of my situation: I was having a chronic panic attack, fueled by a feral wave of anxiety, and was caught up in a truly desperate situation which seemed to have no end in sight.

Finally, cinema’s greatest gift: the capacity to incite radical change in the viewer, for the betterment of his or her situation, or those of others.

For me to get up and say:

“Hm…Maybe it’s time I got out now.”

 

The Seventh Art is written by Juan Gomez and runs every other Sunday. To submit a comment/question or a piece of your own, email submissions@columbialion.com.

Photo Courtesy of the Vanishing Point Chronicles

Mid-October marks many things in a college student’s life. It’s the beginning of midterms, the end of the beginning-of-semester haze, the hangover from homecoming, the warm weather’s slow abandonment. We desperately begin to count down to Fall Break, but the wait seems impossible. In this hour of need, you ask, what else but film can lift our spirits? What films and shows can we turn to?

Fall TV premieres are slowly trickling in, but for immediate therapy, check out this summer’s best premieres and releases:

  1. Dunkirk

Only Christopher Nolan can write a 70 page screenplay, cast Harry Styles as the most talkative character, and then insist that his film be shown in 70mm across all theaters in the US. And only Christopher Nolan can turn all of that into a smashing success. Based on a true story, Dunkirk is not only the most visually stunning film you’ll see this year, but also the most enthralling. Commonly mislabeled as a typical war movie, there’s really no way to describe Dunkirk to someone who hasn’t seen it. What Nolan has created is a plot line with twists and characters unlike those you may be familiar with. And that’s precisely what makes it so great.

  1. The Big Sick

I don’t think I’d be able to count the number of times I burst out laughing while watching Kumail Nanjiani’s debut feature film. A movie based on Nunjari’s own love story, The Big Sick was the romantic comedy version of Dunkirk. Nanjiani refuses to conform to the tropes that often plague this genre and instead infuses this story that isn’t really about romance at all with an incredible sense of humor and relevant social commentary . This innovative story, combined with Ray Romano’s adorably dopey performance as the girlfriend’s dad, catapults The Big Sick to the top of romantic comedies.

  1. Spider-Man: Homecoming

If you’re only planning on watching one of this summer’s blockbuster superhero hits, skip Gal Gadot’s overrated Wonder Woman for Tom Holland’s stellar performance in Spider-Man. Sure, Wonder Woman broke a glass ceiling and it’s great that a woman superhero is getting her chance to shine, but amidst the massive boost of superhero movies, Spider-Man returns to the genre’s roots. Unlike Wonder Woman and other recent films in the genre, Spider-Man is light and funny, and it finally feels like the movie-for-all-ages superhero films promise to be. Holland’s character is indeed “super,” but he’s also relatable, and I found myself rooting more genuinely for him than I had for any Marvel or DC character in a long time.

  1. The Handmaid’s Tale

If you don’t want something dark, don’t watch The Handmaid’s Tale. But if you want to experience television’s most thrilling and thought-provoking series of the summer, it may be worth it. Based on the novel by Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale follows a dystopian futuristic America in which women are forced to return to domesticity. Our protagonist, played by Elisabeth Moss, is chosen as a breeder– and while her performance is outstanding, nothing could prepare you for the chills that will run up your spine when Yvonne Strahovski’s and Ann Dowd’s characters come on screen. In fact, nothing really could prepare you for the whole show at all, so I guess you’ll just have to watch it yourself.

  1. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

I know I’ve spoken about this show before, but in this season Kimmy attends Columbia, and her observations are so spot on that it should probably be required viewing for incoming first-years. Although they filmed at UTS and not Columbia, the Kimmy Schmidt showmakers somehow found a way to harness the culture of Columbia– stress levels and all– in a wonderfully concocted season of puns, social commentaries, and Hamilton’s Daveed Diggs. Even if you haven’t watched the first couple of seasons, season three is worth your time. Maybe use it as a study break when you’re up late in Butler– and perhaps take Kimmy’s advice when she tells you there’s more to life than studying.

Photo by Timothy Diovanni

Hypercube: Brain on Fire

(le) poisson rouge 10/15/17

 

If you want to learn about philosophy in action, talk to Hypercube, a NYC-based contemporary music ensemble comprised of saxophone, percussion, guitar, and piano:

“A hypercube can be described as an analogous shape, a 3-dimenseional cube, in four or more dimensions. The cube formation is essentially a 3-dimensional equalizer. We like to think that it enters another dimension when the music is added,” Erin Rogers, saxophonist, explained over e-mail.

Does the music transport to another dimension? Or is this just lofty language – is the actual experience more conservative?

To answer these questions, I will describe the musical experience. Mikel Kuehn’s Color Fields (2006/8) sounds like painted landscapes. Barren, desolate tundra morphed into desert glow. In the most colorful moments, it is hard to determine which instrument is playing which line. Disembodied sound eliminates the individual, presenting a blurred image.

These mixing timbres – a fancy term to say how an instrument sounds because of its physicality (i.e. what makes a clarinet sound like a clarinet and not a flute) – are explored in Andriessen’s Hout (1991). I appreciate Rogers’s commentary before the piece; she describes how the instruments interact through a displaced motive. Tree branches shoot out, overlapping, rustling into each other. Rare unisons sound like the manifestation of unshakeable wood.

Behind me, as I listen, ice cubes rumble. Spaghetti and meatballs float in waiters’ hands. This is a new concert experience for me – I am used to the absence of most extraneous sounds – and I am not very happy about it (boohoo for me, I guess).

Rogers leans back with her instrument, like a rocker with their guitar or mic stand. Jay Sorce, spectacled, navigates his instrument’s fingerboard, stoically, with an occasional head wiggle. A grey-haired man in the front row moves his head in time with the music, outwardly satisfied. Unflinching precision masks Chris Graham’s face; he is a Secret Service agent on the marimba. Between pieces, he appears relaxed, friendly, smiley. Pianist Andrea Lodge’s head bounces in a groove. Yellow, blue, pink light shroud the performers, their instruments, sheet music, and iPads. One forlorn disco ball dangles, misplaced, from the ceiling.

Photo by Timothy Diovanni.

Most composers treat Sorce’s guitars – he plays both acoustic and electric – with extra care, making sure to not have them overpower the ensemble. Schuessler’s Liminal Bridges (2016) and Hurel’s Localized Corrosion (2009) stand in contrast: Sorce shreds, riffs, wails, screams eruptions of living sound. Flutter-tonguing in the saxophone complements these outbursts. Who knew these instruments could mix so convincingly?

Considering these sound worlds, does the program achieve its goal of setting the audience’s “Brain on Fire”? This program is as a challenge to concertgoers: the music should, in theory, cause vigilant attention, surprise, visceral responses. Hurrel’s Localized Corrosion best accomplishes this task for me.

Intense, overwhelming sound catapults the piece. Thunderclaps in the bass drum, a growling saxophone, trembling guitar. Quick switch in texture. Sad vibrations stream from the solo guitar. Ensemble jumps at him, vigorous, interruptive. Disconsolate saxophone sighs: hell-plunging, uneasy piano pulsations: metallic acceleration on a small gong: vigorous, bold guitar. A bass drum orgasm terminates in profound stillness. Tense energy radiates from the stage. 10, 15, 20 seconds. Nothing. The performers hold their positions. Lodge rustles; her head moves slightly downward. Then, they release their stance, breaking the spell.

Because of its multifarious, competing textures, Hurel’s work causes continual engagement.  This is not mind-numbingly music: it cannot be turned into Muzak, lightly pacified in shopping malls and convention centers. It demands the precision and daring of this ensemble to strike the deep chasms between passages, to become alive. Provocative music ignites an experiential fire.

Illustration by Laura Elizabeth Hand, CC’19

 

I’ve spent a lot of time in this column so far talking about studies carried out in humans, usually using techniques like fMRI, EEG, or PET scans. However, a lot of neuroscience research, my own included, happens in what we call ‘model organisms’, one of the most common being the humble mouse. In conversations about my research, I’ve frequently gotten a variant of this question: “Why are you working on mouse brains if you want to understand how humans work?”

Since  I’ll be covering research done in lots of non-human species this semester, I wanted to take a column to talk about why I believe it is necessary to use animals in neuroscience research, and what they can tell us about the brain that human studies cannot.

Basically, it comes down to two things: in mice you can investigate the brain more directly at a much smaller scale, and you have much more causal control over the conditions of your experiments. First, let’s talk about the matter of scale.

In humans, functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, was a massive breakthrough in neuroscience. To this day, it is considered the highest degree of spatial resolution possible to monitor real-time neural activity in living humans, except for the rare electrodes allowed by a neurosurgery patient. In humans, fMRI is as far as you can ‘zoom in’ on the behaving brain.

However, like with any technique, there are downsides to fMRI. While most popular science articles call fMRI results ‘neural activity,’ fMRI is actually measuring the amount of oxygen that the blood in your brain is using, which serves as a proxy for neural activity. In other words, the assumption is that the more oxygenated blood a brain region is going through, the more neurons are firing in that region.

The other huge issue with fMRI is scale. An fMRI scan is like a 3D video, and just like a movie has pixels, there’s the smallest possible unit of detection in fMRI – the voxel. Its name comes from a combination of the words ‘volume’ and ‘pixel,’and it essentially is a pixel, just in three dimensions. The highest current possible resolution of a single voxel averages the oxygenation of approximately 100,000 neurons over one second, which means that the activity of 100,000 cells is reduced to a uniform greyish box on the display.

While that’s a pretty small percentage compared to the ~80 billion neurons of the brain, an fMRI still can’t tell you what specific kinds of neurons are activating, or anything about the pattern of activity below a voxel scale. So how do we understand neural circuits at a more detailed level?

That’s where mice come in. Mouse brains have most of the major features of human brains – they even have a neocortex that is structured almost identically to our own. In mice, it is much easier to observe these smaller scales, which span from from single neurons to the simultaneous observation of thousands of neurons at a time.

Mice are particularly well-suited to this task because of the immense control an experimenter can have over a given experiment. Every aspect of a lab mouse’s life is regulated from birth to death, which is impossible to control for in human studies.

Beyond behavioral control, genetic techniques enable causal manipulations at a cellular level. Thousands of mouse strains have been specially made to manipulate the expression of particular genes, optogenetic techniques enable researchers to turn on or off specific neuronal populations during behavior, and two-photon imaging paired with calcium labeling lets us observe the activity of individual neurons in real time.

These advantages of experimental control and fine-scale observations are only possible in animal models. While mice have their disadvantages too, namely that without language behavioral motivations becomes difficult to interpret, their use clearly contributes to neuroscience overall. Discoveries in mouse models help guide human researchers to better theories, better treatments, and ultimately, a better understanding of ourselves.

 

Uniquely Human is written by Heather Macomber and runs every other Monday. To submit a comment/question or a piece of your own, email submissions@columbialion.com.

Sondra Radvanovsky in the title role and Joyce DiDonato as Adalgisa in Bellini’s “Norma.” Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

 

Monday was opening night at the Metropolitan Opera. The evening was a chance to be seen, to be heard, to be loud. Half-drunk, piss-colored prosecco glasses hovered through the Met lobby. Red-headed twins in matching green dresses pranced down the stairs. Muted elegance hid in an alcove, a sentry with a light-blue, fluffy overthrow. Folks met colleagues with half-hearted smiles, and lovers embraced joyously. Noise echoed throughout the space, filled with exclamations of “You…look superb”, clacks of skyscraper heels, Italian murmurs, Russian rumors, small talk on the summer weather. Press congregated in an impenetrable, baseball-diamond formation. A gaggle of photographers snapped ferociously.

Eventually, an unseen magnet dragged us from the velvety mulling spaces into the theater. The performance began promptly 20 minutes late with a rendition of the National Anthem. Maestro James Levine conducted. The audience largely did not sing along.

Of course, there was an opera to be had tonight: Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma (1831). For those who don’t know Norma, here is a quick summary:

Norma is a priestess in Gaul (think France) during Roman occupation. She had two kids with a Roman governor, Pollione, but now he’s seeing Adalgisa, another priestess. Adalgisa tells Norma about Pollione, which makes her (understandably) furious. Act 1 ends in a heave.

Norma considers killing her children—Hello Medea!—but draws her dagger away at the last moment. Adalgisa enters and Norma is apparently A-Okay with her and Pollione: she even suggests that they run off to Rome together. Adalgisa is aghast. She hopes to reconnect Norma and Pollione.

Segue to a rather boring male chorus. The Druids want to revolt. But it’s not time yet, says Norma’s dad Oroveso. Snooze.

Final scene. Norma learns that Pollione will stay with Adalgisa. She strikes the war gong three times, the Druids fire up a frenzy (torches!). The drama blusters to a close: Norma tries to get back with Pollione, he refuses, she decides to kill herself, Pollione joins her and they walk into the pyre together (How sweet!).

For this vocal masterclass disguised as an opera, a producer could simply put a white backdrop on the Met’s stage without too much injustice. That said, I thought the staging admirably captured Bellini’s late romantic aesthetic. Dark, disorientating pines and scattered, encroaching moonshine complemented the characters’ interactions.

Joyce DiDonato as Adalgisa in Bellini’s “Norma.” Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

As an audience member proclaimed at intermission, though, “people care mostly about the voices in this work.” Tenor Joseph Calleja (Pollione) was casual, reserved, despite the heady topic (love). He infused more devotion as his character was whirlpooled into the tragedy. Soprano Joyce DiDonato (Adalgisa) had a silvery tone when she sang high. Her acting felt spontaneous and intense. Sondra Radvanovsky (Norma) embodied tender, moving Romanticism in her famous aria, Casta Diva. Throughout the marathon, Radvanovsky executed rocket-powered scales, winding phrases, and dancing grace notes—markers of the bel canto style–with ease.

Although I haven’t seen it posited elsewhere, the bel canto singing style extends to instrumentalists at well. In Casta Diva I was impressed by the flutist’s phrasing and tone, which built a solid foundation for Radvanovsky. In an exposed clarinet and flute duet in the first act, the intonation was sparkling clean. Their effort created an appropriate holiness. Overall, the orchestra’s fortes just felt way too safe. More sound! (Please.)

Cadenzas—extended, solo passages usually for one or two musicians—allow singers to showcase their vocal prowess. Duet vocal cadenzas are especially difficult to execute because both singers must be perfectly synchronized in their tempo alterations and dynamic choices. Radvanovsky and DiDonato had to perform several of these duets. In the first act, their intonation suffered in their upper register. However, they solved the problem in the second act, summoning the pristine beauty of the bel canto style.

Although I have several reservations about the plot, one scene stands out for its drama. When the Druids find Pollione in their temple, they bring him to Norma to kill him. Instead, Norma tries to convince Pollione to return to her. He refuses; Norma indicates that she will kill Pollione’s lover. She recalls the Druids and announces that a guilty priestess shall burn on the pyre. They implore, “Who is she?” Norma hesitates. The Druids ask again, “Who is she?” Norma, “It is I.” The singers captured the tragedy of the moment with intense, palpable stillness. When the orchestra reentered on their soft sostenuto, the mood was solemn, desolate. Radvanovsky pleads and prays, her accepted devastation processes to its infernal . Here, I believe the production succeeded: the prolonged silence followed by the tragic orchestra created a poignant ping that made me empathize with Norma’s fate. Such pathos proves that a moving Norma is not just about the singers, rather how different operatic elements–orchestra, staging, choreography, ensemble–interact with each other. The experience can only be endured through a live performance.

 

Norma runs through December 16, with casting changes. The opera will be broadcast live October 7, at 1:00 PM, on WQXR 105.9 FM.

For anyone in MusicHum, this opera presents the perfect opportunity to see an archetype of bel canto. Tickets in the boonies aren’t as cheap as they once were: the best you can do is a $25 rush ticket the day of the performance on the Met’s website (rush tickets are cheaper than student tickets.). Information and ticket listings on metopera.org.

 

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