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 firstname.lastname@example.org.