Author: Gabriel Massó

Gabriel Massó is a poet and writer living in Ponce, Puerto Rico. He can be contacted at gabriel.massoquinones@gmail.com.
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A still of oil on fire from Werner Herzog's "Lessons of Darkness"

Artist As Illusionist: Werner Herzog’s “Lessons Of Darkness” (1992)

The first few seconds of Werner Herzog’s Lessons of Darkness provide a key to understanding the filmmaker’s approach. The picture opens with an excellent quote: “The collapse of the stellar universe will occur – like creation – in grandiose splendor.” The quote is attributed to Blaise Pascal, but a bit of research shows Herzog actually wrote it. In this manner, the artist seems to fill the role of an illusionist, as facts do not seem as important to him as playing with the audience’s perceptions. One could argue that all artists are illusionists because, in correspondence with the old saying, art is a lie that tells the truth, but what makes Herzog unique is that he seems hyper-aware of his nature. Throughout the film, Herzog’s narration frames the oil fields of post-Gulf War Kuwait from an almost alien perspective, prompting the viewers to honestly examine what is shown instead of simply projecting their biases. While a lesser filmmaker would tackle this film’s delicate subject in a clear-cut and sentimental manner, Herzog commits to showing the horrors of the setting in a more nuanced light. In his work, the ravaged land resembles a strange underworld, and the motivations of its oil workers remain mystifying. Herzog’s interest lies not in recreating reality, as it does with most filmmakers, but in reframing it, or even creating his own, to deliver insight. […]

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A stylized shot of High Noon by Fred Zinnemann

Challenging Genre: On Fred Zinnemann’s “High Noon” (1952)

Upon release, Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon was a highly divisive film. While it won many accolades, critics and audiences were disappointed to find common elements, such as chases and duels, replaced mainly by drama. Hollywood names like John Wayne and Howard Hawks deemed the film unamerican due to its subversion of the western hero stereotype. Today, the film stands as an indisputable classic, exhibiting a realism uncommon to films of its type. High Noon achieves this because, in parallel with the film’s themes, the narrative goes against most viewers’ notion of what a western should be, revealing the superficiality of many of the genre’s tropes in the process.

High Noon takes place in a small town in New Mexico Territory, where marshal Wil Kane (Gary Cooper) prepares to retire. We see Kane as he marries devout Quaker Amy Fowler (Grace Kelly) before they are interrupted by news claiming Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald), an outlaw Kane once sent to prison, has been released and is arriving on the noon train. At first, Kane agrees to ignore the return of the criminal and leave town with his new wife. However, he soon turns back the cart, unable to look past his responsibility as the marshal who arrested Miller, or perhaps unable to look past his own pride. Indeed, Fred Zinnemann ensures that psychology is never far behind, as if tempering the viewer’s sense of righteousness with its protagonist’s self-righteousness. […]

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A screen of Iphigenia holding Orestes in the Michael Cacoyanni film

Modernization Done Right: “Iphigenia” (1977) by Michael Cacoyannis

Although Michael Cacoyannis’s Iphigenia bases itself on Greek myth, the filmmaker’s manner is one of unusual realism. Amid the sweat and grime of the characters, the stakes of Euripides’s tragedy (Iphigenia at Aulis) become more relatable, and the fantastic elements of the drama take on a certain ambiguity. Even though a large portion of the narrative is set in motion by “The Gods”, these are never seen onscreen. While this absence is also a factor in the play the film adapts, the director’s grounded approach makes the viewer prone to consider whether these entities are actually real or the result of mass delusion. Suddenly, what was merely an exploration of fate in the original piece also becomes a commentary on the way beliefs gain power through belief. This is one of the many ways through which Michael Cacoyannis revitalizes the largely outdated melodrama.

The story takes place on the shores of Aulis. The abduction of Helen has sparked hate for the Trojans, and the Greek armies wait to sail to war. From the start, the filmmaker presents his audience with the sort of images that sets this adaptation apart from most takes on ancient Greek culture. We see the soldiers as they lay on the sand, bathe by the surf, and fight among themselves for food, and there is an unrefined quality to the goings-on that reminds one of the eye-level realism Werner Herzog employs in his best films. By the time the sequence ends, it is easy for the viewer to believe that the Greek armies once stood by this coast, waiting for the winds to blow. […]

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An illustration of dogs fighting from Jack London's "Call of the Wild"

Jack London’s “The Call Of The Wild”: The Power Of Things As They Are

Jack London’s The Call Of The Wild refuses to anthropomorphize its main character, a powerful St. Bernard–Scotch Collie mix named Buck. It has more in common with Robert Bresson’s Au Hazard Balthazar than it does with something like Bambi. Chronicling the experience of this animal in an unadorned manner, it is partly why the novel has aged so well.

In many instances, Jack London writes how Buck “did not think these things, he merely did them.” In so doing, he highlights how much the creature relies on instinct as opposed to intellect. There are no phony attempts to turn the animals he portrays into cartoons. When considering this, the reader is awed by how interesting and engaging the story still manages to be. If one manages to make a book about a dog this moving, one should be considered, at least, an excellent writer.

That is not to say The Call Of The Wild lacks humanity. Instead, it shows the reader how many things we consider human go far beyond our species. The reader follows Buck as he undergoes his character arc, changing between owners, some good, some bad, adapting to each circumstance until he answers the titular call of the wild. There is pride, jealousness, and love in the members of this cast of dogs, just as there would be in a more civilized cast of characters. Because of this, the narrative serves as a mirror to impulses humans find in themselves. […]

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A scene from Todd Phillips's "Joker" (2019)

On Todd Phillips’s “Joker” (2019): Laughable, Yet Humorless

You would think that a film about a psychotic clown, who is (eventually) chased by a man dressed as a bat, would be a hilarious one. But Todd Phillips’s 2019 film Joker insists on being a “serious” character study. The film provides a possible origin to the comic book villain and tries to do so in the style of character sketches such as Martin Scorsese’s The King Of Comedy and Taxi Driver. It constantly references these works, and by doing so not only does it remind the sharp viewer of its inferiority, but also manages to misuse those films’ devices in the most ridiculous ways. Its advocates might argue that it is not really about a murderous clown, as much as about a man driven to insanity, so I will try treating it as such while comparing it to its predecessors.

The first scene shows our lead, Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), as he puts his clown makeup on, before forcing a smile on himself and bathetically crying a single tear. Next, we see him juggle an ad on a sidewalk before a group of teens steals it. He follows them to an alley where they beat him, and the title of the film pops up. From the start, we are confronted by one of the film’s major problems: melodrama. Indeed, you would think that a film taking inspiration from Scorsese’s work would understand the power of understatement and humor. After all, The King Of Comedy is one of the best black comedies of all time. Instead, the film opens with a scene that is not just melodramatic but features a naked cliché and proceeds to establish Arthur as a victim. […]

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Three stills from chanbara: Seven Samurai, Twilight Samurai, Harakiri

Dissecting Chanbara: The Evolution of the Samurai Film Genre

There are samurai films, and then there are films that, while falling into this genre by happenstance, become the high points of cinema itself. I intend to examine three films in the chanbara tradition, and, in doing so, I will show how they’ve helped evolve the genre, advancing it into high art by building on previous achievements.

Perhaps the most important (even if not the best) film in the chanbara genre is Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954), which tells the story of a group of warriors recruited by a village aiming to free itself from harassment by local bandits. It is a great action/adventure film that manages to transcend that label because of its pristine characterization and Kurosawa’s skill as a storyteller. The village farmers have only rice to offer in exchange for the service of the samurais, so that the viewer knows the only warriors who will agree to help are those righteous enough to sympathize with their struggle, or those desperate enough to take the job.

From its opening, one of the film’s few limitations becomes clear: Kurosawa’s proclivity for melodrama. As one of the farmers (Bokuzen Hidari) overhears bandits planning their next raid, the villagers whine and scream, worried about their future. However, even this aspect of the film is ameliorated by two things: 1) although the presentation is a bit cheesy, it makes sense for the farmers to be upset, since their lives are at risk; 2) the film is extremely concise and well-paced, with this scene an immediate point of departure. In fact, although Seven Samurai is three and a half hours long, it feels more like two. This is partly due to Kurosawa’s editing, which often cuts amid a character’s movement to maintain seamlessness in the flow of each sequence, then alternates loud and quiet scenes, so that they rarely feel monotonous. […]

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A still from Shohei Imamura's The Insect Woman

On Shohei Imamura’s “The Insect Woman” (1963): Cycles, Transitions, Ellipses

The first time I watched Shohei Imamura’s 1963 classic The Insect Woman, it took me a few seconds to understand why its strange ending works. As there were only two or three minutes of the film left, I kept looking at its runtime, thinking “How the hell will this movie end?”, and then it did.

It ends in an ellipsis, but not the sort of cliffhanger one would normally think. It is not like the one closing Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, which immediately makes sense, as there is a hovering hint of disaster that would be missed were that film “resolved”. Instead, The Insect Woman ends where one would least expect it; in the middle of a long walk the main character is taking. Not only does there not seem to be a logical conclusion to the events in the narrative, but there is no closure at an emotional level, neither.

The reason such an ending works is that Shohei Imamura’s film is about cycles, found between generations, without origin or completion. Were the film to conclude more traditionally, its themes would not be as hard-hitting as they are. Life does not have beginnings or endings as much as it has “transitions”, and although Imamura’s film is, like all art, artifice, it commits to framing this reality. It may be because of this commitment that, although the film sometimes seems like a stream of tragedies in the life of its main character, it never overwhelms nor devolves into melodrama. […]