As David Bordwell has pointed out, this notion of totality and causality in classical cinema does not even have to lead to closure, but only what he calls “closure effect” or “pseudo closure.” [open endnotes in new window] What he means here is that though we are led along the movie causally, we don’t actually need everything to be resolved in a logical sense, rather we just need to feel like everything is resolved (guy gets the girl, villain is dead, etc.). This suggests that part of the feel-good rhetoric is not only that we are led along narratively, but affectively as well. This may be especially true of the Holocaust genre, and hence what Nemes is reacting to. In Son of Saul, while the placement of the camera behind the character is not as frequent a motif here as in Elephant, there are other methods that create a similar effect. In particular, the use of incredibly shallow focus combined with the fact that the camera is always closely on Saul, produces the effect of being with the character yet simultaneously distanced from the events occurring on the screen.
It might be worth noting at this point that Lübecker selects only specific films from certain directors, and does not discuss their oeuvre. Thus, while he draws a great deal from Elephant, he (rightfully) does not discuss other Van Sant films such as Good Will Hunting or Finding Forrester, both of which might be in the “feel-good” category and do not employ these same techniques so vividly. While he draws on Bruno Dumont’s Twentynine Palms in Part 3, he does not discuss the more recent P’tit Quinquin, which if it is not feel-good, certainly seems to veer closer to it than feel-bad. Likewise, Michael Haneke’s Caché and Funny Games are examined, but not Amour. It is left to the reader to determine what this means for the filmmakers’ broader intentions.
Lübecker’s analysis of “Transgression” movies in Part 3 is a reaction to James Quandt’s critique of contemporary avant-garde films, specifically those of The New French Extreme: if earlier avant-garde films were explicitly political and redemptive, these new movies, says Quandt, are nihilistic, they rely on sex, violence, and brutality for shock value and are a
“narcissistic response to the collapse of ideology in a society traditionally defined by political polarity and theoretical certitude.”
Quandt is referring to films by François Ozon (See the Sea), Gaspar Noé (Carne, Irreversible), Catherine Breillat (Romance), Coralie Trinh Thi (Baise-moi), Claire Denis (Trouble Every Day), Bruno Dumont (Twentynine Palms), and others. The essence of Quandt’s argument is that while shocking films in the past were fueled by authentic outrage, films such as Salò or Weekend, these new films present an
“aggressiveness that is really a grandiose form of passivity.”
But for Lübecker it is precisely that these desperation films deny a link between transgression and emancipation, thus deadlocking catharsis, which makes them political and ethical. By not offering a position these movies communicate the despair over the collapse of vehicles for liberation and liberal outrage, either sexual, social, or sacred. This can be done by refusing to turn the transgressors into heroes.
For example, in Bruno Dumont’s Twentynine Palms, a film chosen specifically by Lübecker as a case study in order to respond to Quandt, we watch as David, an American, and his girlfriend Katia, a Russian, drive across the California landscape in a road trip. Neither speaks the other’s language, so they communicate in French, which neither knows well. For nearly two hours we watch them fight, have sex, and try to converse with one another against the pale and dreary desert. While at times the tensions rise, the movie is for the most part languidly paced and nothing seems to develop. In the final moments of the film, in a sudden turn of pace, we watch as David is violently raped and beaten while Katia is forced to look on. This scene is shocking enough as it is, but the truly haunting moment comes shortly after. In a regular film we might be left with characters who examine what just happened, or perhaps a general seeking of justice, maybe an epiphany…something concrete we can latch on to. In Dumont what we get is madness, a complete loss of meaning, and the consequent despair. Back in the motel room David emerges from the bathroom after having shaved his head in a bloody mess. He stabs Katia to death, runs out, and the movie ends with us seeing a policeman find his corpse in the desert.
Of the films Lübecker examines this is perhaps the feel-worst of them (at least for me). Yet this category of films and the effects produced on the viewer are also possibly the most difficult to describe on paper. It takes nearly two hours of us watching David and Katia drive and quibble in order to really feel the despair at the end. Technique is important here, pacing and visual style, and it is a possible way to undercut any emancipatory energy, such as through the use of repetition to make even transgression ultimately boring.
For example, in Harmony Korine’s Trash Humpers we watch as a group of elderly individuals engage in a series of delinquent acts. They hump trash cans and masturbate, they vandalize and trespass, they drink and curse, they destroy infant dolls, and so on. The scenes are initially uncomfortable, partially because of the grainy video format, partially because of the disturbing makeup and prosthetics (the elderly gang is played by Korine and others of around the same age). However, quickly enough all this becomes dull, and watching the movie becomes an exercise in patience, no longer because of any discomfort but simply because it is tiresome. By the time we get to seriously transgressive moments later in the movie (dead bodies, prostitution, truly violent acts and sadistic speech), we no longer care. These moments have become just as mundane as the rest.
Such techniques have been previously employed by Korine in films like Gummo, where the strange meets the tedious. His latest, Spring Breakers, is perhaps more difficult to pin down. A highly sensory experience of partying, violence, robbery, and sex, the film follows a group of girls who head to St. Petersburg, Florida for spring break. This film perhaps falls more in Lübecker’s first category, that of “assault” films. If there is discomfort to be found here, it is in the highly sensationalized and overly excessive MTV-like imagery.
Lübecker’s ideas are much more nuanced than the summary given above, and one would have to read the book in its entirety to get at all its facets. Much is packed into a slim paperback. He draws on a number of other films and examines several other theorists and philosophers, some in depth, some too briefly, that I have decided to exclude here. Among those that may be familiar and have not been mentioned: Jacques Rancière, Roland Barthes, André Bazin, David Bordwell, Paul Gilroy, Jacques Lacan, Christian Metz, Martha Nussbaum, and so on. Despite my omission of some aspects of his work, I wish to move on and concentrate on four questions that Lübecker himself raises and ones I believe remain ambiguously answered:
What is a feel-bad film? On the one hand, this is a question directly answered in the first few pages as a term that “simply” refers to the production of strong cathartic desire that is then deadlocked. Yet as we go through the three categories of feel-bad, rather than narrowing this concept down it seems to broaden. The movies are confrontational, but can also be non-confrontational. They may require emotional identification or lack it. They could be extremely violent yet also unbelievably boring. A genre can of course encompass all of these (if we consider feel-bad as a type of genre), so why is this important?
A majority of movies Lübecker chooses have overwhelmingly poor reviews from both critics and regular viewers. While such criticism (especially popular criticism) is certainly not the gold standard of artistic merit, and while Lübecker himself highlights the poor reception of these films, one begins to wonder where judgments of quality enter into the conversation. Indeed, Lübecker’s analysis doesn’t seem descriptive, he seems be quite fond of all these films while simultaneously claiming that a discussion of the genre is not a discussion of quality, that to say something is feel-bad is “neither a compliment or an insult.” The closest to criticism is his analysis of Brian de Palma’s Redacted, and even here it is unclear if he only views it as a failure within the feel-bad genre or generally. This is a difficult position to take without further explanation, to assert that a film is highly ethical and humanist but that such assertions are divorced from claims of quality. Moreover, without a tight conception of the new term does this allow us to say, for example: “No, you just didn’t get it. It wasn’t a bad movie…It was a feel-bad movie.” Or, could a film succeed as a feel-bad film but fail as a film?
Why should a director choose to make a feel-bad film? In one sense he does answer this. Feel-bad films are filled with ethical and political potential, with moments of spectatorial self-examination, with critical awareness. Yet as mentioned in the previous paragraph, these movies are also largely negatively received. In fact, most of the general public does not watch them, or even know they exist. Those who do leave the theater unable to explain the director’s intention or worse, like Quandt, they view the movies as nihilist and explicit trash. It is possible that the educative potential of these films work on the viewer’s unconscious for some time after, but I see no clear reason to suggest that this is true. What Lübecker fails to provide is a reason why these directors should choose this method over the popular one, particularly if the intention is in some way educational and yet no one seems to get it. The very existence of Lübecker’s book, it’s argument for the value of the feel-bad film, seems to suggest this is so. (I could give you all the wonderful reasons that you should serve liver as your principal Thanksgiving dish. But if I haven’t told you why liver is better than turkey, and you know that most of your family doesn’t like liver, why would you make it?)
One potential answer is that these directors do not make such films with some educative value in mind, but rather make them because they are artists, because they want to push boundaries, make us squirm, do something new or simply garner controversy. It is hard to watch a movie like Twentynine Palms and come away feeling as if Dumont’s goal at the outset was pedagogical in some way. However, this is not the stance Lübecker takes. Instead he offers evidence in the form of interviews and analyses suggesting that the educative part is intentional. He does this more for some films than others, and is at times quite convincing (particularly with von Trier). Nonetheless, if he is right, then the question above remains. If he is wrong, if pedagogy is often in no way the intention, then it seems to be just happenstance that a positive ethic coincides with a specific uncomfortable film, and it becomes quite subjective. We may very well begin to tumble closer to Quandt’s view of things, seeing the humanism or nihilism depending on our own personal world view, optimist or pessimist.
Why have there been so many feel-bad films in recent years? Lübecker suggests how current avant-garde experiences differ from previous ones, and how these ultimately take shape in the feel bad film. He seems to communicate that the realm of optimistic liberation is in the past, and the best these movies can do is highlight the collapse of the liberatory field, hoping to project this despair into political, ethical insight for the future. Lübecker’s analysis of this, mostly concentrated in Part 3 of the book, seems sparse, and rightfully so, for the ideas would probably take a separate work to fully espouse. Nonetheless, though the essence of what he is saying is comprehensible, since he draws on a variety of thinkers in so quick a space the theoretical details remain muddled. In short, however, the point is that in the past avant-garde and shocking films (perhaps such as Pasolini’s Salò or Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point) implied that transgression and emancipation should be linked, and hence there was a particular political or ethical project for us.
These new films suggest that we are in a cultural space where the clear link between transgression and emancipation has been severed, and the only thing we can do now is explore the distance between the two and communicate our desire for a project, any project, without necessarily suggesting what that project should be. The problem is this doesn’t really answer the question as to why the field has changed. Again, such a question is of course outside the scope of the book and would require an intense social and historical analysis, at least if what Lübecker hints at is true. Still, a few suggestions or even footnotes to direct the reader would have been useful. If a particular thinker has given a complete treatment of this specific question, a reference with that note would have been useful. As it stands no satisfying conclusions are provided. What really has changed in the last twenty years that has motivated this shift in film?
In particular I wonder if Lübecker has not over-complicated his analysis in regards to this question. One glaring omission, and what seems to me a much simpler answer, is the impact of home entertainment for film viewership, beginning with the rise of video and expanding to streaming services today. The timeline fits perfectly with the initial rise of the feel-bad film with VHS, and the rapid proliferation of such films with the rise of DVD and internet. It seems much more reasonable that such films would be a response to the increase of feel-good experiences now available so freely at home rather than any complex reaction to liberatory potential. Though another question may help with this: is it just Western/European society that has experienced this change? The case studies chosen seem to suggest that this is so.
Why should we teach feel-bad films?  Lübecker makes clear that these films are humanist, that they can potentially expose the frames that bind our worldviews, and that they problematize the idea of restorative art. It is however the word “teach” that lingers and remains unanswered. Who is the “we” here, and who are we teaching? The question as phrased implies two parties and suggests that the teacher here is neither the artist nor the film. This is a wonderful book, one that I will return to and one that brings a distinctive framework to the examination of a unique film type. It has certainly helped clarify my own thoughts related to what I might now refer to as the “feel-bad film.”
Despite any criticism here, I am in agreement with Lübecker that in some sense these are films that should be taught. Yet I too do not know exactly what it means to teach these films. Are we, for example, to include them in a curriculum? Or perhaps this is a call for the study of criticism generally? Have I personally been taught, but only now that I’ve read his book and rewatched the films? It is this question, perhaps unjustly, that remains with me at the end of the book, and one I hope Lübecker returns to.