2016, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 57, summer 2016
The pedagogy of feeling bad
review by Roman Friedman
Nikolaj Lübecker, The Feel-Bad Film (Edinburgh, UK: Edinburgh University Press, 2015). 190 pages. $27.
We can avoid entering the inexhaustible debate over what is actually meant by Aristotelian katharsis, but we can at least go as far back as Rousseau who wrote of the theater:
“In giving our tears to these fictions, we have satisfied all the rights of humanity without having to give anything more of ourselves; whereas unfortunate people in person would require attention from us, relief, consolation, and work…from all of which we are quite content to be exempt . . . In the final accounting, when a man has gone to admire fine actions in stories and to cry for imaginary miseries, what more can be asked of him?”
Nikolaj Lübecker echoes this thought in his book, The Feel-Bad Film, when he writes of contemporary cinema that
“the ordering of the problematic and painful reality, the stubborn desire to make sense of the world in such a way as to soothe or redeem, will invite us to forget the problems, and thereby result in an art that effectively embalms the situations it is dealing with.”
The “feel-bad film” can thus be an antidote to the stultification of popular cinema. Though aside from a few scattered remarks, Lübecker is not overly concerned with the problems of catharsis or entering the debate that Rousseau exemplifies. Perhaps he assumes that the reader is already somewhat aware of the conversation, for there is certainly no section or chapter set aside to specifically introduce the issue. None of that works against him however, since his concern is not with the potential harms of feel-good cathartic films but rather with the ethical potential in the uncomfortable and shocking films that have often been dismissed. Lübecker thus makes case studies of a number of movies throughout the book, including Michael Haneke’s Caché and Funny Games, Lars von Trier’s Dogville, Simon Staho’s Daisy Diamond, Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, Claire Denis’ Les Salauds and I Can’t Sleep, Harmony Korine’s Trash Humpers, Bruno Dumont’s Twentynine Palms, and many others. I will focus on only a few of these, those that I feel best summarize Lübecker’s argument, and will introduce a few other films not present in his book.
So what is a feel-bad film? Despite the moniker it is not simply a movie that makes the audience feel bad, it is rather one that
“produces a spectatorial desire, but then blocks its satisfaction; it creates, and then deadlocks, our desire for catharsis.”
Not horror or porn then, or at least not necessarily so. We can say that these movies destabilize the Hegelian ideal. If in Hegel the dialectic of mutual recognition in the Master-Slave relationship is meant to evoke “collaboration, a harmonious dialogue” of two different beings moving to recognize the other as self-conscious, then the
“experience of watching some films is not one of freedom or recognition, but rather one of being humiliated and harassed.”
Even when we are not “forced into the position of the “slave” by the other (in this case the film or director) we remain in an
“unpleasant position that can be associated with inferiority.”
Lübecker evokes this ideal in a Sartrean sense, as a kind of contract between artist and spectator wherein both are working towards self-consciousness. Here the Master-Slave relationship is replaced by one of Author-Reader.
“[Sarte]…provides us with an exemplary theory about how the artistic experience stimulates a humanist ethics and a progressive, democratic politics. In this theory, art seems inherently ethical; it offers a model for democratic relations. Art is about communication, understanding, empathy, recognition, respect, reciprocity, democracy, co-creation and the understanding of oneself and the other.”
One might then assume that if such films destabilize this ideal, they are then inherently anti-humanistic and unethical. Not so for Lübecker. If anything he views these films as clearly part of the Bildungs tradition (a German concept suggesting self-cultivation, mastery, self-maturation that is intertwined with education, philosophy, and particularly humanism), and the educative potential of such films precisely lies in their ability to force the spectator into ethical, political, and social reflection. Arguing against the notion that such a disruption is unethical, he writes:
“[T]he inclination to consider the artistic experience as a more or less direct model for social relations…must not be the only way to think the relation between art and society; in fact, this idea of ‘art as model’ can have unfortunate consequences. If we require the relation between film and its spectator to be similar to relations of intersubjectivity more generally, we rob ourselves of the possibility of experiencing and negotiating a relation to that which is ethically problematic, we deprive ourselves of a possibility to think the human psyche in all its complexities. That possibility, however, is one that art has always been keen to take advantage of, and I believe it can be detrimental to the process of enlightenment if we eliminate or reduce it.”
I will return to this idea of pedagogy at the end of the essay, but first we must examine what these feel-bad films are, how they work, and some ways in which they have us consider these complexities of the human psyche.
In Part 1 of the book Lübecker deals with “Assault” films, the first of three categories of feel-bad. These are confrontational and antagonistic, working by provocation and emotional identification. They deadlock catharsis by walking a fine line between the distance suggested by Brecht and the complete immersion desired by Artaud and Bataille that might lead to the production of new subjectivities. Of Artaud and Bataille, Lübecker writes:
“Inspired by Nietzsche, they rethought the desire for catharsis as a ground for the production of revolutionary subjectivity. For Artaud and Bataille the emotional and physical immersion of the spectator was a precondition for the production of a new form of subjectivity; only by taking a step beyond the intellectual address and appealing to the body of the spectator would it be possible to liberate the public…[they] attempted to provoke and overwhelm the spectator (or reader) in the hope that he or she would emerge revitalized from the ritualistic experience…we thus find a strong correlation between immersion, transgression, and emancipation”
There is thus a middle ground between the Brechtian distancing of, say, a Godard film like Made in U.S.A., and the complete cathartic and subjective immersion of some feel-good movies, perhaps something like Life is Beautiful. The cathartic deadlock here does not have to be merely denial or lack of catharsis. In Dogville, director Lars von Trier builds up the need for catharsis and seemingly satisfies it, but ultimately overdoes it to the point of parody, ultimately blocking that cathartic feeling. The film is almost Brechtian in its setup, with its invisible creatures (a dog we have to imagine) and lack of sets (walls, houses, and doors are displayed via painted lines on the floor, for example) we are immediately told that we should be aware we are watching a movie. Nonetheless, the film manages to suck us in, to allow us to forget despite it all.
Grace, a stranger who arrives in the little town of Dogville while fleeing her dark past is eventually wronged and abused by all the town residents who take advantage of her delicate situation. She finally exacts her revenge at the end, but the cruelty goes a bit too far for the audience when not only is the town burned to the ground, but even the infant children are brutally murdered. If emotional identification leads us to a cathartic moment and to the illusion of action, what Megan Boler calls the “harmonious experience of reversibility and the pleasure of identification,” then these movies push us to ethical reflection by forcing us, through an analysis of the dissatisfactions with our viewing experience, to examine our “inner bastard.”
Of course other films, including feel-good cathartic ones, can be thought provoking and can have us reconsider our moral frameworks without producing unpleasantness, without assaulting our bodies. With highly ethical and political cathartic films (say, Hotel Rwanda) there is the danger Rousseau pointed to, that though we may feel injustice and question our moral nature, the act of viewing the movie has us feeling as if we have already taken action, and have thus resolved the ethical dilemma induced. Non feel-good but still thought provoking films, say those of Bergman, may perhaps leave us considering these ideas in too intellectual a space, having not swayed us as emotionally as either the feel-good or the feel-bad. Lübecker however has one more important distinction to make:
“Unpleasure is one of the things that make it reasonable to give the feel-bad films the freedom they need to explore a number questions that would be seen as problematic outside the cinema. The fact that these films produce unpleasure not only provokes us and makes us reluctant to trust the director (sharpening our critical apparatus), it also helps to maintain a distance between the world and the movie theater.”
This is a refrain that repeats constantly throughout the book, the importance of keeping the distinction between the theater and the world, and the fact that these movies provide us with a space to explore specifically dark, horrifying ideas that we never could in the real world. (It is also worth noting that Lübecker does not buy the argument that such films inspire forms of perverse behavior).
In Part 2, “Unease” films also work via manipulation, but they combine menace with indeterminacy to create cathartic deadlock. Here Lübecker draws on Judith Butler’s notions of “scenes of address” and “unframing.” If the Hegelian scene of recognition is where “subjects face other subjects, negotiating relations of intersubjectivity, passing judgments on each other, becoming aware of themselves as subjects,” then the “scene of address” is situated below that, where we negotiate the “less clearly defined elements that help establish the ‘layout’ of the scene” such as “gestures, body movements, and voices.” The key point here is that we have no clear notion of subject-object relations and we are so bound up with one another that we can never fully know ourselves. By frames Butler refers to the norms and structures that determine the “field of visibility.”
“[T]he repetition of particular forms of framing helps to consolidate and/or produce the norms that govern the criteria that determine which lives are deemed worthy of recognition.”
She suggests that the task for visual culture is to unframe or “expose how framing is done…how bodies and subjectivities are being constituted in the process” of organizing our visual experience. Thus these “unease” films tend to have overtly political and ethical subject matter but deny the spectator any ability to make judgments, narratively but more importantly, visually. Movies that are inherently political in topic are denied the usual politics and ethics, meanwhile the visual field denies direct understanding of subject-object relations.
In Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, made in the wake of the Columbine High School massacre, we follow students around for the day as they walk throughout the school interacting with one another. They are unaware, though we already suspect, that the day and the movie will end in two students opening fire on their fellow classmates and teachers. No real explanation is given for the high school shooting. Indeed, explanations are teased in the background to be dismissed and forgotten (we are aware that the two perpetrators are bullied by jocks, and that there is some intimacy between the two males, however, we are also teased with violent video games, movies, and music as unexamined items on the periphery). Moreover, the cinematic techniques toe the line between subjective and objective, never quite giving us the satisfaction of identification and thus turning a potentially cathartic moment (the violence at the end of the film) into a banality. These movies are precisely about our denial of access to others, and being caught between these multiple perspectives is what creates the unease.
Some filmmakers have stated that the use of these techniques is purposefully employed to create this kind of subjective position and to deny the typical feel-good experience. László Nemes’ Son of Saul is perhaps too recent a film for Lübecker’s book, but it draws some parallels to Elephant. The film depicts Saul, a Jewish prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp who attempts to obtain the body of his recently dead, illegitimate son in order to give it a proper burial. The film uses long takes, avoids a soundtrack, and has the camera follow near Saul as we watch him stoically perform his duties. Nemes stated that part of the purpose of the film was to provide a new type of film grammar for the Holocaust movie genre, to avoid the cathartic, highly emotional Hollywood rendering. Speaking to The New York Times he singled out Schindler’s List:
“Instead, Mr. Nemes (pronounced NEH-mesh) said, he wants to go against the reductive didacticism of television, which he finds rampant, and use film to explore ambiguity. Today, he said, there’s a tendency 'to make sure that the audience understands continuously and totally, so that means that there’s no more journey for the audience, nothing is hidden, everything is explained.' He added, 'There’s nothing magical about it.'”
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.” 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.
2. Nikolaj Lübecker, The Feel-Bad Film (Edinburgh, UK: Edinburgh University Press, 2015), 162.
3. Ibid., 2.
4. Ibid., 167.
6. Ibid., 9.
7. Ibid., 12.
8. Ibid., 27.
9. Ibid., 23.
10. For a more thorough summary, a link to the wiki: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dogville.
Megan Boler, “The Risks of Empathy: Interrogating Multiculturalism’s Gaze,” Philosophy of Education Yearbook (1994), http://web.archive.org/web/20060224072305/http://www.ed.uiuc.edu/
12. Lübecker, The Feel-Bad Film, 171.
13. Lübecker, The Feel-Bad Film, 80. The reference is to Judith Butler, Giving an Account of Oneself (New York, NY: Fordham University Press, 2005).
14. Lübecker, The Feel-Bad Film, 81.
15. Ibid. The reference is to Judith Butler, Frames of War (London, UK: Verso, 2009).
16. Lübecker, The Feel-Bad Film, 69.
17. Rachel Donadio, “In ‘Son of Saul,’ Laszlo Nemes Expands the Language of Holocaust Films,” The New York Times, December, 134, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/15/movies/in-son-of-saul-laszlo-nemes-expands-the-language-of-holocaust-films.html?_r=0.
18. David Bordwell, “Classical Hollywood Cinema: Narrational Principles and Procedures” in Narrative, Apparatus, Ideology: A Film Theory Reader, ed. Philip Rosen (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 1986), 22.
19. Quandt quoted in Lübecker, The Feel-Bad Film, 122., reference to James Quandt, “Flesh and Blood: Sex and Violence in Recent French Cinema,” in The New Extremism in Cinema: From France to Europe, ed. Tanya Horeck and Tina Kendall (Edinburgh, UK: Edinburgh University Press, 2011), 25.
20. Quandt, “Flesh and Blood,” 25.
21. Lübecker, The Feel-Bad Film, 5.
23. Ibid., 12. The question is written exactly this way.