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Some clouds in the Midwest, in September of 2016.

In the past few months I’ve felt inclined to read more film books than usual. This is likely because at its best I view movie watching as a form of engagement, and additional reading can up the ante a bit, serving as a springboard toward appreciating films on a higher plane. Or maybe it just feels like a worthwhile pastime to learn about intriguing movies and related individuals that have been consigned to a rather neglected status as far as much of the world is concerned. Either way, I’ve found that, overall, delving into more supplemental reading than usual has had a nourishing effect, and it’s been fun.

However, not all films books are created equal! Indeed, some can be very dry or so steeped in the theoretical that reading them becomes more of an exercise in engaging with critical theory than it does in thinking about cinema and its possibilities. Other times a writer’s ability to string a sentence together is fine but his or her taste or personality leave something to be desired. Suffice it to say it is that special author and film book that get the balance just right.

What follows here and in the subsequent two blog posts is a discussion of three of the best titles I’ve had the pleasure of reading this year. By no means should this be construed as having been drawn from a comprehensive sampling of what’s out there. Rather, what follows is just a small handful of film books I happened to encounter recently that have stood out as being far too full of interesting content to go unmentioned here.

The front cover of Nikolaj Lübeckers book, The Feel-Bad Film.

The Feel-Bad Film by Nikolaj Lübecker, 2015, Edinburgh University Press, ISBN 978 0 7486 9799 Available here.

Last August, in keeping with his regular habit of turning his friends on to various media and cultural events that he deemed significant, the late, great Dave Monroe of Milwaukee, WI brought this curious book to my attention. Dave emailed me (and a dozen other friends of his) a PDF of its introductory chapter, mentioning that he’d enjoyed the book in its entirety. From the onset the title of Nikolaj Lübecker’s book sounded intriguing, as if drawing a line in the sand—The Feel-Bad Film… was this not an unspoken genre? Well, maybe not a full-on genre, but at the very least a category of cinema. Witness, for instance, the countless Hollywood movie trailers proclaiming the polar opposite, that their latest offering was “the feel-good hit of the Summer…” Surely it stood to reason that the existence of such a thing as a feel-good film implied its antithesis. But what of it?

Lübecker’s book, as I would discover a little less than a year later when I purchased a copy and promptly read it, is a thoughtful examination of a largely recent corpus of work made by filmmakers who deliberately aim to engender feelings of displeasure in the viewer. According to Lübecker these films usually tend to either create an atmosphere of unease (as in the case of Alain Resnais’s brilliant Muriel or the Time of Return or Todd Haynes’s more recent film Safe), or they escalate discomfort to the point of rendering the film experience a downright assault on the spectator (as in the case of Michael Haneke’s rather deplorable Funny Games, “unwatchable” titles like Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible, and Godard’s classic feel-bad detour Weekend). For Lübecker a hallmark of the feel-bad film experience is that it subverts traditional notions of Hegelian mutual recognition, often attacking the viewer through her body in order to get to her mind. Though the individual works can vary widely in content and approach, a common characteristic of a feel-bad film is that it presents the grounds for a Hollywood-style catharsis and then ends up deadlocking its realization, which of course yields frustration in the viewer. The most typical sensation here tends to be one of claustrophobia, which often goes hand-in-hand with mounting unrelieved desire.

In his chapter on Lars von Trier’s Dogville, Lübecker correctly notes that what makes von Trier’s film patently feel-bad — not to mention highly manipulative — is that it sets up a protracted narrative arc leading toward the inevitable desire for a catharsis, then it finally enables the catharsis but at the very end mocks the viewer for identifying with it, drawing attention to what von Trier deems her inner svinehund. The ultimate feeling the film leaves is one of disappointment, perhaps chiefly with oneself for having partaken in it. Lübecker traces the roots of the feel-bad film experience back to the more confrontational strands of the historical avant-garde, though he seems to suggest that a disproportionate amount of feel-bad cinema has sprung up within the last fifteen to twenty-odd years, which indeed seems curious.

One of the many interesting revelations in the book is the author’s assertion that labeling a film “feel-bad” isn’t to place a qualitative value judgement on it—just as feel-good films can range from the saccharine (Forrest Gump or Mr. Holland’s Opus) to the sublime (Alice in the Cities or Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday), feel-bad films run the gamut as well, from the ineffective or just plain awful to the successfully articulated. Lübecker also rightly notes that the existence of feel-bad film experiences should never lead us to confuse the ethical sphere of the movie house with that of the real world outside it—something that both those in favor and against such works of art can easily forget. The author also observes that the existence of feel-bad films isn’t unhealthy and rejecting them outright can be similar to denying problematic contemporary realities, and sometimes even lead to unforseen disastrous consequences.

In general what makes The Feel-Bad Film book work is Lübecker’s empathetic tone and lucid outlook combined with his ability to discuss the various films in relation to concurrent issues in philosophy and current events. This is a well researched, well written book that can be appreciated by both hardcore cinephiles as well as more general viewers who just might be wondering why they’ve felt “swindled” or confounded at the end of a feel-bad film experience. It is a necessary document. High marks.

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