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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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Big Joys, Small Sorrows a.k.a. New Times of Joy and Sorrow (Original title: Shin yorokobi mo kanashimi mo ikutoshitsuki) by Keisuke Kinoshita, Japan, 1986.

The last truly memorable feature in the diverse and prolific career of director Keisuke Kinoshita, Big Joys, Small Sorrows is not to be missed! A colorful, underrated Eighties Shochiku film, it lends credence to Alexander Jacoby’s assertion in A Critical Handbook of Japanese Film Directors that Kinoshita was “one of the leading postwar exponents of the studio’s bittersweet, subtly sentimental ‘Ōfuna flavor'”—a kind of melodrama centered around domestic concerns, often geared toward women. In Big Joys, Small Sorrows the setting for the familial activity is not one dwelling or town but a steady succession of enchanting lighthouses and related peripheries up and down coastal Japan. The film’s cinematography boasts a wealth of charming helicopter-assisted establishing shots showing each toudai and its surrounding scenery in their seasonable seaside glory. In this sense Big Joys, Small Sorrows could be said to possess a secondary function as a travelogue, and coupled with the beautiful, melancholic score these shots serve as a welcome refrain throughout its 130-minute duration.

If Big Joys, Small Sorrows sounds a little familiar that might be because it’s a remake of Kinoshita’s 1957 feature Times of Joy and Sorrow, which also follows a stoic and resilient lighthouse keeper employed by Japan’s Maritime Safety Agency. In contrast to some of his colleagues, the lighthouse keeper here has a cute, supportive, but sometimes disapproving wife, with whom he maintains a mixture of deep affection and humorous low-level irritability, which often yields entertaining dialogue. Along with their children, as the years wear on, the couple relocates from one lighthouse to the next, each time being visited by the lighthouse keeper’s widower father, who’s on in years. Sometimes characterized as a burden when he visits, the grandfather is enthusiastic to see his family—partially, it seems, because he misses them and is otherwise rather listless and lonely, but also because making such jaunts seems to be an indicator that he’s not quite ready to be placed in a nursing home. In typical tourist fashion, the grandfather eagerly snaps pictures of himself and other family members in front of the lighthouses and various landmarks of note, though it’s not altogether clear what he intends to do with the photos.

Like a lot of films, one thing that seems to make Big Joys, Small Sorrows work is that it presents an appealing amalgam of emotions. Here the mixture of moods and sensibilities isn’t far removed from, say, a Late Fifties Ozu staple like Equinox Flower, though Kinoshita’s film has occasional camera movement and a more pronounced sense of humor that may or may not be the result of the characters’ less guarded behavior. The poetics in Big Joys, Small Sorrows feel looser and less disciplined but overall the film might exhibit more of a joy for living. There is one scene that feels a little clumsy and out of place—a mini-disaster sequence in which one of the lighthouse keeper’s younger associates has a life threatening experience, prompting him to finally forego his bachelorhood and pursue getting married to a woman he’d half-heartedly courted. And it should be noted that in the midst of its narrative Big Joys, Small Sorrows does put forth an uncritically patriotic emphasis on Japan’s equivalent to the Coast Guard and Navy, to the extent that if the viewer isn’t paying attention to the story the film might look in parts like a high-budget recruiting reel. Nonetheless this ship stays afloat! Big Joys, Small Sorrows is a nicely shot, well acted film devised from a screenplay that feels like it took decades of accrued wisdom to write. As of press time the film has garnered an all too modest 6.1 rating on the Internet Movie Database, which is less an accurate assessment of its charms than another sign that Big Joys, Small Sorrows is due to be reappraised. At this point, given the film’s rather neglected status here in North America, it would be fortuitous if the Criterion Collection gave it a spine number. For now, though, Big Joys, Small Sorrows is available in their Hulu Plus library, waiting patiently for new viewers to discover it.

My new musical concern Tired of Triangles releases its debut recording Up at 4 A.M. this week. I think the album represents a nice sequence that works best as a whole. Up at 4 A.M. consists of 8 songs in just under 23 minutes, with each track being a bit different than the ones before it.

The general style of Tired of Triangles, on this outing at least, is moody stripped-down solo rock geared for late night or early morning listening. A lot of the songs are oriented around simple guitar parts laced in effects with sparse vocals popping up.

While it’s a tad tempting to expand on that description and maybe wax poetic on this, the newest detour in my artistic journey, I will refrain from that here and just say that I hope you like it.

Up at 4 A.M. can be streamed and downloaded at http://tiredoftriangles.bandcamp.com

Allen Toussaint enjoying some food.

Something I neglected to mention here last week was the recent passing away of New Orleans music staple Allen Toussaint, a sharp dresser and talented pianist whose influence on RnB and funk cannot be overstated—though he worked in country, pop, and other genres as well.

As a songwriter and producer Toussaint made an exhaustive number of fine records, many of them hits that climbed the charts. His well known work with Lee Dorsey, The Meters, Ernie K-Doe, and Dr. John et al is top-shelf music and no doubt worth revisiting, but I’d like to take a moment to plug some of his lesser known work that’s just as great.

Allen Toussaint enjoying some food.

While I’m not an authority on RnB, funk, soul, and the like, I’ve spent countless hours listening to it, and for my money one of the best compilations of it I’ve ever heard is the now-defunct Grapevine label’s Northern Soul of New Orleans, Volume One (which was sadly never followed up by subsequent volumes). In addition to featuring fine songs that weren’t penned by Toussaint (like The Jades’ “Lucky Fellow” and Pat Brown’s “The Good Got to Suffer for the Bad”), this disc includes some of his best lesser know work such as Curly Moore’s “You Don’t Mean It” and Ray Algere’s “In My Corner.” It also includes the more popular “Mean Man” by Betty Harris. From start to finish Northern Soul of New Orleans, Volume One is a warm, slightly gritty, and endearing listen. One would have to be pretty uptight to hear it and not be moved.

Also of note, off the top of my head, is the excellent 2006 BBC documentary Originals: The Allen Toussaint Touch, which framed Toussaint’s life and career while he was living in New York in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. It can be viewed on YouTube HERE.

Dave Monroe as a child.

Dave Monroe in high school.

Dave Monroe in one of his bands, The Prevailing Westerlies.

Dave Monroe being interviewed on the news in Milwaukee.

A few days ago, Dave Monroe of Milwaukee, Wisconsin passed away. He was 49 years old.

Dave was a friend of mine and a friend to many—a beloved, highly cultured fixture of Cream City who frequented record shops, night clubs, book stores, movie theaters, cafes, restaurants, museums, and bus stops from one side of town to the other.

To know Dave at all was to be aware of his deep knowledge of music, literature, and film, and the goodnatured, at times hyperactive manner in which he liked to talk shop. Whether it was with hardcore enthusiasts of one of his pet subjects, or so-called laymen who were curious (or even staunchly incurious), Dave always shared his interests with others and his fervor for art was contagious.

An avid collector of music, Dave developed an inextricable fondness for old 45rpm records. Indeed, one of his catchphrases was “Have records, will travel” and nothing seemed to summon warm and fuzzy feelings in him quite like laying down a Mod soul, boogaloo, Hammond jazz, doo-wop, Sixties French pop, or freakbeat 45 and letting it rip—preferably in public. As DJ Flavor Dav he spun records in Milwaukee countless times—at recurring events like the Soul Hole (his main endeavor), Rave You in Bay View, the Rhythm and Brunch, 2 x 2 4 Tuesday, various regional soul summits, and guest spots at local mainstays like Mod Night (R.I.P.) and The Get Down. My good friend Will who used to work with Dave at the Milwaukee Art Museum recalled how a woman Dave was once trying to court said to him, “When I look into your eyes, all I see are two records spinning,” and it’s easy to imagine Dave feeling flattered by that to no end. Even on his deathbed in a hospice Dave managed to have a small turntable present with various 45s strewn about. And word has it he was still trying to acquire “new old records” (as he liked to call them) while haggling about their prices up until his last few days. (You can witness the late Flavor Dav spinning some of his recent favorites HERE.)

The expression “voracious reader” has become a bit of a tiresome cliché to describe a bookish person, but Dave was nothing if not a bibliophile. Even Milwaukeeans who didn’t have the privilege of being acquainted with him would probably recognize Dave as the ubiquitous bespectacled “man about town” who never left the house without a stack of books under one arm, and, later in life, a cane at the end of the other. While Dave did graduate from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee with a degree in Comparative Literature and Mathematics in 1990, the cut of his jib was much more closely allied with that of an autodidact than an academic. To that end he absorbed numerous compelling reads in his adult life—everything from top-shelf novels by authors like Nabokov, Virginia Woolf, and his all-time favorite Thomas Pynchon, to scores of non-fiction books pertaining to cultural analysis and critical theory, to science and math texts, to fun and colorful comic books old and new. Among other things, Dave used to email his other friends and me PDFs he’d found of curious film theory titles, the most recent being The Feel-Bad Film, which I plan to get around to soon. And just revisiting his Facebook page today I noticed dozens of promising books he read and recommended that will be worth looking into in the coming months.

But while music and literature were touchstones, being a filmmaker I probably related to Dave most when it came to cinema. The early to mid Aughts, while I was enrolled as a film student, were a great time to be a moviegoer in Milwaukee. If one was so inclined, every week he could see a treasure trove of movies ranging from old domestic classics by directors like Nicholas Ray, to bad-ass foreign “art house” titles, to esoteric avant-garde works—all via celluloid prints. I was so inclined and happened to see Dave at a ton of screenings all over town. He was there at a screening of the newly restored print of Le Circle Rouge at the Times Cinema (back when they screened more adventurous selections), and he was routinely present at the UWM Union Theater for showings of great movies like Elem Klimov’s Come and See and Chantal Ackerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels. Dave was an adamant fan of mainstream hits like the Star Trek and Planet of the Apes movies, but he also absorbed a lot of cinema that many fans of such fare would find intimidating or perhaps hard to understand. One of the many humorous things about Dave is that since he had a sleeping disorder, he would often fall asleep during movies, so sometimes he would attend a showing of a movie three or four times in order to effectively see it once. It was not uncommon to hear Dave snoring at the back of a movie house if he was in attendance, and when he did just that at the Milwaukee premiere of Robert on his Lunch Break, I considered it an honor. I tried to get a picture with him that night but, ever photo-shy, Dave wouldn’t comply.

I had really hoped to see Dave the last time I was in Milwaukee, but he was too sick to make it out. Subsequent attempts to hang with him fell through. But we managed to keep in touch via the magic of the internet. And even though I could tell he was in a lot of pain and exhausted and frustrated by his illness, he still maintained a lot of dignity and wit. Which brings me to the last item — Dave was quite skilled at the internet! Yes. Sometimes social media seems like a really bad idea given the huge potential for misunderstandings, the inevitable trolling, people using it for cross purposes, the sheer amount of “noise” one has to endure in order to get to the good stuff, and the way entropy seems to win out more than half the time. But Dave’s presence on Facebook was always a welcome one, even among people who never met him. Sometimes in the “virtual world” rifts arise between people, but I got along with Dave 100% of the time. Dave was kind of like a big kid who’d endured a lot of hardship but was still able to keep his groovy interests at the forefront in spite of everything. He was fun to be around and judging by the hundreds of people paying tribute to him this week, he had a big impact on a lot of lives.

There’s a late-period Tom Petty song in which he boldly declares “I’m the king of Milwaukee!” and in my mind that title belongs to no one other than David Michael Monroe, one of the most unique people I’ve ever met.

Dave Monroe toward the end of his life.

Dave Monroe as Fred Flinstone.

A new self-interview, entitled Dave Andrae Interviews Himself, can be read HERE.

I think it does a pretty good job of delving into the particulars of how The Plants Are Listening was made, while shedding light on some of the ideas behind it, as well as my views on moviemaking in general. It was originally written in anticipation of the movie’s release on iTunes, but it looks like The Plants Are Listening will be unavailable for widespread home viewing for the indefinite future (long boring story best told in person). Anyway, here’s hoping you find it a worthwhile read.

The other week, while going through some old books of mine, I encountered this passage from Gilles Deleuze’s book on 17th Century philosopher Baruch Spinoza:

In the Ethics, it is in opposition to what Spinoza calls satire; and satire is everything that takes pleasure in the powerlessness and distress of men, everything that feeds on accusations, on malice, on belittlement, on low interpretations, everything that breaks men’s spirits (the tyrant needs broken spirits, just as broken spirits need a tyrant).

This December, on Friday the 5th at 9:15 p.m., The Plants Are Listening will see its Florida premiere at the inaugural Tampa Bay Underground Film Festival. This will be the first occasion in which any of my work has been shown publicly in the Gator State.

In their own words, The Tampa Bay Underground Film Festival “was founded by award-winning Bay Area filmmakers, actors, critics, artists and cinephiles to catch the independent films that fall through the cracks and end up… underground. With most independent films going straight to home video, TBUFF offers cast and crew the opportunity to see their movie on the big screen in digital sound at a real theater.”

Plants will be projected via DCP and preceded by a new 12-minute narrative from Russia, Diana Galimzyanova’s February 28. Should be a fun night out.

Here’s an audio recording of the Q&A that followed the recent screening at Woodland Pattern. The audience and I mostly discussed the music that was used in The Plants Are Listening.

Here’s the official trailer for The Plants Are Listening