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?”[1] [open endnotes in new window]

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.”[2]

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.”[3]

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.”[4]

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.”[5]

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.”[6]

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.”[7]

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.[8] 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”[9]

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.[10] 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,”[11] 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.”[12]

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.”[13] 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.”[14]

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.[15] 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.[16]

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.'[17]