“A strike looms, the war seems unrelenting and the country is fragmented politically,” notes Variety‘s Peter Bart. “So here’s Hollywood’s response: a new genre called the feel-bad movie.”
Grace Is Gone — a sad movie that makes you feel pretty good because it mostly feels right and true and uncluttered.
Bart is talking about movies about “revenge-seeking crime victims” (The Brave One), “terrorist assaults” (The Kingdom), “disappearing Iraq vets” (In The Valley of Elah) and “lovers who’ve learned to hate each other” (clueless). I wasn’t the least bit depressed by these three myself. You want depressing? Go see Elizabeth: The Golden Age. I honestly had thoughts about being taken to a hospital in an ambulance after seeing this film in Toronto.
Jodie Foster and Neil Jordan‘s film didn’t make me feel bad except at the end because I didn’t buy a cop saying to a pretty middle-aged perp he’s attracted to, “Shoot me in the fleshy part of my arm…fuck, that hurts!” The Kingdom‘s terrorist attack at the beginning wasn’t depressing in the least. People are getting blown up all the time in the Middle East these days…what? Plus it had a kind of jolting impact quality. And that cloying Annie Lennox song aside, I was turned on by Elah — by Tommy Lee Jones‘ immensely sad craggy face, the general depth of feeling, Roger Deakins‘ cinematography, etc. One of the least “depressing” films of the year, if you ask me.
In any case, feel-bad or feel-good isn’t what most people go to movies for. (Except for the idiots.) The idea is to experience some kind of distillation of something true and whole and eternal in life, and from this feel (and perhaps even learn) something that fortifies the soul — an absorption of values that stick to the ribs. I really don’t think people don’t want happy or sad — they want a sense of justice, insight, calm and recognition.
Grace is Gone is not a gloom trip, although some are probably muttering this to their friends. There’s a difference between sad and depressing. Sad is feeling that stirs you in a hurting, chest-flooding kind of way and makes you moisten or tear up. Depressing is being in a kind of jail in which you have three choices — suffer in silence, catch some zees or escape from Alcatraz (i.e., slip out the door after the publicists have left).
If a movie conveys a fundamental truth — something that makes you say to yourself, “Yup, that’s the way it is out there…the way people are, the way life sometimes goes” — and does so with clarity and economy with a little wit and edge with some likable, talented actors, people will usually come. Unless they’re really young or pathetically uneducated or red-state rube-ish (“Which movie gives the best quaalude high?”).
“I’m not a cinematic philistine,” Bart writes. “I applaud filmmakers for dealing with real issues in the real world. At the same time, the feel-bad genre (which is only in its early stages) is becoming downright oppressive. Filmgoers have a right to ask: When do we get some comic relief?”
Give us the pat homilies of The Bucket List, he seems to be saying. (I’m reading the script as we speak.) Give us a solid movie about values and setting straight the sins of the past like The Kite Runner. And please, not too many arterial throat soakings in olde London. We know There Will be Blood will be great, but not too violent at the end! And most of all, give us a nice feel-good movie about Tom Hanks, Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Julia Roberts single-handedly helping the Muhjadeen to kick the Russians out of Afghanistan in the 1980s.