by James Killough
There was some terribly sad news last Wednesday: Sarah Palin announced she isn’t running for president. The fact that the final gong on that tuneless, talentless cabaret act was utterly muffled by the untimely demise of a truly great man, Steve Jobs, was the definition of poetic justice, and will set the tone for the Moosehead MILF’s rapid slip into obscurity. However, I shall miss Tina Fey’s impersonations. Fuck, she was funny.
Joe McGinniss’s article in the Daily Beast had a decent paragraph that summed up just how dangerous this whole episode was:
In our 235 years as a nation, [Palin’s nomination] might have been—other than the Civil War—the gravest threat our republic has ever faced. Not only was she the most unqualified candidate in our history, she might have been the most mentally fragile, and she was certainly the only one ever who flirted openly with the notion of ending the separation of church and state.
I think it’s my own wishful thinking that the Tea Party and their embarrassing weirdness will stop. They are beautifully organized, as most rightwing ventures are. Sometimes this conservative ability to focus serves the country well, such as the Log Cabin Republicans spearheading the repeal of DODT and DOMA. At other times it, well, gives us the Tea Party. What amazes me most is they obviously didn’t think about how their name might remind even moderately literate people of one of the more demented scenes from Alice in Wonderland; it did end up being prescient of their actions as a group. I’m sure it has been noted before, but from an advertising perspective, the Tea Party must be the most accidentally apropos branding in history.
When I close my eyes and think of liberals trying to organize, focus and reach a consensus, for some reason I imagine a meeting of the organizers of any given gay pride event anywhere in the world, with each possible sort of Ghey represented, from tranny to circuit queen to butch muscle bear, plus the Lesbotrons, none of whom can stand each other, especially the Lesbotrons. Somehow the event takes place despite the bickering and the disagreeing, but it’s always raucous and in bad taste, and I don’t attend because I’m not represented and I’m a phonophobe who loathes gay boom-boom wailing diva music.
In industry news, director Lars von Trier issued a statement last week that he was questioned by police in North Zealand concerning his monologue about sympathizing with Hitler and being a Nazi at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, all of which was caught on tape because it was a press conference. You have to watch this to believe it:
I have to say I really like the lighting in that vid, with Kirsten Dunst in the background as the Alice character growing increasingly appalled at the Mad Hatter’s rant. You couldn’t make that shit up. (Am I the only one who gets Kirsten Dunst confused with Claire Danes on a regular basis? I wrote the entire first draft of this post convinced that was Claire Danes at the press conference, and I’d seen her in Melancholia, the film they’re promoting.)
For those who thought that von Trier was questioned by police in New Zealand, you are forgiven: he and Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson were looking similar before Jackson lost the weight. However, Those In The Know know that von Trier doesn’t travel by plane, so he was unlikely to be in New Zealand. We assumed that North Zealand is probably some bumfuck region of Denmark, which it turns out it is. See, although most von Trier films are set in America, he has never actually been here. His is an imagined America gleaned from films and images, which he shoots in Denmark or Sweden, and that is admittedly very cool.
Like Galliano, who made similar pro-Nazi statements last year, but had the excuse of being drunk and not stone-cold sober at a press conference, von Trier is a creative genius mess. Galliano’s comments were made in spite, in the language of the purest Bitter Old Queenish (BOQ), with which all Gheys are regrettably conversant. BOQ is learned at an early age when you discover you are born at the very bottom of the social pecking order. It arises from despair and is honed by defensiveness.
The bitterness in Bitter Old Queenish sinks in deeply and festers in the Petri dish of normal tween insecurity. But it can lie dormant for many years after you run away from home, join your fellow Gheys in merrymaking and flourish mentally to some degree, while having all of that plentiful random sex Str8s politely pretend to be jealous of, when in fact there is nothing they are jealous of us about; the only difference between adulthood and the playground is that the children are older. What will later turn into vitriol and fluent Bitter Old Queenish is for the average young promiscuous Ghey just witty banter that inspires sitcoms like Will & Grace or reality shows on Bravo.
You might even become the greatest fashion designer in the world, in which case you hardly care what people think about you; money and power are seductive, so even implausibly unattainable men sleep with you, and you buy the delusion.
Then you pass a certain milestone and become utterly unfuckable. You can’t even blow some pissant filmmaker’s German boyfriend in a luxury bathroom of the Plaza Athenée. You try desperately to stop the slide with facelifts, Botox and injections, but it only gets more comical, and they’re giggling and taunting just like in the middle-school playground, except now you don’t have adulthood to look forward to, just the grave. So the BOQ rises in your throat, takes hold of you like the Devil with Linda Blair in The Exorcist. You have an urgent, insatiable need to put everyone beneath you in a desperate attempt to buoy your ego.
But what about Lars von trier? Does he look like he even had his morning coffee at that press conference, much less too much champagne and cocaine?
My friend, the artist Scott Covert, summed up his feelings for von Trier’s work when we were watching Dancer in the Dark—a deeply turgid musical starring Björk, whom von Trier drove to a breakdown during production—by loudly proclaiming so that the whole theater could hear, in a harsh New York accent, “This is brilliant, but I hate it. Know what I mean?”
All crews have their gossip, and if it isn’t quite accurate, then it’s at least based in truth. I heard an anecdote once from a member of his production department about how just before he was about to shoot Dogville, von Trier went to pick up his star, Nicole Kidman, personally from the airport. At that time, and perhaps still, he always wore this beat-up leather jacket, and drove some equally run-down Volvo, or Saab, or whatever Scandi vehicle.
At a certain point while they were driving from the airport, von Trier started sobbing. He lost it so badly he had to pull over to the side of the road. Kidman had no idea what to do. Here she was alone with this legendary mad, smelly director in this not-very-glam car, and he’s crying so hard he can’t drive. She started to console him.
“What’s wrong?” she asked, expecting that some horrible tragedy had just befallen him.
“Why Tom Cruise?” He bawled. “WHHHHYYYY?”
If you break down the Cannes press conference, it’s more than just a train wreck happening in slow motion, it’s the culmination of something von Trier has been thinking about for decades. He starts on a thread, which makes perfect sense in the particular idiom and dialect of North Vontrierland, and then realizes that he is speaking publicly, not to his crew, his cast or even just to his fellow weirdo Danes—and the Danes are by far the strangest of the Scandinavians—and then he tries to justify what he’s just said, then it all derails horribly when he takes a whack at Israel. Behind him, Kirsten Dunst in her mind can feel her entire management team at United Talent Agency and her publicist trying to yank her to her feet and away from the table, or at least out of frame.
The long train wreck in question began after the release of what many consider to be von Trier’s first film, Europa, in 1991. In actual fact, he had already made Medea in 1988, which has to be the most relevant rendering of the Greek tragedy ever created, Euripedes’ included; you are presented with a completely different, new, believable twist on why she kills her children. And “twist” is key because it is so twisted, but also utterly devastating, which rapidly became two distinct traits in a von Trier piece.
Medea’s story in its entirety has always fascinated me: a barbarian princess has her marriage to her husband, Jason of argonauts fame, effectively annulled because she isn’t Greek, so she kills the sons she had with him in revenge, even though she killed her own brother to get Jason the Golden Fleece that allowed him to return to Greece in the first place. I had wanted to direct my own film version since staging the Euripedes play, which only deals with the Theban portion of her story, in college. After seeing von Trier’s film, I retired the plan. It is good enough to make you think you could never do better.
The IMDb gives the following synopsis of Europa:
An American, Kessler, goes to post-war Germany in 1945 to work as a railroad conductor for the Zentropa Rail Line instead of going into the Army…. He meets Katharina Hartmann, the daughter of the railroad owner and they fall in love. The Nazi sympathizers remaining in Europe coerce Kessler into cooperating with them to carry out terrorist tactic against the American forces attempting to govern the country, but Kessler’s inability to perform brings about a realization about his place and America’s role in Germany.
The word Zentropa is important to the story of the von Trier train wreck because it became the name of his production company, just as the obsession with Nazis and what a man’s reaction to them should be is central to Europa, specifically to a German-named American man, who, because he’s played by Franco-American Jean-Marc Barr, sounds like a European.
I didn’t like Europa, but most people I know did, especially Germans and North Europeans, now that I think about it. I found it annoying and pretentious, and if anything is going to be shot mostly in black and white it had better be spectacular, and this wasn’t. But it was the beginning of von Trier’s thread about the nature of evil, whose proper origins are in Medea, but his company isn’t called Medea Entertainment. To me, that it is named after Zentropa means that Europa is von Trier’s most personal film, that he identifies with this hero above all others; anyway, note how most of his protagonists are women, and what torture he puts them through; indeed, they are protagonists to him, not heroes. Aside from evil, the themes of Americanism, Nazism, concentration camps, time, human bondage, racism and so forth were just beginning to be explored by him, and blossomed into his later films.
Von Trier went on to direct some brilliant works, and some not-so-brilliant, like any prolific genius. He was one of the co-founders with Thomas Vinterberg of a Danish film movement called Dogme 95, which was absolutely silly and I don’t think they took it very seriously themselves, but it gave rise to a style of filmmaking distinctly its own. Von Trier was probably the first of the collective to abandon the dogma of Dogme 95. He went on to experiment with deconstructed worlds-as-sets in Dogville and its senseless follow-up Manderlay. His last theatrical release, Antichrist, was even darker than Dancer in the Dark, and at least twice as annoying.
But the offending press conference was about his forthcoming Melancholia, starring Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg, and to understand where von Trier’s Zentropa train wreck is going, what its terminus is, you have to see the film. Christopher Cramer and I will be reviewing it as a sort of follow up to this piece this week, so I won’t say much except that it is his apotheosis, the summation of everything he has been trying to express in different ways over the decades in his own language, his North Vontrierlandese: all life, mankind in particular, is intrinsically evil and should be annihilated. We are both Nazi and concentration camp survivor, and the imagined American is some sort of hero/anti-hero torn between the two.
Personally, I don’t agree with what von Trier said at the press conference for whatever intellectual and artistic reasons. But, to quote Voltaire, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Well, as I’ve said before, I am unlikely to defend you to the death—there are others in ranks and uniforms better suited to do that than me—but I will certainly throw a tomato at whomever is giving you a hard time about your right to free speech.
Which brings us to France prosecuting both Galliano and von Trier for anti-Semitic war-crime etceteras just for expressing themselves in either Bitter Old Queenish or North Vontrierlandese. That is wrong. Yes, Galliano should be prosecuted for assaulting people physically but not for abusing them verbally, and von Trier should express contriteness for his words, which he has done, as has Galliano. I think it’s over the top for von Trier never to speak publicly again, and I doubt that is going to happen any more than Galliano was ever going to retire from designing. But the state has no right to punish them for expressing themselves, nor even to send police to North Bumfuck Denmark to question von Trier. That is a crime in itself.
In the end, you can either be cool or be a douche. Whether it’s Palin, the Tea Party, or Galliano and von Trier, to use another quote of Voltaire’s, it’s all the same: Le secret d’ennuyer est celui de tout dire. The secret to being annoying is being a loudmouth.