Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Von Trier’s obstructions

with 10 comments

As you see [filmmaking] makes me into a clown. And that happens to everyone—just look at Orson Welles or look at even people like Truffaut. They have become clowns.

—Werner Herzog, in Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe

The news that Lars Von Trier has been expelled from Cannes for his decidedly ill-advised remarks is depressing in more ways than one, although I can’t fault the festival for its decision. I don’t think that von Trier is really a Nazi sympathizer; I think he’s a provocateur who picked the wrong time and place to make a string of increasingly terrible jokes. But the fact that he ended up in such a situation in the first place raises questions of its own about the limitations of the provocateur’s life. Von Trier, who used to be something of a hero of mine, has always been testing his audiences, but there’s a difference between a director who pushes the bounds of taste out of some inner compulsion, and one who is simply going through the motions. Von Trier, it seems, has gradually become the latter.

There was a time when I thought that von Trier was one of the major directors of the decade, along with Wong Kar-Wai, and I don’t think I was entirely wrong. Dancer in the Dark is still the last great movie musical, a remarkable instance of a star and director putting their soul and sanity on the line for the sake of a film, and a rebuke to directors who subject their audiences to an emotional ordeal without demanding the same of themselves. Just as impressive was The Five Obstructions, von Trier’s oddly lovable experiment with the director Jørgen Leth, which remains the best cinematic essay available on the power of constraints. (Von Trier had recently announced a remake with Martin Scorsese as the test subject, a prospect that made me almost giddy with joy. I’d be curious to see if this is still happening, in light of von Trier’s recent troubles.)

But the cracks soon began to show. I greatly admired Dogville, which was a major work of art by any definition, but it lacked the crucial sense that von Trier was staking his own soul on the outcome: he was outside the movie, indifferent, paring his nails, and everything was as neat as mathematics. At the time, I thought it might be the only movie of its year that I would still remember a decade later, but now I can barely recall anything about it, and don’t have much inclination to watch it again. I tried very hard to get through Manderlay and gave up halfway through—Bryce Dallas Howard’s performance, through no fault of her own, might be the most annoying I’ve ever seen. And I still haven’t watched Antichrist, less out of indifference than because my wife has no interest in seeing it. (One of these days, I’ll rent it while she’s out of town, which will be a fun weekend.)

And now we have the Cannes imbroglio, which only serves as a reminder that every director—indeed, every artist—ultimately becomes a caricature of himself, in ways that only reveal what was already there. That was true of Orson Welles, who in his old age fully became the gracious ham and confidence trickster he had always been, except more so, in ways that enhance our understanding of him as a young man. The same will be true, I’m afraid, of von Trier. The spectacle that he presented is even less flattering when we try to imagine the same words being said by Herzog, or even someone like Michael Haneke—men who are provocateurs, yes, but only as an expression of their deepest feelings about the world, something that is no longer true of von Trier, if it ever was. Von Trier, clearly, was just joking. But he revealed much more about himself than if he were trying to be serious.

10 Responses

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  1. “always been testing his audiences, but there’s a difference between a director who pushes the bounds of taste out of some inner compulsion, and one who is simply going through the motions”

    Yes…soo interesting.

    A director is in a curious position because they are able to challenge society without restriction. After all “it’s just art”…

    But when does it become just a pathological need for attention?

    Possibly he can’t draw the line when it comes to his artistic and social selves????

    Maybe he is just exploring society ills in a humorous way to heal? Bring up the unthinkable and see what happens?


    May 19, 2011 at 7:29 pm

  2. Okay…I read the article and what he said.

    At the risk of being a sympathizer…

    I understand him.

    I don’t know much about him but HAVE heard OF him.

    When I read the article I get the feeling he was talking about being a Nazi as in “I like to control my film, the environment, the stars who I hire, etc.” So as in dictator.

    He seems used to being contrary.

    But unfortunately forgot where he was and other people’s sensitivities.

    That’s my overall impresssion.

    He meant no harm and I don’t think he is anything to worry about in terms of anti-social or even overly arrogant. Just actually too innocent.

    He should have said he was joking and then apologized.

    The fact that everyone including him seems to be taking it seriously makes it worse.


    May 19, 2011 at 11:28 pm

  3. There should be no off limits in our society in terms of what we can laugh about.

    If we can’t laugh about it we haven’t healed.

    I only object to timing.

    He’s just comparing our society’s ills and obsessions to the bigger questions of the day.

    We ARE obsessed with porn and sex.

    “…Udo Kier by saying that next time he would be “typecast not only as homosexual, but also extremely drunk. We won’t have to change anything. You can just go on with your life.”

    A lot of people think they can do anything these days and then just get on with their lives after they go to a couple of days of rehab.

    I can see the point about the churches and porn sex. What should be sacred and enjoyable is really about exploitation these days. That about sums up organized religion AND sex for me these days.

    He’s too thoughtful. And too innocent.

    In my humble opinion.


    May 19, 2011 at 11:49 pm

  4. That actually isn’t a bad reading of his comments. Although I think it may give him a little too much credit, at least in this case.


    May 20, 2011 at 7:52 am

  5. Well thank you…


    May 20, 2011 at 10:16 am

  6. He’s apologized and been banned.

    Cannes seems to be having a knee-jerk reaction which is often the product of a diseased psyche (collective as well)…things get glossed over that shouldn’t and other things get noticed as priority. It’s almost like the area (Hitler/Holocaust) is so tender there is no blood flow. How does this happen?

    But the reaction of Cannes is curious. It’s like a reverse of the Hitler situation (as per Devil in the City author Erik Larson) with the same dynamics.


    May 21, 2011 at 10:26 am

  7. In my opinion, Von Trier is no angel.

    Cannes made him persona non grata.

    The punishment does not fit the crime.

    On a metaphysical level, what would draw such an event to a person?



    May 23, 2011 at 3:46 pm

  8. Lars, if you’re reading this sweetie…

    Please maintain your individuality. Always!!

    We hope to hear further musings. Your discussions are rich!

    Hopefully not at a restaurant waaaaay out of town. My Manalo Blahniks can’t take me that far.

    Yours forever,


    May 24, 2011 at 9:15 am

  9. Never follow the crowd, children!


    May 24, 2011 at 9:17 am

  10. If a writer is so cautious that he never writes anything that cannot be criticized, he will never be able to write anything that can be read. If you want to help other people, you have got to make up your mind to write things that some men will condemn.” – Thomas Merton (Trappist monk, author, and social critic


    May 24, 2011 at 12:06 pm

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