Lars von Trier is back in the news again, and for the same reason: his idiotic comments about Hitler. This week GQ published a lengthy profile of von Trier, the revered art-house filmmaker, who was thrown out of Cannes earlier this year. The reason was for his interview at a press conference, in which, in attempt to be ironic, coy, flip and provocative, he said: "What can I say? I understand Hitler, he did some wrong things, but I sympathize with him."
He apologized for the comments after the public outcry, and has not been in the media since. But he’ll have to be now that the film he was promoting at Cannes–"Melancholia," starring Kirsten Dunst as a women suffering from depression as the world comes to an end–opens in America on Nov. 11. When GQ got to him, he had not talked to any press at all since Cannes, and you could tell. He was more self-pitying and recalcitrant than many in the press already know him to be. It was as if he was talking to his a close friend, or a therapist.
Here’s what he told the GQ reporter after they watched a YouTube clip of von Trier’s comments at Cannes:
"I don’t think there is a right or wrong thing to say. I think that anything can be said. That is very much me. The same with film—anything can be done in a film. If it can be thought in the human mind, then it could be said and it could be seen on a film. Of course you get troubles for it afterwards, that’s for sure, but that doesn’t make it wrong. To say I’m sorry for what I said is to say I’m sorry for what kind of a person I am, I’m sorry for my morals, and that would destroy me as a person. It’s not true. I’m not sorry. I am not sorry for what I said. I’m sorry that it didn’t come out more clearly. I’m not sorry that I made a joke, but I’m sorry that I didn’t make it clear that it was a joke. But I can’t be sorry for what I said—it’s against my nature."
Rather than try to understand von Trier–something I don’t think any journalist can do, and maybe not even von Trier himself can do–this latest roe got me thinking about journalism. One thing I’ve learned from reporting is that there are people who know how to talk to the press and people who don’t. And you, as a journalist, pretty much know what to expect even before the interview starts: most everyday people are clueless, and the reactions you get from them for a run-of-the-mill "people on the street story" are, not surprisingly, not all that helpful.
They can add color and we in the press rely on them for any number of stories, but the reality is that they tend to reveal very little. You get superficial observations which often sound trite, and it’s not necessarily because who you’re interviewing is stupid. It’s because the nature of a journalistic interview is odd — not only the socially awkward fact of someone furiously taking down every word you say on a recorder, or pen and paper, but the lack of context in the interviewee’s head: what is this reporter going to use from what I say? Should I say what I think he wants? How do I want to "sound" in print? Or should I forget all that and just be honest?
But people who are looking for the press’s attention — politicians, business people, artists (or at least artists in the popular mediums, like film) — know better. Politicians are, obviously, the best at the game, since they’ve been coached on how to stay on message and know to anticipate tough questions. Business people are, surprisingly, pretty bad. And it’s not because they’re unfamiliar with interviews, but because they think that journalists are a blank slate upon which they can simply hawk their product. They pitch ideas to you as if you were a billboard, expecting you to just get out their message. They often sound, not surprisingly, just as jejune and juvenile as their expectations. (Which, in a strange way, I guess makes those interviews the most "honest".)
Artists are different. Let’s leave out the unseasoned ones — i.e. up-and-comers — who probably have no training at all. They tend to say whatever they want, as if you’re their friend, but most decent journalists who cover emerging artists don’t want to rough them up. If we choose to write about them, it’s probably because we find what they’re doing is interesting, and so we approach them much less cynically. If they say stupid things, we tend not to make them sound stupid when we write about them.
But for seasoned artists, we expect them to be as ready as politicians. That’s not to say that all we’re looking for is conflict and imbroglios — and I think any arts journalists has a duty to explain and understand the art’s intention as much as possible. Arts, and particularly the less popular ones, beg all types of fascinating questions, and it’s the journalist’s job to ask them.
However, once you reach the level of fame as von Trier, the expectations are different. Because his films are complicated, journalists still have to treat him as they would any serious artist. (And that’s a distinction he deserves.) But once you get yourself into an ugly personal roe that becomes public — and in this case, his personal opinions were made in the public first — you have to address that conflict differently. Von Trier does not understand this.
There’s no question that the formalities of public apologizes are themselves trite. And that seems to be what von Trier is at pains to avoid — sounding like a cliche. But journalism is, in many ways, trite. And there is often no other way to un-do public wrongs than by un-doing them in public. Von Trier treated the GQ reporter as if he were a close buddy, not a journalist who he knew had ever right and probably every intention to publish whatever it was he said. Of course, we can be thankful that we got a glimpse of this "private" von Trier — one who actually felt he was the victim of a shallow, ignorant public. But what he showed now is how shallow he, in fact, really is.