Even though I attended the Cannes Film Festival earlier this month, I learned about Lars von Trier’s idiotic Nazi remarks the same way that you most likely did: via the Internet. (Press conferences tend to conflict with actual movies, which are the reason I’m there.) And for days thereafter, as I followed the story—Von Trier apologizes, fest declares Von Trier “persona non grata,” etc.—I did so entirely in various “print” media, not bothering to seek out the footage itself on the Cannes website or on YouTube. Didn’t seem necessary. Having read umpteen interviews with the guy over the past two decades, I felt confident that his words had been taken out of context. Once I had a chance to sit down and watch the disaster unfold in real time, it would be abundantly clear that the world had badly overreacted.
Well, it wasn’t. Human behavior isn’t remotely as neat and tidy as the vast majority of movies would have us believe. At times, Von Trier is clearly just messing with the room. At other times, though—I’m thinking in particular of his tossed-off “I think [Hitler] did some wrong things, yes, absolutely” (which prompts Kirsten Dunst to lean over and try to shut him up) and “he’s not what you would call a good guy”—Von Trier seems to inadvertently turn understatement into a form of hate speech, in a way that doesn’t come across to my eyes as jokingly premeditated. He’s extremely difficult to read, even when you can measure his tone and expression. And the whole business wound up reminding me of a less inflammatory but nonetheless mesmerizingly uncomfortable interview with a noted provocateur, one that took place before I was born. Take a look at Bob Dylan in 1965, at the height of his pre-electric fame, using Time’s hapless London correspondent Horace Freeland Judson for target practice:
I distinctly remember being delighted by this exchange the first time I saw Dont Look Back, when I was in my 20s. At that time, I saw one of my heroes refusing to play the publicity game, forcing his snooty interlocutor to actually think about issues that magazines gloss over. Today, I look at this exchange and all I can think is: Wow, what a colossal dick. If you don’t respect Time magazine, fine, don’t talk to them. Agreeing to the interview and then using it to express your contempt for the publication and everything it stands for is simply rude, especially when you throw in condescension so thick it practically settles on Judson like a fog. (Judson now seems heroic to me in his refusal to rise to Dylan’s bait, though admittedly as a journalist myself today, I’m hardly objective. I almost never do interviews, though.) Indeed, Dylan slags not merely Time and Judson but an entire “class of people” (his own words) who’ve done nothing more objectionable than taking a weekly newsmagazine seriously. It all seems so petty, and Dylan comes across as ludicrously self-important, however justifiable that may have been.
Furthermore, I gotta say I get a whiff of Sarah Palin here in Dylan’s non-response to specific follow-up questions. Granted, he’s an entertainer (as he insists), not a politician, so his failure to go beyond vague pronouncements isn’t remotely the same level of dealbreaker. And he’s far craftier than Palin about disguising the vacuum. But you can see him start to flail when Judson, very reasonably, asks him precisely what he means by “really the truth,” i.e. what isn’t Time telling its readers? (Eventually he comes up with a photo montage that would juxtapose Nelson Rockefeller with a vomiting tramp, which I trust nobody actually credits as great journalism.) And imagine a public official who tells a reporter, “I’m not a fundamentalist, but I can’t explain why, you wouldn’t understand,” and then just flat-out refuses to elaborate when pressed, on the implicit grounds that the reporter is just too stupid to get it. Only the relative unimportance of the issue (did it really matter, even pre-Newport, whether or not Dylan was a “folk singer”?) saves Dylan from looking like a laughingstock by resorting to that sort of pathetic evasion.
As with Von Trier’s half-joking Nazi shtick, though, it’s not that simple. For one thing, you can actually see Dylan realize he may have taken this prophet-of-truth act a bit too far, as he starts backpedaling toward the end, recognizing Judson as an equal (“You couldn’t offend me, and I’m sure, you know, I couldn’t offend you”) rather than regarding him as some sort of lower life form. And in the Caruso bit, Dylan’s entire manner abruptly transforms. A hint of a smile appears, like the sun breaking through clouds, and he becomes mock-confrontational rather than genuinely confrontational, as he’d previously appeared. The change is so dramatic that the folks in the background, who’ve been utterly silent up to this point, can be heard busting up. For the first time, you can clearly see that Dylan is just goofing around, putting on airs in a manner so patently absurd that it swings around the other way and comes across as self-deprecating. He goes from brashly arrogant to endearingly humble in a matter of seconds.
The weird thing is, this sudden perception shift recodes everything that preceded it, at least to some extent. Once Dylan says “I can hold my breath three times as long if I want to,” I no longer feel certain that he was ever quite serious, even though everything he’d said previously made a certain amount of sense. It seems entirely plausible that he was playing the role of Bigshot Genius Asshole all along, realizing only after several minutes that his face was too straight for the comedy to be perceptible. “I’ve never been in Time magazine, and yet this hall’s filled twice”—wait, did I really think he was that pompous? And do I really believe that Von Trier sympathizes with Hitler to the point of thinking of him as having merely done “some wrong things”? With personalities as impish and mercurial as these two, it’s hard to draw conclusions even when you witness the statements with your own eyes. They don’t need journalists to distort their words; everything they say amounts to a constant, maddening process of self-distortion.