May 24, 2011
Not Mel Gibson
Will the real anti-Semite please stand up?
Is it: a) Mel Gibson; b) Oliver Stone; c) John Galliano; d) Charlie Sheen; e) Lars von Trier — or (f) all of the above?
Trying to determine the worst offender may seem a Sisyphean task considering the past year’s almost farcical uptick in anti-Semitic rants. It’s like separating your least favorite jelly beans from an overstuffed crate. But to their credit as artists, this bunch has at least provided Jew-hating vitriol so colorful and diverse, no one will get bored with the same bean (OK, Mel, you get to be the exception).
There isn’t anything new about anti-Semitism in Hollywood — the very idea of the entertainment industry is a recurring theme in the “Jewish-cabal-runs-the-world” plot, but the past year has provided such a diverse array of offensive things to say about Jews, the verbal wreckage is worth sifting through. Not all anti-Semites are created equal.
To recap: Last fall, Stone blamed Jewish media domination for a misunderstood view of Hitler: “Hitler did far more damage to the Russians than the Jewish people”; earlier this spring, Galliano called a woman in a Parisian restaurant a “dirty Jew face” and on another occasion was caught on video verbally assaulting guests at a neighboring table: “I love Hitler. People like you would be dead today. Your mothers, your forefathers, would all be f———gassed”; and then that mad hatter Charlie Sheen degraded his sitcom boss Chuck Lorre, calling him a “clown,” a “turd,” a “contaminated little maggot” and — worst of all — by his Hebrew name, Chaim Levine.
Maybe jelly beans are too kind a metaphor. None of those diatribes is particularly sweet; all are distasteful. But there is a difference between saying something stupid and naive and saying something hateful.
Now I’m going to say something that may sound stupid and naive: Lars von Trier is not an anti-Semite.
Last week, the Danish director disrupted the revelry on the Cote d’Azur with a very bizarre ramble at the Cannes Film Festival. During a press conference for his latest film, the apocalyptic “Melancholia,” which was in competition for the top prize (it didn’t win, but star Kirsten Dunst got an acting nod), von Trier was asked about his German roots and about an interview he once gave citing his “admiration for the Nazi aesthetic.”
“I thought I was a Jew for a long time and was very happy being a Jew,” von Trier told a conference room full of international reporters. “And then I found out I was really a Nazi, because my family was German, which also gave me some pleasure. So I’m kind of … yep … what can I say? I understand Hitler. But I think he did some wrong things, yes, absolutely. … He’s not what you would call ‘a good guy,’ but I understand much about him, and I sympathize with him a little. I’m not against Jews — no. … I am of course very much for Jews — no, not too much, because the Israelis are a pain in the ass. …”
Finally realizing he had buried himself deep in the jelly bean jar and consequently mortified his cast, who flanked him on both sides, the bumbling von Trier wondered: “How can I get out of this sentence?”
Uh, too late.
Von Trier’s flippant ramble instantly made headlines, hijacking the spotlight from his film (and all other films), and within 24 hours, the festival officially banned the director, declaring him persona non grata. He immediately recanted: “If I have hurt someone by the words I said at the press conference, I sincerely apologize. I am not anti-Semitic or racially prejudiced in any way, nor am I a Nazi.” And later, for good measure, he added, “I’m known for provocations, but I like provocations when they have a purpose, and this had no purpose whatsoever. Because I’m not Mel Gibson. I’m definitely not Mel Gibson.”
As an artist, von Trier is certainly iconoclastic, known for edgy and visually evocative films. The Bjork-headlining musical “Dancer in the Dark,” about a blind woman who escapes despair by daydreaming elaborate musical numbers, won him the Palme d’Or in 2000, Cannes’ top prize. His 2009 entry, the uber-raunchy “Antichrist,” generated heat for its portrayal of female genital mutilation and lots of gratuitous sex. For his next project, von Trier has promised … porn.
The zany director isn’t always so sane. After his banishment, von Trier declared himself “proud” to be cast out and invited anyone who was displeased with him to hit him — the caveat was that he might “enjoy it.”
Even the Anti-Defamation League’s Abe Foxman seemed somewhat puzzled by von Trier, calling his comments “insensitive” while calling attention to his frailties.
“He seems to be struggling with some personal ghosts,” Foxman said in a statement. “I don’t know what to make of it, except that what we’re seeing recently is, when somebody has a personal problem or is under intense pressure, it bursts out in an anti-Semitic fashion.” (Hear that, Charlie Sheen?)
The Hollywood reporter Mike Fleming was less charitable. “If there was a festival prize for Biggest Douchebag, von Trier wins, hands down,” he wrote on the entertainment blog Deadline.com.
I can think of a few Yiddish words that might fit, too. One rhymes with “buck.”
But unlike his anti-Semitic-spewing brethren, von Trier’s prattle was not hostile; he used no slang nor slurs, nor threatening language.
In fact, if the vulgar von Trier committed any offense, it was in downplaying the Dictator of Mass Destruction. It’s fine to feel you “understand Hitler” as a man, or as a character — von Trier is, after all, a filmmaker — but to say that the engineer of the greatest mass murder in recent history did “some wrong things” and is “not what you would call ‘a good guy’ ” is wildly misguided. That kind of talk blunts the man’s accomplishments — Hitler would find it insulting.
Foxman got it right when he spoke of personal ghosts. It seems von Trier is unlikely to be a danger to Jewish welfare, but he is a danger to himself.
“I got carried away,” he told The New York Times last Friday, from a hotel five miles north of Cannes. “I feel this obligation, which is completely stupid and very unprofessional, to kind of entertain the crowd a little bit.”
If further proof is needed that von Trier has peculiar ideas about entertainment, watch his movies. Much of his subject matter could only emerge from a dark and tormented mind. The “Melancholia” director is truly melancholy.
“I had actually been drinking quite a lot, but now I’m sober,” he told Times reporter Dennis Lim. “I would suggest to everybody, don’t stop drinking. If I had been [drinking], I would be almost asleep at the press conference and would not have said those stupid things.”