Whether it’s Harvey Pekar getting a movie made based on his life when he was already in his 60s, Charles Bukowski finally able to pay his bills in his 70s, Vincent Van Gogh (supposedly) never selling a painting, or Maier having a full life’s work discovered long after she’d passed, it’s these types of hard-knock-life stories of struggle and success that comfort struggling and/or failed artists everywhere.
Many of the great creative types of the last 100 years have functioned at an underground level, working as radicals, working as outsider artists, even working anonymously.
I, for one, love the romance of the overlooked. I self-identify as an outsider artist and I have spent a fair amount of my free time studying underground art and doing what I can to help misunderstood, overlooked, complicated artists whose work I believe to be deserving of a wider audience.
And this is my long-winded way of introducing the frustration I feel for how the recent work of Lars von Trier has been disregarded by the film world.
Tasteless Jokes and Blacklists
I’ve watched Lars’ 2018 film, The House That Jack Built, again this past weekend, then again. Then a fourth time. It’s a slow-burn 152-minute art film about a serial killer, and it’s told in chapters, with a river of pure evil running through it. It’s a big, loud creative statement ... but let’s back up ...
In 2011, Lars von Trier attended the Cannes Film Festival in support of his then-new masterpiece, Melancholia, and it was the talk of the town and favorite to win the coveted Palme d’Or prize. Then, in a press conference, Lars went viral after making some tasteless jokes involving, well, Nazis.
Upon further reflection, it was widely determined that Lars was just trying to be subversive, trying to get attention, being a brat, and not being a Nazi sympathizer. But the damage had been done. LVT was persona non grata in the film world.
As a result, Lars started working differently. He started working, it seemed, without expectations. He became, ostensibly, an underground artist — the type who feels a freedom in their voice that most shy away from.
And Lars didn’t soften his voice or retreat in any way from his creative instincts but, instead, made an epic X-rated two-part film called Nymphomaniac that included footage of famous actors engaging in real sex. And it was a very good, very thoughtful, very philosophical film.
Then he made Jack, his new film, a movie I would rank among the likes of Irreversible, Salo, Happiness, The Human Centipede (and so on) in terms of how intense and disturbing it is. It’s a grand, effective work that reminds me of no other film I’ve seen. And that’s a major accomplishment, I think.
If my social radar is at all accurate, it seems that it has once again become cool, in a very uncool world, to like Lars von Trier again.
He is perhaps the biggest (and best) representative of underground culture we have at the moment. This for two reasons: (1) There is hardly any true underground culture to speak of since the Internet took over how we live and communicate; and (2) because LVT can make a drop dead masterpiece — as he has with Jack — and the world will all but ignore it because of some tone deaf things he, a truly eccentric intellectual, said in a press conference once.
No Forgiveness for Lars
Side note: Remember the time David Bowie committed a much more alarming offense than von Trier’s Nazi remarks in the mid-’70s, at the height of his fame?
Of course you don’t. No one has anything bad to say about David Bowie. (For the record, I’m a big Bowie fan myself.)
But you should know that Bowie was not only detained for possession of Nazi memorabilia in 1976, but in 1974, while on a press tour, Bowie said the following: “Adolf Hitler was one of the first rock stars … quite as good as Jagger … He staged a country.”
Later Bowie claimed that “Britain could benefit from a Fascist leader” before he eventually blamed his Nazi-related behaviors on drug addictions and the persona he had created for his Thin White Duke character.
But Lars, who is not handsome, who is not charming, who does not sing nor dance, who is not relatable, and who does not make pretty things, has not been forgiven for his lapse of judgment and need for a public education about cultural sensitivity. (And maybe he shouldn’t be forgiven; that’s not for me to say here.)
Regardless, Lars von Trier just keeps doing good work, and with no real regard for convention. And the bravery he has shown in his work, all along, has meant a lot to me.
So yes, I love this film. And, because I’m a romantic when it comes to the topic of creative bravery, I love that this epic masterpiece called The House That Jack Built played in theaters for only a single day.
I love that no one is talking about it or seemingly even watching it. I love that it’s as good as Zodiac, Silence of the Lambs, Manhunter, Henry, Se7en, and Psycho.
So here it is, a small little look at the underground, circa 2019. You no longer have to look extra hard to find the underground, but you do have to think extra hard. Here’s your chance.
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