Noisemaker: Malick, Von Trier and the Right Kind of Wrong Publicity

We are pleased to introduce Noisemaker, a regular column by independent filmmaker Alejandro Adams, in which Alejandro will address issues of concern in today’s filmmaking landscape.

Lars von Trier Kirsten Dunst

The force in me that makes me say and do stupid things…also allows me to make my kind of films. I can tell you one thing: I will never do a press conference again.”Lars von Trier

Do you know who Tiffany Shlain is? I don’t really, but I’ve heard her name used in conjunction with terms like “transmedia,” which smacks of the panel movement and gives me the willies. Shlain popped onto my radar recently with a piece she wrote for the Tribeca Film Festival in which she announced that she’s a “conversation maker” rather than a filmmaker. I gather this means she has more friends than Lars von Trier does. Hey, if making friends is your thing, knock yourself out.

I can heckle Shlain’s sensibility, but sure, each of us delivers himself to a public one way or another. Except in the case of someone like Terrence Malick, who allows others to broker that transaction. After The Tree of Life screened at Cannes, producer-star Brad Pitt was doing some heavy lifting for Malick’s already inflated aura: “He sees himself as building a house. He wants to focus on the making-of and not the selling of the real estate.”

Personally I’d be wary of letting a Hollywood movie star define my spiritual and artistic values to the international press at the biggest film event in the world. Such a high price for being pathologically private. For all I know, Malick is nothing more than a state of mind, the arthouse yin to Alan Smithee’s yang. Sooner or later someone will play Joyce Maynard to his J.D. Salinger or Clifford Irving to his Howard Hughes.

Funny how nobody seems to think Malick’s absence from Cannes was a publicity stunt. Say what you will about von Trier’s behavior, at least he showed up, and we’ve all heard stories about how traumatic it is for him to travel (hey, did any of you end up buying the motorhome he was selling on eBay?).

I’ve been known to stay home when film festivals in major markets showed my work. I won’t say I did it to get a reaction, but boy did I get one. It’s like having the comments turned off on my personal website—don’t think I don’t get emails about that. It irritates people who don’t even know why they landed at my site.

You’ll never do a press conference again, Lars? It’s too late for Kirsten Dunst to be consoled by this news, unfortunately. After last week’s incident, she probably sprinted back to her hotel room and drafted a sweaty listicle of reasons she’ll never work for that blankety-blank again to share on the SAG website.  

Some have relished, via screenshots, the stormfront of dread that moves across Dunst’s face in the press conference video, as if her agony is best appreciated when alienated from its referent. On the other hand, some commentators have plucked phrases from von Trier’s remarks and provided grotesque exegesis. Apparently critics and cinephiles are now taking cues from TMZ and Fox News.

I don’t care what Lars von Trier said or who was offended by it. If civilization is the place where grownups don’t open ketchup packets with their teeth and film directors are supposed to sound like neutered grade school teachers, I don’t need it.

As Francis Coppola likes to point out, we distrust the epic personality (“megalomaniac,” if you prefer) because of some things that transpired between the reigns of Napoleon and Nixon. Thus journalism’s equivalent of the hippocratic oath: Keep big egos in check.

It’s okay to be a self-styled provocateur if your hijinks are as dependable as those of a trained monkey and just as innocuous. But earnest challenges rarely look programmatic or even coherent. It’s not meant to be easy entertainment, but a kind of edification, and edifying experiences are rarely pleasant. Try divorce.

Filmmaker Lucas McNelly has been criticized for his nebulous but sprawling project A Year Without Rent, the independent film equivalent of a sausage factory tour in which McNelly volunteers on low-budget film shoots and documents his experiences in video and text throughout the Internet. In response to McNelly’s second post at Filmmaker Magazine, low-budget director Mattson Tomlin says, “For better or worse, allowing Lucas McNelly into your set is signing away [publicity] control…Sometimes it’s downright silly the way some of us look…The point is, none of us have control of what light our films will be cast by this man. And that’s kind of fucking interesting.”

Tomlin’s comment implicitly interrogates a unique situation in which a low-ranking crew member (ostensible volunteer McNelly) has more promotional firepower than the production entity itself. That is, McNelly’s transient, well-publicized gruntwork is a bigger deal than the film it’s meant to serve. Still, this publicity stunt flies in so many directions it’s useless to formulate a hierarchy of who benefits. Tomlin seems to be hedging his bets. After all, being talked about is being talked about, and complaining about being talked about is the quickest way to show yourself a fool. And now that I’m publicizing both Tomlin and McNelly, and by extension their projects, as a fellow filmmaker rather than as journalist or critic, did I just get embroiled in what other commenters on that post refer to as a “circle jerk”?

So far A Year Without Rent seems to be as much about the films as Crocodile Hunter was about crocodiles. McNelly may find himself becoming a sort of Michael Moore figure, hamming his (understandable) frustrations, nitpicking the way everyone else makes films. Hell, I’ve done far worse things to cast and crew than feed them an hour late, so I may as well consider myself a target of McNelly’s you’ve-gotta-be-kidding-me lectures. I’ve never tried to run my productions like a business. Accountability is a bullshit detail, to invoke a wonderful military phrase.

(Oh, did I say that out loud? BANNED.)

So on one end of the spectrum we have Shlain’s “conversation maker,” a creature that tokes helium before dispensing utopian platitudes, and McNelly’s conscientious filmmaker who is half-parent, half-businessman. And at the other end, we have the totally invisible Malick. Somewhere in the middle is von Trier, to whose considerable madness there is no method.

If you’ll allow me to butcher Shlain’s “conversation maker” rhetoric, von Trier is a noisemaker. But that doesn’t mean his balls-out press conference was rehearsed, strategically executed performance art. There is sincerity in these goings on, and there is vulnerability. As I said just a week before the Melancholia press conference, I don’t know if “my brand of gauntlet-throwing and provocation is attention whoring, self-glorifying or ultimately for the edification of others.” Well, von Trier doesn’t know either. That’s the truth. The noisemaker doesn’t know when to shut up because he’s not sure why he’s compelled to make noise in the first place. And to draw distinctions between the kind of noise a filmmaker unleashes on screen and the kind of noise he unleashes at a press conference is ridiculous. If you’ve seen my films, you know that what I’m writing here is part of a continuum.

Von Trier made sure that no colleague or critic or journalist calling him a genius or a bastard or a phony would be louder than the word BANNED. It probably wasn’t his intention to get himself banned—I wouldn’t suggest that, and parsing motivations is such a cartoonishly desperate way to seem relevant in a conversation that doesn’t involve you. But he was well aware he was making a lot of noise and he didn’t care about the decibel level. No matter what he said to get himself banned, he was BANNED. Fuck the middle part. Short of suicide, nothing he says or does is going to out-peak “BANNED FROM CANNES” on the graph of what the average person knows about him. He made the right kind of wrong kind of noise.

That press conference is not only something he controlled but something he gave birth to, a quasi-corporeal being unleashed to stalk and terrorize the Croisette. But this isn’t remarkable. No significant artist is contained by the bounds of his medium or by some 9-to-5 schedule during which he makes his art. He is always dynamically engaged, always making. The press conference video is just another exuberantly inventive experiment by Lars von Trier, not so different in spirit from The Five Obstructions. Really, it should have been eligible for the Palme.

The groans of the weary machinery of Romanticism seem to be emanating from this post, but don’t worry—I don’t believe artists have been touched by God. They’ve been touched by the Devil.

Alejandro Adams is the director of three feature films (Around the Bay, Canary, Babnik). He is currently de(con)structing the TV talk show format as creator/producer of Sara Vizcarrondo’s Look of the Week.

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