Lars von Trier thinks ‘creative’ and ‘sober’ are mutually exclusive – we look at the dying myth of the Byronic director
Fresh out of rehab, Lars Von Trier has hit the news saying he fears he’s finished as a filmmaker – as ex-addicts can’t produce anything of creative worth. We’re used to his controversial statements, which beyond any waft of the PR stunt read like some compulsion to keep adulation at bay by blurting out the worst thing possible, or to satirise a scandal-hungry media by feeding them the shock material they want. But his latest confession, given in his first interview (to Danish newspaper Politiken) since he scandalised Cannes by expressing affinity with Hitler, is intriguing for what it says about the shaky mythologies (and pathologies) such larger-than-life reps as his are constructed on.
We’re no doctors, but any addiction treatment bullet-points refer to the sophisticated array of psychological mechanisms and self-deceptions addicts will use to avoid having to give up their habit of choice – a key one being that it helps rather than hinders them in their work. Self-mythologising themselves as tormented artists (with – for the famous – reinforcement from their fans and the tabloids), booze-dependent creative types convince themselves that, without their crutch, their artistic universe will crumble.
Granted, cures are there to make society smoother and the troubled happier, not to make art any better. Much distrust toward the supercilious moralising of the well-adjusted with their arsenal of “fixes” can be read in von Trier’s misanthropic, chaotic arthouse onslaught of projected rage Antichrist, in which Willem Dafoe plays a psychiatrist and arrogant idealist convinced he can cure his wife of her guilt-induced trauma (cue a medieval-style battle of wills). In his earlier documentary The Five Obstructions, resentment of the supremely composed and capable underpins a playful declaration of war on his suave idol Jorgen Leth, as von Trier challenges the director to remake his classic short The Perfect Human with obstacles that threaten to derail its precision.
“Even if we accept that substances make some artists more, rather than less, productive, what’s so bad about slowness, if it means staying healthy and alive?”
Glib armchair analysis aside, it’s a no-brainer that an artist can only push extremes for so long. Von Trier claims David Bowie had his best phase on drugs – and when you think of the utter, otherworldly insanity of the musician’s Station to Station era, when he was living on red peppers, milk and cocaine and swanning around in cabaret-style Duke persona, it’s hard to argue. But in transitioning to cleaner pop he stayed excellent – and has been candid that he’d been disintegrating inside; that if he didn’t stop he would soon have died. In the film world, von Trier seems to have held up Rainer Werner Fassbinder with his similarly masochism-saturated extreme epics of victimised women as an ideal teacher. The notorious German drug-hoover’s films – take stylised masterpiece The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, in which a gin-soaked fashion designer breaks down amid cruel power-play in her baroque-muralled bedroom – hardly seem like they could have been fruit of a measured existence. The wild auteur was frenetically paced and prolific – 40 features, two TV film series, 24 stage plays and more – before dying aged 37 from a coke and barbiturate overdose and a lifestyle with a short use-by date.
Von Trier says it took him 18 months to write his sex addiction epic Nymphomaniac sober, as opposed to the 12-day drug-fuelled splurge to churn out Dogville. But even if we accept that substances make some artists more, rather than less, productive (and the spartan oeuvres of addicts like novelist and heroin user Alexander Trocchi, let alone directors who need to get their heads around a whole crew, suggest otherwise), what’s so bad about slowness, if it means staying healthy and alive? In a capitalist milieu increasingly defined by consumption, productivity is considered king – and it surely speaks of the vampiric nature of demanding audiences that an artist’s inability to be a high-functioning enough culture machine may see them castigated viciously.
Besides, while von Trier clearly equates filmmakers with rock stars, it’s refreshing that we’re free to take all that macho swagger with a grain of salt in these more ironic times. A few years back, prodigiously talented novelist and mother-of-two Zadie Smith set out her ten rules of writing – one of which is: “Don’t romanticise your ‘vocation’. You can either write good sentences or you can’t. There is no ‘writer’s lifestyle’. All that matters is what you leave on the page.” This separation of the mechanics of art from all its surrounding hype and bluster is a liberating possibility – revealing the secret that those with no time or inclination to swagger around with deranged senses need not feel outcast from raw inspiration.