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The Outrage of Idiocy

An Open Letter to the 'Professionally Offended'

Another year, another predictable controversy blowing across the Croisette. Manufactured and self-perpetuating, the hollow show goes on; as if the participants in this play of second-hand indignation are merely following yesterday's script.

For the last few days I've struggled to put into words my reaction to the media coverage of the Cannes Film festival, and more specifically, the early response to The House That Jack Built (2018); the latest work from the ever-contentious 'provocateur', Lars von Trier. Since the film's premier just a few short days ago, the expected backlash (if not bloodbath) of public outrage, moral panic and shameless virtue signalling, has swirled around the tabloids and associated social media like a tempest; successfully ensuring that anything else connected with the festival this year has been lost within its wake.

For a moment you could be forgiven for assuming that we'd gone back in time; or that perhaps we we're all caught in some kind of infinite loop; like Groundhog Day (1993), or The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (2006). Less than a decade ago, von Trier's previous horror film, Antichrist (2009), premiered in competition at the same festival. There the general reaction from the public and press now seems like a dress rehearsal for the festival of 2018.

It was Albert Einstein who said: "The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results." And yet still, the play goes on...

You see, the problem is this: I don't believe that the level of outrage here is genuine. And I don't believe that these critics are passionate about cinema. I don't believe that the cinema speaks to them - or through them - whole-heartedly; as the sky speaks to the earth. I don't believe their indignation or frustration with von Trier's film stems from the fact that its very existence detracts from/or diminishes the potential conversations that the culture might be having about films and filmmakers more deserving of our respect.

You see, each of these individuals had a choice: talk about this "terrible", "abhorrent", "disgusting film" (in so much detail that they're literally transcribing - in ecstatic verse! - every grisly crime and grim atrocity perpetuated by its central character; and in doing so, turning the film into a genuine cause célèbre) or instead, choose to ignore it. Let its negativity, or its potential to offend, sink quickly beneath the waves of cultural discourse, and instead promote those other, 'worthier' films; the ones you feel should be demanding our attention.

Make the positive films - the "good" ones, the necessary ones - the real point of conversation. Tell us what we should be seeing, and why; not elevating what we're supposed to condemn.

The Passion of Saint Tibulus (Father Ted, Series 1, Episode 3) [Declan Lowney, 1995]:

The axioms are of course true: all publicity is good publicity; and there's no such thing as bad press. All of these critics, these journalists, these cultural commentators, were so eager to demonstrate their moral standing - their virtue and righteousness - that they succeeded in promoting The House That Jack Built to such a level that it has now eclipsed almost everything else at Cannes. Congrats!

The House That Jack Built is without question the defining film of this year's festival, and it was the outrage of people like Jessica Kiang, Ramin Setoodeh, Caspar Salmon, and the braying bandwagon-jumpers that follow such people across the wastelands of social media, that made it possible. It's because of them- with their sensationalist "hot takes", predictable handwringing and good old-fashioned finger-wagging conservatism (disguised as leftwing political correctness, no less) - that the competing films of Jafar Panahi, Jia Zhangke, Spike Lee, Jean-Luc Godard and Alice Rohrwacher (to name a few) have very quickly disappeared from the cultural conversation.

These writers could've used their platform to make the legacy of Cannes 2018 one of celebration; to emphasise the attempts by organisers to push inclusivity and diversity as the main agenda; or the tentative efforts to celebrate female filmmakers and industry professionals as an antidote to Harvey Weinstein's reign of abuse. Instead, these self-appointed arbiters of cultural decency were too busy relishing the violence and brutality of von Trier's film; feigning disgust and disapproval, while simultaneously pouring over every gory detail, and profiting from it, shamelessly.

While these critics accuse von Trier of arrogance, or of creating a toxic product, or of wallowing in human misery and - by extension - rubbing the noses of his collective audiences in that misery, they themselves were more than happy to do the same. Rather than lift their own art to a higher cultural level - creating content that enlightens and embraces the diversity of their readers' attitudes and opinions - they instead chose to promote negativity and disagreement; forcing their readers to experience the horrorshow of violent imagery contained in the film by putting it lovingly, and excitedly, into words. They themselves - Kiang, Salmon, and their assorted tabloid peers - succeeded in creating product every bit as violent, unpleasant and sensationalistic as von Trier's film is purported to be.

The lesson here is simple. You don't have to have an opinion on everything you see. To borrow a metaphor from von Trier's film: each of us is building a house of our own conception. Some writers refer to this house as 'the canon'; the pantheon of creative works that we find relevant and inspiring; or those that define us and our perceptions of humanity. If your agenda is to reject works that could be considered harmful or reductive, then actually reject them. Build a house of celebration; not destruction. Or simply: take what's good for you and leave the rest for someone else.


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