Men You Hate to Love

There’s a thin line, they say, between genius and madness. There’s also a thin line between being a talented and idiosyncratic creative artist and being a complete asshole — and this line is a lot more blurred from crossings back and forth than the razor-edged but clearly defined Mason-Dixon of brilliance and insanity. The problem with the cliché (aside from the fact that it’s trite) is that it sets up a false dichotomy: no matter how narrow that divide between genius and madness, you’re either on one side or the other. In unfortunate fact, the two are not mutually exclusive; there are more than a few people who reside in downtown Genius, but still take frequent day trips to downtown Madness to do a little shopping. In fact, the number of people who hold dual citizenship almost outnumber those who reside in one mind-state or the other exclusively. The difficulty isn’t telling the difference. The difficulty is knowing what to do about it.

Society has always had a sort of built-in tolerance for eccentricity in artists, and, provided they could bring it in an aesthetic sense, poets and painters have always been able to get away with things that would get you put in an asylum or a prison if you were, say, a tailor. The modern era, though, has brought us two redirections of sensibility — although seemingly at war, in reality, they contain the answer to one another. The first is what is often and ignorantly called political correctness, but this phrase contains an ugly scorn that the phenomenon does not deserve: what is really under discussion is an increased tendency to empathy, a heightened sensitivity, an improved awareness of the dangers of prejudice and intolerance. One offshoot of this increase in tolerance is that we are less willing to ignore the character flaws of racism, sexism, hatred and bigotry, even in our artists. The other, a manifestation of certain aspects of critical theory, is marked by the ability to compartmentalize the behavior of artists: a maturity of thought which teaches us that a man who makes good art may nonetheless be a bad man, and that an understanding of both facets of the artist is essential to an understanding of the art. This last has been handed down to us by the deconstructionists, but is no longer theirs alone and has become part of our cultural currency.

We have new ways of thinking about the problem now, but we are stuck with the same old ways of dealing with it. In practical terms, we are left with little more than the old preacher’s maxim to “hate the sin and love the sinner”; when faced with creators who are clearly unacceptable human beings but who stubbornly insist on producing works of greatness, we have very few options more sophisticated than “love the art and hate the artist.” Modern man is less able than before to ignore the heinous behavior of those who make his masterpieces; and yet rejecting the work based on the flaws of the worker seems juvenile, unsophisticated, naïve. Media saturation has left us almost entirely incapable of knowing about art without an equal knowledge of the artist; and so knowing, we sometimes have to reconcile our distaste for the wicked ways of those who make our culture with our appreciation for what is made. The following examples can be read as biographies, examples, cultural snapshots or cautionary tales, but in the end, they’re little more than baseball cards in the great game of the Men You Hate to Love.

Vincent Gallo

Before there was The Brown Bunny — the most widely reviled picture in the history of the Cannes Film Festival — there was Buffalo 66, one of the most widely embraced movies in the history of independent film. And the man behind it was Vincent Gallo, an undeniably talented habitué of New York’s fashion world with a wide array of artistic abilities. A designer, songwriter, visual artist and actor of considerable skill, he exploded into the world of filmmaking in 1998 with Buffalo 66, a surreal, hilarious and amazingly sure-handed story of a self-deluding loser who kidnaps a young woman, convinces her to pose as his wife and embarks on a futile and desperate mission of vengeance against the pro football player he blames for the mess his life has become. Stylish, funny, gritty and assured, the film was so well-received that it instantly became an American classic of sorts, vaulting its first-time director up into the ranks of filmmakers whose names were a cause for excitement.

Gallo, who had come seemingly out of nowhere to establish himself as a talent to be reckoned with, wasted no time in squandering the goodwill his abilities as a filmmaker had won. Raising eyebrows with his incessant trashing of Buffalo 66 co-star Christina Ricci for no discernable reason, he almost immediately earned the enmity of the critical establishment by engaging in vituperative personal attacks on the few reviewers who didn’t like the film; expletive-laden and homophobic tirades against anyone who dared give him a negative review were his preferred way of dealing with bad press. He soon had to deal with a lot of it; as good as Buffalo 66 was, it was almost entirely overshadowed by the storm of negative attention he received due to his chronic inability to avoid behaving like an ill-tempered 16-year-old. He disappeared for a time from the public eye, appearing only occasionally in acting roles where he reminded us, even in low-rent though enjoyable trash like Freeway 2: Confessions of a Trickbaby, how good he could be when he put his unstable mind to it.

Then came The Brown Bunny.

Supposedly his masterwork, on which he’d been working on and off for five years since he wrapped Buffalo 66, Vincent Gallo clearly intended the movie to be a triumph. Instead, it was universally reviled. Audiences walked out in droves, and critics absolutely savaged it. The worst-rated competition film ever judged by the critics’ jury, it prompted comments, in even the kindest reviews one could find, like “staggeringly self-indulgent” (The Daily Telegraph). Simply put, everyone — from friendly TV talking heads like Roger Ebert to highfalutin critical journals like Cahiers du Cinema — hated it. And how did Gallo respond? The same way he always did: with blind, arrogant, juvenile contempt. He publicly derided various actresses associated with the film at its premiere press conference (as co-star Chloe Sevigny sat, mortified, beside him), he wished for Ebert to get cancer and he dripped venom on everyone who dared dislike the film — all this before immediately reversing himself and tearfully apologizing for The Brown Bunny, then reversing himself again and spilling rancor on anyone who didn’t understand his vision! Gallo even haunted the internet and launched into incoherent tirades against his enemies there, consisting largely of junior-high “needle-dick” and “faggot” taunts.

Vincent Gallo has talent; he may, indeed, have so much talent he doesn’t know what to do with it all. He’s seemingly overachieved at everything he’s tried to the degree that he can never follow up on his efforts and either abandons them for another field of artistic endeavor or sinks into self-pity and, ultimately, self-parody. Buffalo 66 was the work of a man who clearly knew how to laugh at himself, but Gallo’s behavior in the wake of the Cannes disaster was that of someone who never had. Photographic proof exists that Gallo didn’t forget how to act in the period between Buffalo 66 and The Brown Bunny, but did he forget how to direct? We may never know; The Brown Bunny was such a total disaster it may never be released, and its director has vowed never to make another film. If this wasn’t just typically Galloesque bloviating, then he’ll be remembered, perhaps, as independent cinema’s ultimate one-hit wonder, a man who had exactly one great film in him and spent the rest of his short career embarrassing himself and everyone else. If he’s somehow able to get past this gory crash-and-burn, however, and make another movie, he’ll have thousands of people who respect his talents enough to be enormously curious as to where he’ll go next — and who doubt his stability enough to wonder if he can possibly top himself in the humiliation department.

Dave Sim

In 1978, a young man from Kitchener, Ontario, Canada, self-published the first issue of a black and white comic book called Cerebus. At the time, it seemed to be little more than the work of a clever fanboy writing a funny-animal parody of the then-popular Conan the Barbarian comics being put out by Marvel. No one, with the exception of the artist himself — an eccentric loner by the name of Dave Sim — could have possibly anticipated that the book would become legendary: one of the most creative, interesting, intelligent, ambitious and talked about comics in the history of the medium, artistically daring, politically and philosophically sophisticated. No one could have predicted that it would become impossibly durable and long-lasting, economically profitable, a bastion of creative integrity and a virtual blueprint on how to make a good living as an independent comics artists. But, by the same token, no one — again, perhaps, with the exception of Sim himself — could have predicted that it would also become one of the most polarizing books in existence, so critically fought over and torn apart that some critical journals preferred simply to pretend it did not exist; or that its creator would prove so unstable, hateful, intolerant and unyielding that the mere mention of his name would conjure images of flagrant homophobia and grotesque misogyny.

The amazing thing about Sim’s creation isn’t how ambitious it was (Cerebus was, decades ago, projected as an extended epic that would run a total of 300 issues over 25 years), but how precisely it succeeded. Sim has written and drawn every single issue of the book since 1978 (assisted since the late 1980s by the tremendously skilled background artist Gerhard), and he has been responsible for every inch of its incredible progress from a relatively unsophisticated swords-and-sorcery parody to a sort of masterpiece, attempting to encapsulate within its pages all aspects of existence — an aspiration normally seen only in the most lofty modernist literature. He has also been responsible for its transformation from a tiny quasi-fanzine into a cottage industry and then into a mini-empire. Sim’s lasting legacy may be less that of his lusty aardvark’s exploits and more his tireless devotion to, advocacy of and education in the cause of self-publishing, creative control, and artistic independence. Cerebus has been a success on every level — it has been a financial winner, a testament to its creator’s integrity and vision, and (until recently, when the storyline became bogged down in what can only be described as misguided hagiography), an endlessly fascinating and largely rewarding artistic accomplishment.

But the longer the series has gone on, the more controversial its creator has become. Always a maverick, an iconoclast and a bit of a misanthrope, the passage of time has seen Dave Sim degenerate into a religious fanatic, an intolerably aggressive near-sociopath and perhaps the most blatant misogynist in the comic book industry, which, even in the best of times, isn’t known for its progressive feminist views. In the early 1990s, his problematic political views began to blossom into full-blown reactionary crankitude, and for the first time, his woman-hating views began to spill from the letter column into the comic proper. By the end of the decade, Sim (who had added homophobia, religious fanaticism and a bizarre and belated anti-communist fervor to his arsenal alongside his already potent sexist views) had become so detached from anyone who dared dispute his views that even his oldest friends in the comic book industry couldn’t defend him any longer. He fired his company’s employees when they expressed dismay at his misogynist ranting; he alienated himself from almost the entire industry with his inability to keep his mouth shut at the right time; and he even challenged Bone creator Jeff Smith — who idolized Sim and emulated his indie self-publishing credo — to a fistfight when Smith’s wife dared to contradict his woman-hating speechifying.

Lately, even the most diehard fans have found reading Cerebus pretty hard going. The storyline gave itself over, for several years at a time, to extended biographies of Sim’s literary heroes F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway in plot arcs that failed both as comic book stories and arts biographies. He began to forsake even his oldest and closest allies in the industry, and let his personal rancor spill over into his creative work. Finally, early last year, he published a lengthy, incoherent essay, “Tangents,” which spelled out so nakedly his misogynist, homophobic, intolerant political views that his readers simply deserted him en masse. It couldn’t have happened at a worse time — December of 2003 would see the publication of issue No. 300 and the end of the series. It’s a unique accomplishment, an astonishing realization of an incredibly ambitious agenda that should be cause for celebration, but instead will be noticed by a tiny few, and with shame and regret rather than bittersweet happiness. But, given Sim’s apparent mental degeneration, it probably couldn’t come at a better time, as well.

Varg Vikernes

Varg (nee Christian) Vikernes, also known as Count Grishnackh, also known as Burzum, separates the men you love to hate from the boys. Not merely a jerk like Vincent Gallo, a control freak like Bill Monroe, a misogynist like Dave Sim or an anti-Semitic fascist like Ezra Pound, Vikernes is really an asshole. He’s a racist, a Nazi, an unrepentant anti-Christian and Jew-hater, a thief, a slanderer, a liar, a career criminal, a literal iconoclast, a multiple arsonist — and, to top it all off, he’s an honest-to-goodness murderer. As of this writing, he’s been in a Norwegian prison for 11 years after having been convicted of pounding a knife through the head of ex-bandmate and Scandinavian black metal founding father Euronymous; and, with extra time having been tacked on to his sentence for repeated escape attempts under bizarre circumstances, he won’t be getting out anytime soon.

But those who assume that those who enjoy Count Grishnackh’s work are engaging in bottom-shelf fetishization of the extreme, à la the hippies (and later, punk rockers) who made a folk hero out of Charles Manson, would be incorrect. Vikernes, formerly of Mayhem and later the sole member of Burzum, is a genuine talent, and listening to his output (seven albums in all so far — four of which were recorded in prison and at least one of which, the Aske EP, is a genuine masterpiece) proves it. Burzum’s music is restlessly experimental, moving from Viking-themed black metal to dark ambient/industrial stylings and, most recently, into a satisfying hard-electronic instrumental vein. Burzum’s Det Som En Gang Var and Filosofem are both excellent albums, and his post-incarceration output, including the all-instrumental ambient Daudi Baldrs and its ambitious sequel Hlidskjalf, are the work of an artist (yes, an artist) who isn’t happy to rest on his laurels. Although their audience is incredibly small and they were recorded under less than ideal circumstances, these are accomplished and intriguing albums by someone who genuinely has something to say.

But what is it? Varg Vikernes is, frankly, nuts. He changed his first name from Christian to “Wolf” (varg) so as to disassociate himself from the Christian religion he so reviles, and the cover art of his finest album is a photograph of the flaming steeple of a church that Vikernes burned down himself. His prison writings are incoherent, deranged neo-Nazi screeds stuffed with bewildering Odin-worship, virulent racism and ugly Scandinavian nationalism, and his lyrics are often a mishmash of ninth-grade fantasia and hopelessly muddled Norse mythology. He’s attempted to break out of jail twice — once with the aid of his mother and a gang of Swedish bikers armed with rocket launchers, and most recently by walking out of his unlocked cell(!) and carjacking a family at knifepoint before being recaptured. And he murdered his mentor, friend and former bandmate for no particular reason that anyone can determine.

It’s tempting to dismiss him altogether as a maniac who is best left forgotten. Even many of those who enjoy his music choose to download it online or exchange second-generation tape and CD dubs rather than chance putting money in the pockets of someone who is, after all, a Nazi murderer. But once you hear his music, it isn’t easily forgotten — dark, sinister, powerful and inventive, it’s fascinating stuff that, if you were somehow able to hear it in a vacuum, might well convince you that it was the work of a musician who might someday become a force to be reckoned with. It’s only because you cannot escape the knowledge of the man who made it that listening to it goes beyond being an exercise in aesthetic judgment and turns into an ethical dilemma.

These three are but a few examples; everyone has their own particular favorite bête noir, some artist who keeps putting out solid, interesting work that they enjoy while simultaneously behaving in such an unpleasant fashion that one can’t help but feel guilty about liking them. So what, in the end, do we do about the Men We Hate to Love? Really, there isn’t much we can do. We either stop paying attention to them altogether — and find ourselves regretting it whenever we hear they’ve got a new album or film or book out — or we try our best to appreciate the art while quietly kicking ourselves for supporting the jackoff who made it. Sometimes, circumstance will help us out; like the saying goes, evil often contains the seeds of its own destruction. Of the examples above, Vincent Gallo and Dave Sim have both reached the point at which the quality of their art has seriously declined, so that the only thing left to contemplate is what assholes they are; and Varg Vikernes’ constant attempts to break out of prison may mean the end of his musical career as his privileges are taken away.

But there will always be those whose artistic output keeps pace with their antisocial behavior, and there will always be those who step in to take over the role of enfant terrible when the old titleholder can’t hack it anymore. There will always be those who throw a monkey wrench into the “you either like them or you don’t” equation. There will always be the men we hate to love, and there will always be those of us who hate them and love them. In the end, they’re like a church fire: sometimes all you can do, ultimately, is sit back and watch it burn.