Danes will be Danes
Lars van Trier and J┐rgen Leth experiment with form, authorship and the conventions of film itself by remaking Leth's 1967 short film five times in "The Five Obstructions."
By PETER THEIS
An exercise in gamemanship, a cinematic graduate seminar, and a
needling intervention into an aging filmmaker's twilight inertia, "The Five
Obstructions" realizes its high-art aspirations while maintaining a playful,
The film is is co-directed by and features Danish arthouse superstar Lars von Trier ("Dogville", "Dancer in the Dark", "Breaking the
Waves"), who challenges his friend and mentor, J┐rgen Leth, to remake his
1967 short film, "The Perfect Human," five separate times under conditions
set by Von Trier. Leth agrees and does remake the film the specified five
times, and after each production, visits von Trier to view and discuss the
finished product, and then receives the next set of conditions, or
"obstruction." The conversations between Leth and von Trier, Leth's
preproduction preparations for each version, and the versions themselves
constitute the content of "The Five Obstructions." No prior knowledge of
Leth's original short film is needed.
|THE FIVE OBSTRUCTIONS|
|Directed by: J┐rgen Leth, Lars von Trier.|
Written by: Sophie Destin, Asger Leth, J┐rgen Leth, Lars von Trier.
Cast: Claus Nissen, Majken Algren Nielsen, J┐rgen Leth, Lars von Trier, Daniel Hernandez Rodriguez, Vivian Rosa, Alexandra Vandernoot, Patrick Bauchau, Marie Dejaer, Pascal Perez, Meschell Perez, Bent Christensen, Anders Hove, Charlotte Sieling, Jan Nowicki, Stina Ekblad.
Cinematography: Kim Hattesen, Dan Holmberg.
Edited by: Morten H┐jbjerg, Camilla Skousen.
In Danish with English subtitles.
Related links: Official site
209 West Houston St. (between 6th and 7th Ave.)
Detractors of von Trier will already scent pretension and
indulgence, and admirers may think this format a departure of sorts, a
collateral side project designed to spotlight Leth. Neither impression is
Von Trier's films are generally marked both by their formal
experimentalism, a product of his keen interest in how form mediates
subject, and by their rigor in analyzing human nature, often by portraying
the communal crushing of a protagonist of "pure" motivation. "The Five
Obstructions" reflects these preoccupations. On the one hand, the project
permits von Trier to see, in an unusually controlled artistic experiment,
how formal restraints affect the short film, and, at a higher remove, "The
Five Obstructions" itself is a hydra of formal freewheelingness. On the
other hand, von Trier once again picks apart a "pure" protagonist, Leth, by
placing him with a smug, almost authorial omnipotence in unbearable
For von Trier, Leth's "The Perfect Human," for all its irony, does
posit a perfect human, but not on screen. Rather, the perfect human is
implied behind the camera: a pure, perfect artist ... someone who cannot
exist. One purpose of the obstructions, therefore, is to ungild the lily,
fell the modernist fallacy, and reveal that artist as an ordinary human who
cannot hide behind the perfection of his work. In an irony not lost on
either, the faux-fell von Trier tries to squeeze the Leth-the-human out of
Leth-the-artist by (gleefully) setting inhuman conditions, at least for the
first two obstructions. Other motives also lurk, high and low, from a
pupil's psychosexual fantasy of peremptorily dictating impossible (and
humiliating) tasks to his now submissive master to an artist's reflexive
desire to sound the creative process itself. But most of all, as von Trier
desires, the film humanizes Leth the implacable, Leth the consummate, and
shows the catalogue of emotions spurred by the whole project: vulnerability,
doubt, triumph, affection, resentment, arousal, loneliness, and renewal.|
Yet more is going on at a theoretical level. Because of its
unpredictable nature, the film lacks traditional direction. Von Trier is
more an impresario of forces, prestidigitator, and impious, impish goader
than author of the work, and the collision of the forces, feints, and
gestures leaves a wreckage in which film itself, as a medium and art form,
lies exposed. As the obstructions progress, these questions are raised: do
semi-arbitrary constraints on filmmaking, like formal conventions of verse,
improve film (cf. Dogme 95 manifesto)? What is the source of admiration for
art-film consumers the film, the creative process that brings it about, or
the idea of a genius standing behind the work? (Lars, should you be asking
this?) Who is the artist in relation to his work? What is the
relationship of an art piece to the context of its production? (The Bombay
obstruction begs this question in the person of the scene-stealing,
impoverished girl half-veiled behind the set's screen and fully-veiled behind
Leth's willed indifference.) What does it mean to be an artist, as compared
to being a human? (And the last obstruction:) Who should be credited as the
maker of the fifth and final remake? Who is the maker of "The Five
Obstructions"? What is authorship in film, anyway?
The uniqueness of "The Five Obstructions" lies not simply in its
theoretical sophistication, but that the sophistication is packaged with
such a playful, whirling, dizzying spirit, in a pandora's box of command and
countermove, stingless mockery, purposefully deflated grandeur, and marriage
of sincerity and irony (brought to ideal harmony in the last obstruction).
These are two largish figures in world cinema, and not a moment of their
interaction and execution of the project is tinged by solemnity,
self-importance or overweening self-regard, or auteur-ish condescension. To
the extent it is a thoughtful inquiry into film and filmmaking, is an
anti-lecture animated by an anti-gravity which does not cloak, but rather
enables the power of the ideas. "The Five Obstructions" proves again that
the best classes are those most like playtime.
|MAY 25, 2004|
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