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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The Five Obstructions is a passkey into the often forbidding world of Lars
von Trier's films. It's a short, documentary-like, highly conceptual film
about a `game' Von Trier played with an older fellow Dane, Jørgen Leth, a
kind of filmmaking mentor for him. In the Sixties Leth made a short art film
called The Perfect Human, which Von Trier has always greatly admired. For
The Five Obstructions, Leth and Von Trier get together and plan for Leth to
`remake' the film with Von Trier setting arbitrary and challenging new
conditions to govern the process. In the course of this film, Leth `remakes'
The Perfect Human four times, and then Von Trier makes up a `letter' in
Leth's voice describing what has happened.
By watching this `game,' we find out a lot about how Von Trier works with other people in making a film. It's not only here that Von Trier has begun by imposing a set of limitations upon himself and others; he always does that. This certainly provides a handy way of seeing his challenging, often maddening, work. Von Trier becomes a little like Guy Grand, Terry Southern's wicked trickster millionaire in The Magic Christian, whose whole delight is in getting people to do things that are against their nature. Grand gets them to do it for money; Von Trier gets Leth to do it out of friendship. Presumably when Von Trier has put actors like Emily Watson or Nicole Kidman through their ordeals, they have done it for art. This time, it's the mutual friendship and respect that humanizes the abrasive Von Trier, and in frankly accepting his total failure to stump Leth or spoil his fun, Von Trier shows himself to be a better sport than his critics might have expected. But he also shows himself to be wicked and mean, with a sense of humor that's both playful and malicious again, like Terry Southern's Guy Grand.
Snatches of The Perfect Human appear throughout The Five Obstructions, but it's worth noting that we never see it all, nor do we see all of Leth's new `versions.' We have to take it on faith that they're the way Von Trier or Leth say they are. The `remakes' are obviously very free adaptations, and the latter ones are more commentaries on the remake process than anything else.
The Perfect Human is an arty film in which a well dressed man eats, talks, and dances in front of a blank white ground while a voiceover asks `Is this what the Perfect Man does?'
Von Trier's assumption clearly is that Leth himself is the `Perfect Human,' and that his arbitrary rules for the `remakes' (the first of which is that no take will be longer than 12 frames half a second) will put dents in Leth's control so deep, will cut so far into the crystal glass of his perfection, that he will fall apart and will be forced to make a `mess.' This is what Von Trier repeatedly states: that nothing would make him happier than for Leth to make a `mess.' He hopes that through destroying Leth's artifice he will make Leth produce something truer and more human.
Other requirements are for Leth to make the film in Cuba, where he's never been; in `the most horrible place in the world' (which turns out to be the red light district of Mombai-Bombay, where he has been) but without showing its horror; to do a `remake' without rules; to do one in the form of an animated cartoon (a format neither man likes), and so on. Von Trier comes up with these different `obstructions' randomly when the two men meet at various stages in the `game.'
But Leth makes no messes. He succeeds brilliantly in working within the difficult limitations Von Trier has set and comes up with a polished work every time, and though he seems to be losing some sleep on the first go-through, he gets happier and happier as things go forward, a sign Von Trier finds ominous. In the end the letter read as a voiceover by Leth, but written by Von Trier, states that it's Von Trier who's shown his weaknesses. It's the aggressor, not the victim, who shows his faults, he says. It's Von Trier, he admits (in the voice of Leth), who has been pretending in all his films to be authentic but really lying and concealing himself behind a mask of artifice.
The `game' may sound orderly when described, but in fact the whole framework is a very loose convention; it isn't followed closely. This also sheds light on Von Trier's working methods in his films: they aren't as rationally structured as they appear. Von Trier doesn't impose the same kind of limitations on Leth each time; he imposes fewer and different ones, and `obstruction' five is really just to credit Leth along with Von Trier, to make the footage of their conversations into this film, and to have Leth read the `letter' Von Trier wrote for him.
Von Trier freely admits that Leth's solutions to his `obstructions' are brilliant, starting with the 12-frame takes, which Leth turns into a jazzy staccato rhythm. In Bombay, Leth shoots himself in front of a semi-transparent scrim that does show, and yet hide, the teeming masses behind him as he eats a sybaritic meal dressed in evening clothes. It's cheating, yet it's also a masterstroke. For the animated cartoon version, he gets Bob Sabiston, the man who did the animations for Richard Linklater's superb Waking Life, and its not surprising that the result is an elegant and fresh-looking commentary on all the previous films made in the series, including the original Perfect Human film from the Sixties.
The whole paradox is that both Von Trier and Leth are control freaks and that even their playing about with loss of control is highly controlled. Viewers are free to see The Five Obstructions as a sterile exercise. J.Hoberman calls it `one part documentary, one part psychodrama, and one part mock manifesto' and that's about right. But I found it interesting, and my first chance to watch a Von Trier film without being repulsed. But is it a Von Trier film -- or a film about Von Trier? That is hard to say.
After watching this film all I could think about was how I would love
to take this premise and use it on some of America's finest directors.
Money, power, and wealth. These are just some of the elements that you
gain by having a blockbuster film, but can you take your pride and joy
and transform it into different avenues while still keeping the overall
tone the same? It is a tough question, one that I wonder if our
American directors could accomplish. I wonder if Peter Jackson,
Spielberg, or Lucas could take their prized collections and still have
the creative mind to make the same film with some 'obstructions'? My
initial answer would be 'no', but I wouldn't mind seeing them try.
This film was brilliant to say the least. I went into it without really knowing anything about Jorgen Leth, and finished wanting to see more of his work. I was impressed with his original film The Perfect Human and thought that his four remakes were nothing short of outstanding. Each one was perfect in its own right and yet somehow was able to continue the overall themes and elements. They were works of a genius. This leads me to another question I had while watching this film. Did Trier know that Leth could do this? Trier was once a student of Leth and considers him to be the best director our there, he must have known that Leth could accomplish such tasks. In fact, I think this may have been Trier's way of allowing a new generation to experience the brilliant mind of Leth. Trier pushed Leth to new levels, but I think in a way he knew that Leth would be able to overcome and provide some new and beautiful shots. Trier seemed like a very hard nosed person in this film, and that he constantly ordered, instead of asking his subject to do things. I think we witnessed Trier in his original form. Kidman has reported as saying that Trier is very difficult to work for and I think it is because of the way that Trier works. Very similar to Gilliam, Trier has the vision in his mind. He knows how he wants the scene to play out, and unless it works just as much as it did in his mind, he will not be happy. Why not? It is his film. Some actors and others in the business call it insanity, but I think it is the talent of a beautiful director. That is why I am a fan of both Trier and Gilliam, and now Leth.
While it is interesting to see these two directors work against and for each other, the ultimate enjoyment is the different renditions of The Perfect Human. Giving a director the tasks that Trier did may force some of the themes and elements of original short to be lost in the shuffle; Leth never allows that to happen. It is amazing to see the similarities, yet subtle differences between the original and the new. Each of them work and give such a intense new spin on the story. Within all of this we begin to see the themes leaving the work, and coming straight at these directors. Trier is trying to show that Leth is just as human and emotional as the subject in his film. In fact, Trier even shows that Leth is as human and emotional as himself. They way this is shown is very subtle, but it is there. We are working with two different filmmakers. One is young and a very prominent name in cinema, while the other is aging and as generations continues to gap, losing followers to his film. Trier wanted, and does, show that there is little difference between himself and Leth. They are both humans. They are both full of emotion.
My favorite scene was when Trier mentions to Leth that he wants Leth to feel like a 'tortoise on his back'. He wants Leth to experience hardship and struggle, perhaps even frustration, and therefore Trier gives him the cartoon obstruction. In a very mocking fashion, Leth happens to put a tortoise in the film. The ball is in your court, von Trier.
Overall, this is an amazing film. I am an enormous fan of short films, and to see little snippets of Leth's mind was exciting and revolutionary. I recommend this film to anyone that is fed up with the lack of creativity in the 'reality' based television series and long for something more artistic. This film reminded me of walking through an art museum and seeing several works from Leth. It is a place I would never want to leave.
Grade: ***** out of *****
Lars von Trier is an unusual director, in that he makes films of massive emotional intensity, and yet also appears interested in formal innovation for its own sake: the Dogme manifesto, of which he was co-author, suggested that films should be made according to certain rules, partly for the expected benefits of following them, but also for the benefits of simply being constrained (a philosophy resembling that of Georges Perec and the Oulipop group of novelists). In some ways, 'The Five Obstructions' is both the perfect demonstration of this attitude, and also his strangest film yet. Jorgen Leth is a director who made, in 1967, von Trier's favourite film, an innovative (but arguably cold) short called 'The Perfect Human'; in 'The Five Obstructions', Leth agrees to remake this film in five different ways, subject to constraints imposed by von Trier. The story of his doing so, along with excerpts from all six films, comprises this one. It's the ultimate recursive project, a "making-of" documentary with itself as both subject and object, an effect enhanced by the way that each film becomes a commentary on, and an extension of, its predecessors. von Trier does not dare, however, to suggest he can improve on the original; on the contrary, he professes to hope that his obstructions will force Leth to make a bad film, and therefore reveal something more of his own emotions than have hitherto been shown. In this, however, he fails. 'The Five Obstructions' becomes a film-making masterclass, as Leth continually finds something new to say in spite of the increasing restrictions against him saying anything; his natural inventiveness, and skill, make you want to see the films he has chosen to make for himself. von Trier, by contrast, appears as a fool, although as the resulting documentary is his creation, he is maybe not as foolish as he appears. Indeed, there's almost certainly an unavoidable level of artifice in the apparently "real" scenes where the two men talk, each are too skilled as film-makers to be wholly unaware of what they are doing. But there does seem to be a real human story, as Leth's enthusiasm for his task, and for life itself, is driven upwards by the series of apparently insane challenges with which he is encumbered. It's an odd film for anyone to make, but maybe proves von Trier's point; for what stands above the contrivance is pure gold.
Debuting at the Toronto International Film Festival 2003 The Five
Obstructions is a whimsical yet deeply philosophical dialogue between Lars
Van Trier and Jørgen Leth, one of Lars Van Trier's director
The movie is based upon the reconstruction of Leth's 1967 work The Perfect Human ( De Fem benspænd ). This 1967 black and white film is starkly minimalist and humourous detailing a Danish point of view - an analysis of a perfect human and how the perfect human acts and interacts with the world. Within the film are two characters : a man and a woman each shot separately and each probed by the camera. How the perfect human eats. How the perfect human lies down. How he falls. This is the human eye. This is the perfect human's ear, eye, knee.
The Perfect Human is the perfect film.
The dialogue between Leth and Van Trier shot in the year 2001 is humourous and philosophical. Van Trier sets out to challenge Leth by making his recreate The Perfect Human but under Van Trier's terms.
The first obstruction for instance is to have shots with no more than 12 frames each, it has to be shot in Cuba and with no set. The audience laughs as each point of the obstruction is set upon the screen.
The camera crew follows Leth around the world and records his reactions to the challenge and the process of how he sets to film the First Obstructions in Cuba. He finds the concept of 12 frames monumentously crazy. He has to find the perfect humans to cast in the country, a country he has never been to. He comes back to Denmark and they view the result: an exquisite little film which is surprising and beautiful.
The rest of the film poses the rest of the Five Obstructions - each a result of Van Trier's subsequent reactions to the films that Leth brings back.
The conversation between the two is akin to a psychoanalyst and his patient yet the two are friends. There is much laughter and delight and the results of the five obstructions are pristinely beautiful. You also get to see Van Trier's ego at work and the wheels spinning as Leth responds to the challenge. The overall film of The Five Obstructions in itself is a delight and a learning experience that should not be missed.
Six films within a film. What's left? First they deconstructed, now they're
reconstructing? Or is this merely further deconstruction of the
deconstructed? Whatever it may or may not be, isn't it all a bit like pacing
back and forth, back and forth, wearing a rut in the carpet?
The film has 3 components:
I. In 1967 Jørgen Leth made "The Perfect Human," an aseptic, detached, ultramodern, minimalistic, black-and-white short that Lars Von Trier swears he's seen at least 20 times and related to more than any other piece of celluloid in his life. It's a cerebral study that through willful self-consciousness forces you to concentrate on the act of perceiving, the artifice of film, and the intrusion of human will on reality that is "Art." A man in a tuxedo, against a blank white background, snaps his fingers and gyrates to unheard music while a voice intones, "This is the perfect man." We regard The Human as object, discussed by a voice which is also an object. The subject, the "I," is missing. Action is reduced to stasis. This short appears in bits and pieces throughout the whole film.
II. Fast forward to present time, a documentary of Von Trier chatting amiably with Leth, dictating terms under which the latter is to revisit, and thus reinvent, his past by remaking "The Perfect Human." We learn as the film progresses that these terms, or "obstructions," are meant to coerce Leth out of artifice into naked unselfconscious expression, into confronting himself and truth. Consider a man running an obstacle course. If the obstacles are sufficiently difficult or complex, the man has to do everything he can just to surmount them. He has no energy left over for superfluities or distractions. He may even forget that he is running a race. The man of action, commanding all his resources, is purely himself, his humanity exposed.
Von Trier, as is well known, wants film to be both film and non-film, to be true to itself and to transcend itself, an irresolvable paradox that some, myself included, would say is self-imposed and, well, obstructive. Can something be both transparent and opaque? That's the postmodernist's dilemma.
The present-time documentary also includes Mr. Leth preparing for and making his 5 films, and the two reviewing the finished results.
III. Finally, there are the remakes, or "Obstructions," themselves. The original is not remade in its entirety in any of the "Obstructions," nor are they literal, faithful reproductions. Rather, the remakes are loosely based on the original.
"Obstruction One" is conditioned on no take lasting longer than 12 seconds, on it being filmed in Cuba because Leth has never been there, on all the questions asked in the original by the narrator being answered, and so on. Because it is the first, it is the best. We see the raw bones of film, the magician's legerdemain unmasked, the denuded reconstruction of a deconstruction (or is it the deconstruction of a deconstruction?). Particularly memorable is a woman reclining on a divan, a restive mechanical human animal, its breathing jerky, chopped up in short takes.
In the second "Obstruction," Leth is required to go to the most horrible place he knows on earth, but not show the horror. In the third, he is given no rules. The fourth requires him to remake his film in the form of a cartoon.
Thus the grand structure of the movie is a chess game, the film maker vs. his fan, the artist vs. his audience, Leth vs. Von Trier. Von Trier hopes to make Leth expose the personal anguish that he is sure Leth formalizes in the dress of perfection called "Art." He seeks to obstruct Leth's escape from the imperfection of his life into the perfection of his creations, the illusory "Perfect Human." To Von Trier, the gloomy Dane, creation is somehow the civilized disguise of personal failure and suffering, a distancing from the existential chaos of self.
In the last "obstruction," illustrated by clips from the rest of the film, Von Trier has Leth read a letter that Von Trier has written to himself, in which he admits that it is he, not Leth, who has all along been lying through Art and seeking confessional release; that it is he, not Leth, who has been hiding in the celluloid shell of the Perfect Man. Talk about introversion, Chinese boxes.
As a foil to all this involuted artifice, there is a short documentary segment in which Leth, sitting behind the shut glass of his car in traffic in Bombay, is approached by a woman carrying a baby, begging for alms. The restrained anguish on her gaunt face, the unknowing innocence of the child, and the decrepitude of old Leth fumbling impotently for change casually intrude into and shatter this film with more messy "truth" than Von Trier and Leth seem ready to admit into their sterile and fastidious workshop.
Many documentaries stand back from their subject, to portray it
'objectively', or else throw themselves into it with a fervour with
which they hope to carry along the audience. The Five Obstructions is
very different, turning in on itself to examine the creative process of
film-making in a self-revelatory way that packs both instructive,
artistic merit and emotional punch.
Lars von Trier is one of the founders of the Danish school of film-making (or collective) called Dogme 95. He instituted the idea of fairly arbitrary rules (the so-called 'Ten Commandments') as a possible route to more intrinsic cinema, avoiding the technological excesses and hollowness of Hollywood style movies. While there are similarities with the Dogme approach, Five Obstructions is not a 'Dogme' film: but it looks at the idea of rules as a means of stimulating the creative process.
The starting point is a early film short by Trier's old mentor, Jørgen Leth, called The Perfect Human. It is a seemingly anthropological movie where a human being (a man, switching occasionally to a woman) does various basic actions, walking, dressing, eating, undressing, jumps, dances, and a voice over says how we are going to "see the perfect human being in action". There is the occasional introspective line where the character ponders, "Today, too, I had an experience that I hope I shall understand in a few days' time." We see Trier (who considers himself an expert on very few things in life but Leth is one of them) in conversation with Leth. The latter accepts a challenge from Trier to remake the film five times, but each time with a different set of conditions imposed by Trier who will then judge how successfully Leth has succeeded in the task. The atmosphere is almost like a PhD student and tutor, yet although Trier obviously holds Leth in very high regard, it is Leth who is undergoing the teaching.
Through successive shoots, Trier makes Leth confront that which he most dislikes. He compares the process to when he is directing an actor, forcing a performance from the actor that the actor didn't know was within them. In the first four takes, we see Leth produce something that is artistically worthy with even the most daunting physical and psychological obstructions, but it is in the final obstruction that Trier produces a cathartic effect, turning the tables so thoroughly on Leth and himself that the result is greater than both of them. Instead of a documentary about a film about how a perfect human being works, it becomes a documentary about how a perfect film maker works.
The ending justifies the rather long and mentally tiring prelude. The overall result is a lasting testament on a particular way of reaching the creative process, and also a documentary testament to Trier's own particular genius. There is no artifice, no hype, only two people of great artistic integrity working together to pull something from their subconscious of lasting greatness.
THE FIVE OBSTRUCTIONS (Lars von Trier -
Lars von Trier is not known for trying to please his audiences, but this one is different... Probably, it wasn't his intention while making this film either, but with THE FIVE OBSTRUCTIONS he has come up with something surprisingly entertaining. In this documentary-like film he challenges one of his favorite filmmakers (and his old film school professor) Jorgen Leth to produce a remake of his 1967 short film "The Perfect Human", each to be directed by Leth according to von Trier's diktat, or his 'Five Obstructions'. The result is an interesting documentary about Leth's efforts and the limitations each artist has to impose on himself to create art or - in this case - film.
The first obstruction is that Jorgen Leth should make a movie where no edit can last more than 12 frames (about half a second) and it must be shot on Cuba. Leth states it's impossible and can't be done, but he tries anyway and succeeds in making a wonderful film and von Trier is delighted with the results. Now he must make a film in the worst place on earth where he is "the perfect human." Leth is put to the test even more and decides to shoot in a red-light district in Bombay where he stages a sumptuous and decadent dinner table on the street, where he dines in smoking, while hordes of impoverished locals are watching him eat.
The quality of the remakes may vary, but the film really comes to live when the two men meet. After the Bombay experiment Von Trier downtalks him, claiming he didn't stick to his obstructions, but Leth remains polite and buoyant during some of the brilliant verbal sparring matches about the endless limitations and possibilities of the medium. Despite Leth's difficulties in coping with the obstructions von Trier imposed on him, his most difficult assignment is when he is given complete freedom to make whatever he wants. It turned out to be the ultimate punishment von Trier could give him.
Camera Obscura --- 8/10
The film has two points of interest: the discussions between the two
men as to what might constitute the limitations (the obstructions) - as
good a way as any of discussing the content of the elusive original -
and the behaviour of both men in the pursuit & rendition of the
As a document that presents the perversity of the 'boardroom' pragmatism of film-making and its melodramatic content this is quite hard to beat. The five versions are satisfyingly varied, although we are not shown any in full as far as I can make out. Their relative value is of little importance; von Trier's final 'twist' obstruction doesn't really come off in fact although it may be seen to be the most likely to succeed. In this way we are also shown something of the pot luck of producing a good film.
Above all though I came away trying to contain an imagination fomented on either side, both by the possibilities of the content of all six films (again, some more than others) and also by the auteur role; the possibilities and responsibilities faced when pointing a camera. And I'd always rather leave the theatre blinded with a brain bloated than a brain dead. 8/10
...'The Five Obstructions' is not for everyone. This is for you if you
love documentaries. This is for you if you respect the maverick minds
of filmmakers playing with each other's head. This is for you if you
can appreciate the intention behind this documentary. This is for you
if you would like to see a veteran filmmaker being challenged to remake
an earlier short film of his.
Also if you are so used to being spoon fed with a steady dose of ulcer generating colored candy, forget all about renting this gem.Here's hoping there wont be people who watch this, get disgruntled and then plaster all over the internet with not so kind reviews.
Instead, here's hoping these filmmakers come back with a sequel- if that beautiful being called Jorgen Leth agrees!.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Something of an inside exercise to those familiar with Von Trier and
the Dogme Vows of Chastity, on reflection and re-viewing, The Five
Obstructions appears more of a conversation with an old friend, an
attempt to jigger a mentor out of lethargic retreat, exile imposed by
feelings of age and irrelevance. What appears as harsh egotism is
actually the opposite. In discussions of the Bombay scene, for example,
during the assignment portion, Von Trier could have easily seized on
Leth's desire to go only to places "with a hotel" by insisting that he
film where lodgings were primitive. But he let the moment pass without
comment. Afterward, he expressed his displeasure by saying, "I must
listen to my own opinion," which sounds like narcissism, but in the
context of the discussion is more of an apology. He listens to Leth at
length without comment or interruption and doesn't send Leth back to
Bombay. During Von Trier's segment, he makes the point that the
"attacker" is often more exposed than the "victim," and in this humbles
himself. He shows Leth falling to a hotel room floor like "a perfect
man" -- Von Trier's way of coming back playfully to his teacher with
fame and fortune in his pocket to show the world who taught him a great
portion of what he knows.
The 12-frame and cartoon segments are wonderful, the Bombay and free-form segments disappointing, and Von Trier's final disposition quite touching and revealing. This is not a work of genius or a masterpiece, nor is it a shallow and sadistic ego trip. It is a fascinating and exquisite little exercise in six parts -- five "obstructions" and one extended, honest, personal and aesthetic dialog between two highly-skilled filmmakers who are close friends. We are privileged to witness them interact in an artificially-structured fashion, and it's great fun.
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