The Power of Limits in ‘The Five Obstructions’

By
Jan 17th, 2012

How are you doing with your new year’s resolutions? Did you start this month with enthusiasm and optimism? We seem to enjoy this annual ritual of creating restrictions for ourselves. Some restrictions which seem to complement each other (like exercising and eating less chocolate) in fact serve to double the challenge (burning more calories while taking in fewer). Others (like working harder and maintaining good posture at the computer) really work against each other. Still, most of us make new year’s resolutions every year, and enjoy setting challenges for ourselves, and dreaming of success.

Creatively, challenges can work wonders. In 1960s Czechoslovakia, there was a temporary liberalisation of culture, but censorship remained in place, forcing the young Czech New Wave directors to find creative ways around these restrictions. Much contemporary experimentation comes as a way of dealing with restricted funding. But in some cases, directors can benefit from imposing restrictions on themselves. In 2003, Lars von Trier set a challenge for his friend, director Jørgen Leth: to re-make his 1967 pseudo-anthropological short, ‘The Perfect Human’, but with a certain number of ‘obstructions’ in place. The Five Obstructions presents Leth’s five re-makes, and documents the process of their creation. Every obstruction begins with a banter-filled conversation between the old friends, von Trier slyly attempting to come up with the most fiendish restrictions, and Leth for the most part accepting them with the stoic determination of an expert who will inevitably find a clever way around them.

Von Trier seemed to have several goals in mind when setting these challenges. In the spirit of artistic experimentation, he wanted to see how various restrictions on the re-make of ‘The Perfect Human’ would change the nature of the original film. He also appeared to enjoy acting as God, dictating how the remake would be made, without having to go through the agony of making it himself (except in the final of the 5 films, where Leth’s only job was to provide a voice-over and put his name as director on a film that was in fact directed by Von Trier—very Dogme). Von Trier’s own challenge was to devise the most obstructive rules for Leth. Their friendship helped von Trier as it gave him insights into Leth’s personality, as well as his artistic preferences: as a result, it didn’t take von Trier much effort to come up with obstructions that would push Leth outside his comfort zone. Von Trier appeared to take sadistic pleasure in this, but there was clearly a greater goal. Disrupting his friend’s usual approach to filmmaking, he hoped that Leth would make a different kind of film—’maybe even a bad film!’ as von Trier devilishly suggested. Ultimately, the experiment did not force Leth to let go, allowing himself simply to explore, without fear of mediocrity. If anything, the obstructions made greater demands on his sense of professionalism. Every time von Trier watched one of the re-makes that Leth had made according to his instructions, you expected him to snarl, ‘foiled again! Damn you, Leth!’, as his friend invariably used the obstructions to make the same sort of film he usually did, only better.

Some of the obstructions that seemed most certain to ruin Leth’s work turned out to make it even better. The first obstruction was that no edit should be longer than 12 frames (in other words, no shot could last more than half a second). The resulting film was not frenetically jumpy, as you might expect, but full of vitality: one of Leth’s techniques to calm the speed of cutting was to film the same subject from slightly different distances or angles, so that there was a sense of constant motion rather than an incomprehensible barrage of images. Knowing that they share a hatred of cartoons, von Trier also demanded that Leth make an animated version of ‘The Perfect Human’. This was the obstruction that seemed to disgust and discourage Leth the most, but he enlisted the help of Bob Sabiston, animator for Waking Life (2001) and A Scanner Darkly (2006): the result was a compellingly multi-layered, dynamic response to the original short, unafraid of animation’s infinite possibilities for exploring space, and unlimited strategies for aesthetic representation.

Of course, there were also obstructions that did not work out as either director would have liked. Von Trier spoke sternly to Leth when he made a film which did not respect one of his obstructions: he had told Leth to go to the most dreadful place on earth, and re-make the film there, starring in it himself, and evoking the place without actually filming it. Von Trier went to Mumbai’s red light district and re-enacted a scene from ‘The Perfect Human’, against a translucent screen which allowed viewers to see the crowd of women and children behind him. He classed this as a ‘liberal interpretation’ of von Trier’s obstruction, but von Trier insisted it had broken the rules, and imposed a punishment. He could return to Mumbai to make the same film, but respecting the rules, something which Leth said he could not do. The alternative punishment was for Leth to do a re-make exactly as he liked: the obstruction, then, being no obstruction at all, a terrible punishment for Leth who was depending on his friend’s challenges for inspiration. Confronted with the paralysing freedom of no restrictions, Leth did not make a bad film, but probably the least interesting of the five re-makes.

I didn’t expect to like The Five Obstructions, as my only previous experience of Leth’s work was his latest film, The Erotic Man (2010), which was visually dull, and ethically repellent. But The Five Obstructions was an intriguing documentary. It introduced me to one of Leth’s earliest films, ‘The Perfect Huan’, a beautiful black-and-white mock-discovery of humans, their bodies, and their habits, justly been described as ‘Surrealist’ for the way it makes the familiar seem new and strange. The original 13-minute short was interspersed in clips throughout the documentary, and was available to view in its entirety as an extra on the DVD. Leth’s modern re-makes of the film were quite different than the original, as they were in colour, and the restrictions resulted in markedly different styles, far more interesting than the approach Leth took in Erotic Man. While the misogyny of Leth’s most recent film was still present, visually the re-makes were fresh and full of life. This artistic renaissance, then, may have been a direct result of von Trier’s restrictions, an idea which makes The Five Obstructions one of the most intriguing films I have seen, in terms of thinking about the creative process. While it was enjoyable to watch the films that Leth made in response to the obstructions, it was equally exciting to listen in on the directors’ discussions, finding out which obstructions von Trier would come up with, and why, and imagining how they would affect the final film. The Five Obstructions is the sort of film that makes you want to think more deeply about the creative process, and experiment more with your own work.

 

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