Friday, October 30, 2015

At the Movies: The Five Obstructions

At the Movies with Michael5000

The Five Obstructions
Lars von Trier, 2003.

imbd: 7.5
Ebert: Three Stars.
Rotten Tomatoes: 88% Fresh

The Five Obstructions is sort of contest of wills between two Danish filmmakers, the famously irascible Lars von Trier and his pal and idol Jørgen Leth. Leth directed an experimental short in 1967 called The Perfect Human which is very experimental, very 1967, and not half bad. In Obstructions, von Trier more or less commands Leth to remake his magnum opus five times, each time with a new set of rules and limitations. The idea is… well, it’s hard to say exactly what the idea is exactly, but the result is a fascinating look at the way that constraints and limitations often function more to inspire than to inhibit the creative process.

Now, this project already sounds like quite a challenge for Leth, but he doesn’t know the half of it. We watch as von Trier thinks up the first obstruction: The first remake of The Perfect Human must not contain any shots longer than 12 frames (a half second) long, must not use a constructed set, must answer questions asked by the narrator in the original version, and must be filmed in Cuba. There’s a pause in the conversation, while von Trier asks an assistant if there’s enough money in the budget to require Leth to travel to Cuba. There is. Now technically, Leth has been given a set of four obstructions, but by the rules of the game this constitutes the first obstruction. We see Leth try to figure out an approach that will squeeze a watchable film out of these conditions, then look in as he scouts locations and recruits actors in Havana, and then: voila! We get to watch The Perfect Human: Cuba. And it’s great! It’s really great!

As we progress through the five variations, Leth continues to respond with gusto to the demands that von Trier heaps on him. The obstructions are all quite different in nature, and Leth finds ways to work within limitations that subvert their intent as limitations. He will end up describing the 12-frame maximum of the first obstruction, which initially seems so perversely daunting, as “a gift.”

As the project goes on, unfortunately, the challenges grow less demanding. Interestingly, Leth’s responses get less interesting. The first of the five remakes, made with the bizarre straightjacket described above, has an electric energy. The second, with similarly rigorous conditions, projects a disturbing surrealism. The third, fourth, and fifth, made under more relaxed rules, are all solid pieces of conceptual filmmaking, but they just aren’t quite as memorable.

Every few days, most of us have an idea that fits the formula “Wouldn’t it be interesting if I/we/somebody did [x]?!?” We almost never act on those ideas, which is quietly sad. It would be a better world if we spent more time chasing our intellectual whims. I have to salute Lars von Trier for actually acting on his impulse to undertake this project.

Prognosis: This is fascinating stuff for anyone interested in filmmaking and the creative process. Our only complaint was that the passages from The Perfect Human shown in the film are not really sufficient for understanding what is going on in the five variations. I would strongly recommend watching the “original” first before watching The Five Obstructions (which is easy if you have access to the DVD, which includes Leth's original short).

Michael5000's imdb rating: 8.

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