The International Writers Magazine:DVD Review

The Five Obstructions
Dan Schnieder

magine making a stylish sexy film about a Plain Jane. That’s the feeling I got watching the 90 minute, 2004 film The Five Obstructions, jointly made and produced by Danish filmmakers Jørgen Leth and Lars Von Trier.

Ostensibly, the film is about Trier’s challenge to noted documentarian Leth, who seems to have been Trier’s mentor, if not idol, in film school, to somehow remake a twelve minute film of his from 1967 in five new ways. That black and white film, The Perfect Human (or Det Perfekte Menneske), is typical of avant-garde films of the day - aseptic, poseur, minimalist, bereft of depth- both in Europe and in America- especially the Andy Warhol Factory. While not a great nor profound film, for it has pretentiously bad pseudo-poetry being read over images of an attractive Danish man and woman posing as perfect humans, the original film does have a certain earnest power, the sort only young artists seem to bring to their work. Flash forward a third of a century, to 2000, and Trier is issuing a challenge to Leth, sort of a less somber Werner Herzog in temperament, to remake the film five different ways, each way, though, with an ‘obstruction’, really only a limitation. Leth accepts the challenge for what it seems to be, seemingly unaware that Trier is actually doing a documentary about Leth and his creative process. each obstruction is designed to show off Leth’s presumed genius at getting around the obstruction.

The first film has stipulations that it must be shot in Cuba, answer all the questions the original asked, and not use more than twelve frames per shot. The result is not nearly as engaging as the original film, included in the DVD’s extras, and a rather pretentious film. When we see the finished product, along withTrier, one would expect him to rip it for the obvious poseur trash it is. But, we have to recall Trier foisted the pretentiously bad Bjork filmic disaster, Dancer In The Dark, on the world. So, he raves at Leth’s ingenuity, and says that he now will send Leth to Bombay to re-film The Perfect Human. The second film is even worse than the first, for Leth has to be the main character in the film, therefore he films it with Indians standing in the background, behind a translucent piece of plastic. By this time, the original film Leth made in 1967 seems a veritable masterpiece compared to the first two latter day versions. Even Trier objects to this film, not because of its staggering badness, but because he claims Leth did not really follow his instructions. So, he says Leth will either have to go back to Bombay, or shoot the film with total freedom. It’s telling that total freedom is considered a punishment by the dogmatic Trier.

Leth chooses the latter, and the third film is the best so far, although it is still a bit pretentious, and has an unneeded film noir subtext. Trier chooses as the fourth obstruction, that Leth has to film the next version as a cartoon. Both men claim to loathe cartoons, but Leth hires an Austin, Texas cartoonist, Bob Sabiston, and the result, while visually interesting in using bits of the original film, and three variations, in cartoon form, would be totally meaningless without prior knowledge of the earlier films. As the fifth obstruction, Trier says that all Leth need do is allow himself to narrate the film, and take directing credit for it, even though Trier will cobble the film and the script from images he gleans from Leth’s four previous sojourns in reworking The Perfect Human. Here, is where the film works the best, for Trier wisely juxtaposes his over the top prose with scenes of the all too human Leth, and the result is rather startling, if not brilliant, especially the end of both the outer film and the final obstructive film within the film. It’s last line shows Leth falling, with narration culled from the original film. Throughout the narration Trier self-flagellates his own pretentiousness. As one of the founders of the often, and justly, mocked Dogme 95 film cult, which imposed a set of ridiculous Ten Comandments on its filmic adherents- such as using only available light, or hand-held cameras, no artificial music nor voice-overs, etc.

  This poetry helps elevate everything before it. What could have, and really should have, veered off into masturbatory solipsism, instead becomes what all good, and great, art is- revelatory. From a series of rather pompous films about dubious existentialism, Trier- and Leth, have made a film that is one of the best self-examinations on film. True filmic memoir. Whether or not Trier had a grand plan, or lucked into the film’s power, is up for debate, but the power of the final inner film’s and the outer film’s union is one of the great moments captured onscreen. The closest thing I can recall to it is a poem a member of a poetry group I ran brought, one time, that was laced with the worst clichés imaginable, yet used in such startling juxtaposition to each other that it was one of the freshest and most original poems I’d ever read.

  On the downside, the film would have worked better if the original and the subsequent films had been shown in their entirety, and not only in excerpts. Still, it’s a synergistic film that is not postmodern, despite its pretensions. Nor is it truly deconstructive. Instead it’s self-exploration using the art itself, which is, despite claims, the essence of such a venture. Also, as filmic memoir, it makes the viewer take for granted all its assumptions of the men’s relationships. The editing, by Camilla Skousen and Morten Højbjerg, especially in the fifth obstruction, is excellent.

As for the DVD features? As stated, the original The Perfect Human is included, as well the Danish and American trailers. A poor commentary from Leth and an unnamed female questioner, that occupies spots in the film accounting for only 40% or so of the film is also used. The lone interesting moment is when Leth defends the film from charges that everything was scripted in advance. But, even were it that fact would not matter, for only the end results in art do. Intent is nothing. The overall film’s grand idea transcends its individual filmlets’ pretensions, and that’s more than enough reason to watch it.

© Dan Schneider,
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