THE FIVE OBSTRUCTIONS
Lars and J¿rgen make a pact and play. In 1967, Leth made a 13-minute black and white experimental short, The Perfect Human, a Godardianly styled film observing an elegant man undertaking quotidian tasks with grace. In this critical documentary, von Trier collaborates challengingly with his hero mentor, Leth, demanding that he re-make said film five times, each version conforming to stringent rules imposed ruthlessly by a semi-sadistic von Trier. The six very different adaptations, with identical dialogue, invite comparisons Ð but who is playing the joke on whom?
Over caviar conversation, our merry friend Lars invents perversely absurd parameters, striving to push Leth (Ôs film making skills) over the edge. Vodka-drinking von Trier then persecutes oedipally his cinematic father figureÕs efforts. With glee.
Scand(alous/inavian) von Trier tries to scupper the first of LethÕs films by insisting that each shot be 12 frames long Ð thatÕs half a second. Hm, and is that a Cuban cigar youÕre smoking there, J¿rgen, as you ruminate on my tormenting restriction? Well, the film must be shot in Cuba too, for good measure. In response, Leth uses a staccato effect in dramatic overlaps to create a magnetic re interpretation.
ÒHow does the perfect human lie down? Like this. This is how the perfect human lies down.Ó
In another of the quintet, von Trier provocatively forces Leth to work in his most disliked medium: cartoon. So the latter produces a sharply styled anthropological animation (complete with floating handwritten words) generated with the help of Bob Sabiston, whom you may recognise and worship as the co-director of Waking Life. The final translation, like an Oulipo poem, is jigsawed unexpectedly out of all the previous filmwork.
Von Trier has always appeared to derive distorted pleasure from inflicting distress and suffering upon (usually female) people, and he is openly enthusiastic to see Leth (who has an undercover polymathic life as a sports commentator) fail in his arbitrarily hurdled missions. Leth endeavours to outwit the exacting dogu-menta(r/l)ist, creating a stunning pentacle of evasively ingenious films, each worthy of rivalling his original cult short.
Despite his zealous pranks, to von TrierÕs frustrated disappointment, LethÕs enigmatic aura remains unevaporated. The film ends with Von Trier making a bizarre claim about (LethÕs) identity, questioning whether cinema can ever capture the texture of authentic haecceity.
Parallel with the skeleton premise of a tte--tte obstacle race, The Five Obstructions is also a self-reflexive analysis concerning the processes and ethics of filmmaking. It shows how limitations, as with the Dogme 95 Vows of Chastity advocated by von Trier, can actually ignite creativity, a technique of inverse proportions that can be equally successful in poetry.
The fascinating Five O epitomises LethÕs outfoxing ability to turn hindrances into advantages and even into punctums; and Von Trier's eccentric philosophy in the invigorating benefits of radical experimentalism: that constraints can liberate, and melt the destination. What will the unconventional usurper do next? Watch out for Dogsville in February.
The Five Obstructions is showing at ICA cinemas now. CanÕt get to a cinema thatÕs showing it? There you are, thatÕs your first obstruction.
© Malgorzata Kitowski 2004