The Five Obstructions
Film review by: Witney Seibold
In 1967, Jørgen Leth directed a short called “The Perfect Human.” It depicts, against a white background, people engaged in various commonplace activities: rising, shaving, eating, falling. A cool narrator explains that what we’re seeing is the perfect human going about their perfect routine. It’s a very good short. Danish film director and all-around troublemaker Lars von Trier (of “Dogville” fame, or perhaps infamy) called up Leth, and, as an experiment, ordered him to remake “The Perfect Human” five times, each time with a different series of aesthetic and technical obstacles (eg: a shot can be only 12 frames – half a second, it must be shot in an Indian ghetto, Leth must star, it must be animated, etc.). “The Five Obstructions” follows these two men, in documentary fashion as they invent, discuss, argue, and create.
The resulting films that Leth directs are fascinating, and it’s wonderful to see him move from horrified and exasperated at von Trier’s challenge, into relieved and even enthusiastic about flexing his aesthetic muscles. We see an old artist calmly reaching into his vast creative well, and creating things before our very eyes.
But more fascinating than watching Leth, is the professional dynamic between Leth and von Trier. Von Trier is an upstart, a bitter young student who seems to be fulfilling a fantasy of his in not only meeting one of his favorite filmmakers (he claims to have seen “The Perfect Human” many times), but flexing his own artistic superiority over him, to prove, I think, that he already at his young age has an openness to filmmaking that most filmmakers, including his idol, do not. With von Trier, this is actually not an outrageous claim; many of his films are bold experiments that work rather well. He co-founded the Dogme project, after all, which sought to reinsert aesthetic purity into film by eliminating all falseness (tripods and lighting among those false things). And, love it or hate it, “Dogville” was a brash an effective film. He’s like a young Werner Herzog in a lot of ways. He needs to try new things, to be constantly in a state of breaking out.
Leth, confused at first and annoyed with von Trier, agrees to the five obstructions, but seems savvy to his student-like zeal, and looks past it. He calmly sees the upstart part of von Trier’s nature, and reacts the way an old professor would: listening to the student, nodding, and then blowing them out of the water with a new concept previously unconceived.
By the end of this experiment, Leth has become more interested in the film art, and von Trier has acquiesced to a mind not necessarily superior, but certainly more understanding that he originally thought. “The Five Obstructions” is important for anyone who has ever thought about film.