Saturday, December 11, 20045 Obstructions
A while back -- maybe a month ago -- my friend Ben mentioned a film he'd recently seen called The Five Obstructions, made by Jørgen Leth and Lars Von Trier. He told me the premise -- Von Trier challenges Leth to remake his 1967 film The Perfect Human (which is exactly the kind of artful Scandinavian experimental film you'd expect) but this time to do it with a number of "obstructions" as part of the process.
The thing is, I don't really care for Von Trier. I've seen most of his films, and I admit that in each case I did find something of interest in them, but by and large I just can't abide the man's work. His stuff is embarrassingly sentimental sometimes, and pointlessly provocative at others, and flirting with profound misogyny more often than I can comfortably tolerate. I assume, however, that being engaged with his films is enough, even if my ultimate response is negative.
Von Trier also seems to have a thing about rules; he loves to impose them. This is the guy, remember, who along with several others founded the Dogme 95 school of filmmaking, handing out a whole list of requirements to directors that tossed many cinematic conventions out the window. This, I have to say, I don't have any particular problem with... I don't think it does a great deal to further cinema as a whole -- it's more of a cinematic parlor game than a meaningful statement -- but impositions of this kind can definitely serve to shake up the accepted practices of the film community, and as such is a good thing for filmmakers, as far as it goes. Dogme 95 didn't change the world or invent anything new, but it did serve to loosen up the expectations and assumptions of both the filmmakers who participated and their audiences.
This film is a similar kind of thing. The first "obstruction" -- which actually includes a total of four rules that Leth had to follow for the experiment -- is based on a partial remake of Leth's original film, but with the following limitations: no cut can be longer than 12 frames (half a second -- Leth responds that it's cinematic death); Leth must answer the questions he asks in the narration, which were left unanswered in the original; when Leth mentions in passing that while he's often been to Haiti, he's never been to Cuba, Von Trier decides the film must be shot in Cuba; and finally, when Leth mentions that he's thinking about building a room or filming in front of a screen, Von Trier demands that there be no set at all. So Leth sets off to Cuba to re-shoot his film without a set, with answers, and in 12-frame shots. The film that results is fascinating -- the 12-frame rule renders a film that is simultaneously fluid and disjointed; as Von Trier says later, "it was a gift."
The point is made: limitations can be a filmmaker's friend, compelling him or her to open themselves to new possibilities and to progress beyond old assumptions. The point matters because, where Hollywood depends on mammoth budgets and epic stories filmed on a huge scale to generate interest, the rest of the world's film community is faced with endless daunting obstacles to making the films they want to make. Obstructions are a matter of course to most filmmakers, and learning to appreciate and use the potential they offer can make a good filmmaker into an inspired filmmaker.
Von Trier continues to compel Leth to remake his film four more times, each time with a new set of arbitrary, intentionally-frustrating rules. Everything Leth assumes he can rely on, Von Trier forbids him to do. Not all of the resulting films are brilliant, but each of them is interesting. It's sort of a filmmaker's film -- most of the interest is in the process of watching Leth find ways of dealing with his obstructions, and in seeing the resulting film in comparison to the original. One also becomes more aware of the underlying structure of the film -- which parts, in other words, would literally transform the film into an entirely different film if they were changed, and which parts are open to interpretation while still leaving the basic idea intact. It's rare to see the same film made and re-made and re-re-made, especially by the same director; watching this process, I began to wonder if repeating the same work over and over might not have the same benefits for a filmmaker that it has for a musician, say, or a visual artist.
So it's an interesting piece of work, and worth watching if you're into process and challenge. I'm still not that impressed by Von Trier's body of work, but I'll grant him that he knows how to challenge himself and those around him. It's probably what he does best in life.