You can say what you want about Lars von Trier, but however exasperated his latest provocation has gotten you, he’s hands down the most playfully inventive filmmaker working today. How is it that this weird, sadistic teddy bear of a Dane can jump the tracks of commerce and formula that so many other, more likely, filmmakers can’t?
The Five Obstructions is Art House Reality TV. Von Trier commissions his directing idol, a good-natured Danish filmmaker named Jurgen Leth, to remake his experimental 1967 short The Perfect Human five times, with Von Trier giving Leth a different “obstruction” each time (e.g. “No shot longer than 12 frames,” “Must be filmed in the most miserable place on earth,” etc). If you look really closely when you’re at your local art house cinema taking it in with a dozen other hard-core cinephiles, you can see just how much faith you put in “art” separating your taste from the masses. That all it really takes is substituting the words “documentary” for “reality.” This show is really no different from The Apprentice – a taskmaster gives someone a task to do, then rates them as it’s all filmed by the camera. But that doesn’t mean it’s not great fun. Part of the fun of an exciting, unpredictable filmmaker like Von Trier is that he doesn’t really pay attention to those boundaries.
When we’re shown the first clip of the original The Perfect Human, it really does appear to be a gem of cinematic brilliance lost to the obscurity of being made in Denmark and not being a feature film. Crisply shot against an indeterminate white background, a handsome Scandinavian man in a tuxedo does a weird white person dance while a narrator says things like “Here is the perfect human. Why is he dancing like he does? Why is there no music?” The decor suggests one of those commercials where a fluffy white cat eats cat food out of a crystal goblet; the content and attitude suggests Dada absurdity at its most joyful. If the 1967 original would’ve stopped here, its mysterious “What the fuck?”-quality would have made it transcendent. Unfortunately, as The Five Obstructions continues, they roll out more clips of the original. Leth is a talented experimental filmmaker, but in 1967 he was mired in the outrageously pretentious, over-intellectualized, 1960s European Art Film World fishbowl he was living in. And, in large part, continues to live in today. The guy speaks in the same Antonioni-by-way-of-Sartre “I’m an alienated Scandanavian artist” pronouncements that haven’t bubbled up to the mainstream surface since the heyday of Ingmar Bergman. His original film is irretrievably time-stamped by its era, which doesn’t mean it’s not at times very interesting. It just means that more often, it’s boring.
As The Five Obstructions plays out, two things become clear. Given borders, taboos, and limitations, some artists find their muse the way they never could with total creative freedom. The two best Obstruction movies are also the two most handcuffed by Von Trier’s smirking rules. The first movie can’t have any shots longer than twelve frames (a half a second) and must be shot in Cuba. After seeing the choppy, beautiful, and extremely cool version Leth kicks out, Von Trier acknowledges that the 12 frames were “a gift.” Leth agrees. The fourth film has to be animated, even though both von Trier and Leth acknowledge they hate animated films and have never seen a good one. Leth hightails it over to Austin, Texas, finds the guy who supervised the animation on Waking Life, and they come up with another beautiful, strange, moving experimental piece.
In the movie, Von Trier constantly tells Leth that he’s doing this because he wants Leth, the master craftsman, to drop his imperial stance of objectivity in filming his movies and, essentially, find to the “real” Leth. As Von Trier keeps saying, he wants these five movies to progressively move Leth from the “Perfect” to the “Human.” But for a non-Danish viewer like me, who has no God-like conception of who Leth is, and probably has never heard of him before this movie came out, this is the most uninteresting part of the movie. As they dance around each other with some pretentious, Euro-art-house talk about objectivity versus subjectivity, all I wanted was to see what a new set of impositions would spur Leth – an undeniably talented filmmaker – to come up with. Von Trier apparently wants to force Leth to make something primitive, something crude, in which the soul of his idol will finally be revealed. But as Von Trier knows, squeezing a great talent through a strangely-shaped tube is just going to give you unexpected, unanticipated, and often times weirdly beautiful manifestations of this talent.
As is the basic party line in other reviews of this movie, the film where Von Trier gives Leth complete freedom as his Obstruction is probably far the most uninteresting – with the possible exception of the 1967 original. Leth does manage to paste together some striking compositions and split-screen moments in the hotel in Brussels he shot it in, but it doesn’t hold up next to the others. (The documentary scene of Leth walking through the hotel on his way to film and stopping cold when he hears strange sexual noises emanate from behind a door is much more compelling than anything Leth puts in his film.) It’s been said over and over by certain film or writing or art “instructors,” but this movie really crystallizes the notion that sometimes handicaps or constraints are exactly what an artist needs to spur them on. Read a Martin Scorsese interview collection. In the days when he made masterpiece after indisputable masterpiece, he was constantly
struggling to find financing, to find an audience, to find a budget. Several of his most near and dear projects were killed by lack of studio interest. The result: Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, After Hours, The King of Comedy. Years later, his reputation just short of God-on-Earth, he finally gets close to $100 million to make his dream project: Gangs of New York. You’d be hard-pressed to find someone to argue that the resulting yawner does anything but firmly buttress the lessons of The Five Obstructions.
Other examples prove easy to find. Any band that made a great album when they were unsigned and struggling and then followed it up with a passionless stinker after being holed up for six months in an expensive studio. Joseph Heller, for God’s sake. He wrote Catch-22 on the sly in the office he worked in to make ends meet, and came up with one of the funniest and perhaps best novels ever written. Afterwards, finances secured by the Brinks truck dropping off bags of money every month from Catch-22 royalties, he couldn’t come up with ONE even READABLE novel. Where did all that talent go?
The second thing this movie reveals is that giving himself obstructions is Von Trier’s secret. At the mid-point of his career, setting up handcuffs and obstructions is exactly what he’s done to burst onto the international stage. A set of rules designed to limit your options and stimulate creativity is exactly what the Dogma 95 manifesto is. And shooting on a soundstage with no sets, as he did in Dogville? What is that if not another obstruction? Part of Von Trier’s genius is his penchant for publicity. He’s an exhibitionist. He wants every movie to end up a ridiculous mess, and he’s lucky that he’s become a filmmaker in the age of Ain’t-It-Cool News and Entertainment Weekly, a gaping maw of entertainment media just looking for the kind of drama he can dish out. His affinity for these “obstructions”; his seeming need to let everyone know about it – up to and including commissioning documentaries like this one or the similarly toned Dogville “Making-of” attached to the European DVD, and various documentaries on Dogma 95; and the lucky fact that in this world of constant entertainment news, these sorts of stunts make good copy, have all conspired to make Lars Von Trier what he is: Eminently watchable and an arthouse celebrity. And able to unleash his bizarre ideas – like The Five Obstructions – onto unsuspecting art house screens everywhere.