The Five Obstructions

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In 1967, Danish director Jorgen Leth made a short film called The Perfect Human, a mock-anthropological look at contemporary man with mystical overtones. Shot in crisp black and white, it was all very mod and coolly avant-garde. The film has long been something of an obsession for another, more-famous Danish director, Lars von Trier, and in this documentary concoction he challenges Leth to remake his film five times, each time adhering to a set of “obstructions” that von Trier will devise.

For the first obstruction, von Trier dictates that the film will be shot in Cuba, that no sets can be used and (here’s the kicker) that each shot can be no longer than 12 frames, which is about half a second. Leth complains that the film will be “spastic” but dutifully makes the trip, shoots it and returns, much to von Trier’s dismay, with a very clever variation of his original film. And so it goes, with each obstruction inspiring instead of hindering Leth as obstructions are wont to do. Even when the obstruction requires that the film be made as a cartoon, something that von Trier says will inevitably result in “crap,” Leth still returns with another beautiful variation of his original film.

So what’s the point the exercise? Von Trier says it’s therapy for Leth, but it seems to be the other way around. For some reason von Trier finds Leth’s control of his medium worrisome. “I want to ‘banalize’ you,” he tells the older director (and if that’s not a real word, blame whoever did the subtitles), meaning he wants to subvert Leth’s distant, observational style and introduce a little chaos into his mix. He’s like that girlfriend that every guy encounters at least once during his life who whines that “we never do anything spontaneous.” The irony here is that for all his talk of loving “accidents” in movies, von Trier’s own films (Dancer in the Dark, Dogville) look like the work of someone who is in total control of his mise-en-scene.

The film’s tone offers a playful version of the sort of sadism that finds its way into von Trier’s fictional scenarios. Though he puts Leth through the wringer, he obviously has a great deal of respect for the guy; and nobody put a gun to Leth’s head and forced him to participate in the mad Dane’s latest experiment. The whole thing is a curio, neither as deep or lightweight as it might seem at first, but for von Trier fans the film is a must, offering more clues as to whether this enigmatic auteur is just a gifted prankster or something more serious.

In English and Danish, French and Spanish with English subtitles. Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), Friday and Saturday, Sept. 24-25, at 7 and 9:30 p.m., and on Sunday, Sept. 26, at 4 and 7 p.m. Call 313-833-3237.

Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail letters@metrotimes.com.

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