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Five Obstructions

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Mathematicians can be obsessed with obstructions. Sometimes the objects they define don’t have all the nice properties they might have. And then people try figuring out why the nice properties aren’t there and may be able to generalise them to define an obstruction to the nice property. The obstruction will have to be trivial for the nice property possibly (but not necessarily) being present. Studying obstructions can deepen the understanding a lot.

Image from The Perfect Human But that’s not what the film De Fem benspænd (Five Obstructions) is about. Rather, it deals with the 1967 short film Det perfekte menneske (The Perfect Human) by Danish director Jørgen Leth. In 13 minutes and clean black and white, it shows a man an a woman. Dressing, eating, moving.

Jørgen Leth seems to be considered a teacher and mentor by Lars von Trier – which is where the film begins. Both directors meet and von Trier challenges Leth to remake his film five times with obstructions that he poses. Not the typical Dogma obstructions that we’ve seen many times by now but arbitrary ones. And indeed those obstructions seem arbitrary and hard, but soon you learn that Leth deals with them rather well and that obstructions can serve as a guide that may actually help the work.

Image from 'Cartoon' remake The first obstructions were probably the harshest, with number one being that not uncut bit should be longer than twelve frames. That’s half a second. How could that possibly work – particularly keeping in mind that the original film (scenes of which are shown during the film as well) is very slow and with rather long shots. But then, we live in the days of music videos and half-second scenes aren’t all that unusual anymore. But Leth’s film is a bit more clever than a music video: He cuts together what looks like different shots of the same scene, or reversed parts of the scene or several repetitions of the same shots. A bit like assembling music from tiny samples.

Next up, he’s supposed to film in a horrible place which takes him to a red light district in Bombay. It doesn’t look particularly horrible, but apparently the director who also doubled as the actor in this section, was quite stresses and scared. I didn’t find that too convincing. And neither did von Trier – who initially wanted to send his colleague back to redo the film, but failed. Von Trier’s objections were that not all of his orders were respected, though.

Image from 'Cartoon' remake. Third was possibly the coolest film. A cartoon-style remake. Which was particularly funny as both directors agreed that they absolutely didn’t like cartoons. And while I’d say that that Leth didn’t quite stick to the order to make a traditional cartoon that von Trier would have loved to be bad, he rather collected footage from the previous shots and had some cartoon people manipulate the images, making the film from that. As can be seen below, those episodes even had their iPod moment…

Fourth is a remake with the obstruction being no obstruction at all. And indeed after all the orderly rules for the first three remakes, this suddenly seems like a harsh order. Leth is supposed to make a 2003 version of his film. I didn’t get it. Or it wasn’t too good. The most freedom for the director led to the episode I liked least.

Image from 'Cartoon' remake. An iPod moment?

Fifth and last, the obstruction is that Leth can’t do any filming, but von Trier will assemble prior footage from their discussions to give the film with Leth just reading a text that von Trier wrote. Leth’s name is given as a credit for this which of course kicks of a lot of thinking about what those names mean, how a film can be considered ‘Leth’s’ or ‘von Trier’s’ and whether that matters at all. The text deals with their differences in style – von Trier’s very close one and Leth’s very distant one.

Altogether this was an enjoyable film, a cool original – which I’ll have to try and have a look at in the original –, and an interesting idea. Probably one can go on for hours contemplating about the extent in which different styles matter for film and what the effect of such restrictions are. Are they liberating because they allow the director to focus narrowly on his subject rather than getting lost in style or are they actually restricting? Are Lars von Trier and his whole Dogma thing thus particularly clever because they manage to focus on what’s important or are they just lazy bastards using a shortcut rather than thinking things through in the ‘big picture’? I’m not sure. Most likely a bit of both, although von Trier’s films give me a bias to his version. Give counterexamples!

Finally, on a not so nice note, I need to say that the film was in Danish with German subtitles. Bad subtitles. Why are there so many subtitles without a proper ß for the font they use? It’s not like it’s an unusual letter. And it seemed like the subtitle people didn’t even watch the film once. In many scenes there was a white background, which made the white subtitles (with an extremely narrow to non-existant black border) very hard to read and much more distracting than they need be.

[Buy at amazon .com, .uk, .de]

November 30, 2004, 0:40


Comment by chris sharman: User icon

very thoughtful review - we don’t get many european films here in Yorkshire, England but if i come across the film I will certainly watch it.

March 20, 2005, 19:08

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