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January 13, 2006

The Five Obstructions

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De Fem Benspnd
Jorgen Leth and Lars von Trier - 2003
Koch Lorber Region 1 DVD

I had heard of Danish filmmaker Jorgen Leth previously in relation to his documentary A Sunday in Hell, about a French bicycle race. Von Trier has been familiar since Breaking the Waves. I was intrigued by the premise of how the younger filmmaker would challenge the older in remaking a short film based on several specific, if arbitrary, rules. Leth proves to be of stronger stuff than some previous collaborators, with an immense sense of humor about himself and von Trier.

The original Leth short is an interesting piece of black and white formalism. The off-screen narration with the pointing out of body parts and rhetorical questions make the film seem like the work of an observer from outer space. The two people observed are seen wearing only black and white, or totally white, clothing against an infinite field of white. This creates a clinical quality, as if the couple in the film were part of a professional study.

The "rules" that von Trier places on Leth might be said to be a parody of Dogme 95. Of the challenges, the most ingenious response was to the rule to remake The Perfect Humna as a cartoon. While it is not explained how Leth got connected to Bob Sebiston, the animator best known for his work on Richard Linklater's Waking Life, this resulted in a happy collaboraton with a filmmaker who stated that he hates cartoons. The film concludes with Leth having faced all the obstructions von Trier can throw at him.

What The Five Obstructions points out is how the "rules" of filmmaking are abitrary. This was proven by Gus Van Sant's version of Psycho which was a literal shot-by-shot remake of Alfred Hitchcock's film. There is a quality to Hitchcock that withstands multiple viewings that is missing in the Van Sant film even when one is essentially seeing the same movie photographed in the same way. Andrew Sarris, in his Towards a Theory of Film History had the example of " . . . the strength of a John Ford is a function of the weakness of Robert Z. Leonard . . .". With Leth continually frustrating von Trier's attempt to force Leth into making a bad film, one also has to ask if the imposition of any rules forces the filmmaker to be more creative. Joel Schumaker's Tigerland certainly had several serious film observers wondering if other Hollywood directors might benefit from having the rules of Dogme 95 imposed on them. One can choose the advice of Frank Capra, a filmmaker who would probably have little patience with Dogville - "There are no rules in film making, only sins. And the cardinal sin is Dullness."

Posted by peter at January 13, 2006 04:44 PM