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Review: The Five Obstructions

By ljj in Culture
Mon Aug 02, 2004 at 08:59:31 AM EST
Tags: Movies (all tags)
Movies

The Five Obstructions (also known as De Fem benspænd)

A documentary about a filmmaker, Jørgen Leth, who re-visits his seminal 1967 work, The Perfect Human and is instructed by his former student, Lars von Trier to remake the film five times, each time with a different set of restrictions (or obstructions).


Leth himself is credited as director of this film, yet the point-of-view keeps shifting from his own to that of Von Trier - whose brainchild the movie is.

The Perfect Human is a thirteen minute short film that analyses the human condition, and using juxtaposing shots and voice-over, scans every aspect of human physicality and investigates our emotions. It tries to objectify the human being and create distance between ourselves and who really are, so we can see it for ourselves.

The concept of this documentary is brilliant. Von Trier sets a new set of obstructions for each of the five remakes of the 1967 film. We see the two filmmakers discussing the obstructions and a dramatic play between the two develops in the way the older man, Leth, lets himself be controlled by his former student.

The first obstruction proves to only be technically challenging. Amongst other restrictions, the first remake had to be shot in Cuba and no shot could be longer than 12 frames. The result is brilliant. The film is actually enhanced by the 12 frame restriction and in fact Von Trier bemoans the fact that his former mentor is only inspired by the restrictions. So for the second obstruction, he sets an emotional challenge for Leth.

He is forced to recreate the extravagant meal segment of the original film in "one of the most miserable places on earth". And, to top that, Leth had to be the actor as well.

In almost surreal fashion, one accompanies Leth into the red light district of Bombay, where amongst the poverty, famine and the darkest corner of the human soul, Leth had to be dressed in a tuxedo, sip the finest wine and bemoan the frivolity of joy whilst tucking into poached salmon.

This impresses Von Trier - but not enough. He points out to Leth that he overlooked one basic rule of the second obstruction - in that he wasn't allowed to show any of the people around him. So, to punish Leth, he plays a move which he believes is a master stroke - in that he gives Leth full freedom for the third remake. This he does and again passes the test with flying colours.

Leth recreates the movie in Brussels, and using efficient split-screen editing again stuns Von Trier (and the audience).

For the fourth obstruction, Von Trier demands that the film be remade as a cartoon. This puts Leth in a spin (both filmmakers have expressed their dislike of the animation genre) but again he rises to the challenge. He collaborates with an animator and using footage from the previous remakes and the original film, he converts the film into paint technique - a style reminiscent of Richard Linklater's Waking Life.

Again Leth succeeds with an animation that even he is proud off.

Then, finally, the film reaches the fifth obstruction and Von Trier's grand scheme becomes more apparent. The fifth obstruction is that he himself will direct the film and provide Leth with a script for which he must provide a voice-over. And furthermore, Leth must be credited as the director.

Once the fifth film is assembled and played, we see some of their conversations about the obstructions are used as the film narrative, while the voice is a moving letter from Leth to Von Trier.

The younger man reveals that he has attempted to chastise his mentor for being too much of a spectator - but in the process he discovered that they are both just humans that are striving to be perfect in the moment.

The film is a brilliant exploration of humanity, creativity and inspiration. Von Trier is clearly struck by the idea that only restriction can inspire the human mind. He was one of the original Dogme95 filmmakers who pledged to always be guided by nine different obstructions when making their films - possibly a reaction to the synthetic effect glut of Hollywood.

And so his theories on obstruction here makes for a documentary that will challenge the way the viewer thinks about their own creativity and their point of view.

If anything, the remakes in themselves are incredibly interesting film studies. That a director can remake his own film four times, with such incredible shift in execution, yet retaining the feel and intent of the original is quite remarkable.

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Poll
Favourite obstruction
o First 40%
o Second 40%
o Third 10%
o Fourth 10%

Votes: 10
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Related Links
o The Five Obstructions
o Jørgen Leth
o The Perfect Human
o Lars von Trier
o Waking Life
o Dogme95
o Also by ljj


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Review: The Five Obstructions | 39 comments (35 topical, 4 editorial, 0 hidden)
Dogme (none / 2) (#2)
by Grahhh on Sun Aug 01, 2004 at 05:37:17 PM EST

I was in Nashville a few weeks ago and they were going to play this at the Belcourt Theatre the next week. I was disappointed I had to leave town before they showed it. I've seen a couple of Lars von Trier's films (Breaking the Waves, Idioterne, Dogville) and find him to be one of the most interesting directors of our time. I need to hunt down a couple of The Five Obstructions. While the Dogme95 films aren't for everyone, I highly recommend anyone that watches movies from time to time pick up one sometime. The lack of special post-production work gives the films a more human feel to them. They don't have that polished, plastic feel that Hollywood films do. Thomas Vinterberg's Festen is godly.

-1, Jørgen Leth (1.12 / 8) (#6)
by warrax on Sun Aug 01, 2004 at 07:06:32 PM EST

Anyone who has seen JL cover the Tour de France for the Danish TV2 channel knows what a pretentious twat (and poser) Jørgen Leth is. He also likes to pretend to be an "artist" (you know the type), but hopefully he's not fooling anyone. Mad props to von Trier for the idea, though.

-- "Guns don't kill people. I kill people."
The gist of the movie is Leth as a failure (2.25 / 4) (#7)
by StephenThompson on Sun Aug 01, 2004 at 09:52:44 PM EST

The original movie is a pretentious pile of crap. As a sort of joke, Lars makes up some lame obstructions to disrespect Leth. Leth, needy and washed up actually does it. But its still emotionless trash. The final movie, where Lars makes Leth narrate text which basically says, I [Leth] suck, I have not gotten the message that emotionless yet technically flashy nonsense is worthless crap. Basically its a crap movie about a crap movie that in the end, admits its crap.

Twelve... frames...? o_O (2.20 / 5) (#8)
by Kasreyn on Sun Aug 01, 2004 at 09:54:44 PM EST

oh my god.

That's a half-second of film at standard framerate. It must be fucking murder on the eyes.

Glad I'll never see it.


-Kasreyn


"Extenuating circumstance to be mentioned on Judgement Day:
We never asked to be born in the first place."

R.I.P. Kurt. You will be missed.
Well, that's the thing (none / 2) (#9)
by ljj on Mon Aug 02, 2004 at 02:22:30 AM EST

When you look at the obstruction it looks undoable. But I think he did it quite cleverly and turned out something quite watchable.

At last year's resfest there was this stupid submission where each of the shots lasted one second. Not only was it unwatchable, it was also irresponsible.

--
ljj
[ Parent ]

it['s not as bad as you think (none / 1) (#30)
by anmo on Mon Aug 02, 2004 at 07:35:09 PM EST

I should say, the end result is quite interesting. I love to see how Lars is pissed that the movies are nice despite the crazy obstructions

[ Parent ]
von Trier and Dogme95 (none / 3) (#10)
by insomnyuk on Mon Aug 02, 2004 at 03:51:48 AM EST

I think it is important to note that Von Trier does not exactly follow Dogme95, which makes it either an ironic manifesto or an act of publicity-grabbing hypocrisy.

I think ultimately, Von Trier uses people and stories for his own pleasure. This is borne out in my viewing of Breaking the Waves, which I felt was abusive to subject and viewer.

---
"There is only one honest impulse at the bottom of Puritanism, and that is the impulse to punish the man with a superior capacity for happiness." - H.L. Mencken

Rules (none / 1) (#12)
by Grahhh on Mon Aug 02, 2004 at 04:41:36 AM EST

The 10 rules of Dogme95 are up for interpretation. The director can bend the rules a little based on their interpretation. Vinterberg did that with the "no superficial action" rule when there was a "fist fight" in Festen. Most of the Dogme95 films bend one or two of the rules in some way (except the South Korean film Interview which doesn't follow a single one; I'm not sure how that one got accepted).

Out of curiosity, which rule did Von Trier break in his Dogme95 film, Idioterne?

[ Parent ]
Rule breaking (none / 2) (#20)
by Prominairy on Mon Aug 02, 2004 at 10:49:25 AM EST

Trier broke the first rule a couple of times, mostly concerning the use of props. These are mainly border cases; such as organized payment to the actors for buying food products, the leasing of a car without the actors knowledge and the moving of candles for better light exposure.

He also used a stand-in for the sexual intercourse scene, which doesn't seem to be explicitly prohibited in the ruleset, but doesn't seem very "Dogme-ish" either.

-~-~-~-~--~-~-~-~--~-~-~-~--~-~-~-~-
"Work like you don't need the money.
Love like you've never been hurt.
Dance like nobody's watching."

[ Parent ]
idioterne (none / 1) (#28)
by anmo on Mon Aug 02, 2004 at 02:12:09 PM EST

It is well known that his only dogme95 certified movie is Idioterne (The Idiots). Once he made it, he wasn't interested in dogme anymore

[ Parent ]
Sadists everywhere are kicking themselves (2.16 / 6) (#11)
by Lode Runner on Mon Aug 02, 2004 at 04:21:22 AM EST

because Leth and Trier just passed off a number of remarkably cruel acts (e.g. eating a sumptuous meal in front of starving people) as "art".

As a biomedical researcher I'm constantly reminded about the atrocities conducted in the name of science, yet here's a clear example of human rights abuse in the name of art.

I think you are very right (none / 3) (#13)
by ljj on Mon Aug 02, 2004 at 05:20:45 AM EST

But the main difference is that art attracts attention whereas sometimes science can destroy. Does that make sense?

--
ljj
[ Parent ]

No. (1.80 / 5) (#14)
by MrLarch on Mon Aug 02, 2004 at 05:30:42 AM EST

Nope.

[ Parent ]
What I mean is (none / 3) (#15)
by ljj on Mon Aug 02, 2004 at 05:45:34 AM EST

That I agree with the sentiment that what they did was vulgar. But nobody got physically hurt. Whereas some of the vulgarities of science can hurt somebody.

--
ljj
[ Parent ]

Well, (none / 3) (#16)
by spooky wookie on Mon Aug 02, 2004 at 06:51:03 AM EST

perhaps one of those starving guys went insane and killed a couple of people afterwards.

[ Parent ]
So what? (2.75 / 4) (#21)
by edo on Mon Aug 02, 2004 at 11:17:32 AM EST

> nobody got physically hurt

So what? Is physical pain the only kind of suffering you recognize?

You don't have to abuse somebody's body to cause him pain. Ask anyone who was picked on at school. (Probably not hard to find on K5.)
-- 
Sentimentality is merely the Bank Holiday of cynicism.
 - Oscar Wilde
[ Parent ]

of course not (none / 0) (#24)
by ljj on Mon Aug 02, 2004 at 11:37:33 AM EST

I only say that because loderunner drew a parallel between medical science and art.

--
ljj
[ Parent ]

"not hard to find on k5" (none / 3) (#26)
by 123456789 on Mon Aug 02, 2004 at 12:46:32 PM EST

Best. Comment. EVAR.

---
People demand freedom of speech to make up for the freedom of thought which they avoid.
- Soren Kierkegaard
[ Parent ]
Then give me a 3! (nt) (none / 2) (#27)
by edo on Mon Aug 02, 2004 at 01:01:25 PM EST


-- 
Sentimentality is merely the Bank Holiday of cynicism.
 - Oscar Wilde
[ Parent ]
I'm not sure there is a difference (none / 2) (#31)
by Lode Runner on Tue Aug 03, 2004 at 12:13:14 AM EST

Both art and science add to the weal of knowledge. Yet the same people who're repulsed by the likes of Mengele seem to see only benefit in artistic sadism.

"Oh, if it evokes thought and is sarcastically self-referential, then it's not as bad as other forms of torture. . ."

[ Parent ]

Von Trier is a sadist (none / 2) (#19)
by edo on Mon Aug 02, 2004 at 10:42:06 AM EST

Von Trier is a sadist who loathes his audience and his actors.

His old stuff was quite good (I love The Element of Crime and The Kingdom), but something in him seems to have snapped at some point, which in his work would be the moment just before the credits start in Breaking the Waves, when those preposterous bells start ringing and all the suffering we have seen before is made to look ridiculous. This is also around the time he became a Catholic, I think.

Next came the heavy-handed, near-unwatchable Dancer in the Dark, with its hideous 'songs' and ludicrously melodramatic plot*, and the final nail in the coffin of any respect I may once have had for him was driven in by the indescribably atrocious Dogville, which is hideous in so many ways that I think of it as the Auschwitz of motion pictures: utterly bleak, devoid of any hope, beauty, meaning or humanity and – worst of all – rationalized and defended by people who have in the past exhibited taste and discretion.

And you know the most awful thing? I'll probably go see his next film, too. I guess that makes me a masochist.

* There is noting wrong with melodrama, but it should not be passed off as something else, least of all as something 'profound'.
-- 
Sentimentality is merely the Bank Holiday of cynicism.
 - Oscar Wilde
[ Parent ]

In summary: (none / 1) (#23)
by spasticfraggle on Mon Aug 02, 2004 at 11:32:18 AM EST

He is an excellent filmmaker

--
I'm the straw that broke the camel's back!
[ Parent ]
I wouldn't go that far (none / 2) (#25)
by edo on Mon Aug 02, 2004 at 11:48:36 AM EST

I'd say he's an interesting filmmaker.

And a sadist. ;)
-- 
Sentimentality is merely the Bank Holiday of cynicism.
 - Oscar Wilde
[ Parent ]

+1FP, art (1.16 / 6) (#17)
by nebbish on Mon Aug 02, 2004 at 07:17:17 AM EST

There's not enough of it on K5.

---------
Kicking someone in the head is like punching them in the foot - Bruce Lee

While you were art (1.50 / 8) (#18)
by epepke on Mon Aug 02, 2004 at 09:18:42 AM EST

This sounds like an interesting exercize, but isn't there something more than a little pathetic about someone "revisiting" his own "seminal" work from 1967? Can you say "inbred," boys and girls?


The truth may be out there, but lies are inside your head.--Terry Pratchett


Before you go mouthing off (none / 1) (#32)
by jt on Tue Aug 03, 2004 at 02:44:42 PM EST

Why don't you read some background on the film?  It was put forth by Von Trier, not Leth, and as an attempt to roust Leth from his depression and self-exile in Haiti.

[ Parent ]
Why? (none / 3) (#33)
by epepke on Tue Aug 03, 2004 at 05:15:24 PM EST

I just wanted to see how anal and oversensitive art-types were, and I got an answer.


The truth may be out there, but lies are inside your head.--Terry Pratchett


[ Parent ]
-1, bizarre foreign customs (1.00 / 9) (#22)
by codejack on Mon Aug 02, 2004 at 11:24:54 AM EST

n/t


Please read before posting.

A nice exploration of the art of filmmaking (none / 1) (#29)
by anmo on Mon Aug 02, 2004 at 02:15:33 PM EST

Any movie-lover will like this movie as a way to learn and enjoy the difficulties of film-making. It will be interesting to notice that the least successfull of the 5 segments is the third ("no obstructions"), as a reminder that art needs constraints, which may explain why lavish hollywood style movies are the least enjoyable, and why some censure controlled iranian movies are true gems.

I disagree (none / 1) (#36)
by marinel on Thu Aug 05, 2004 at 10:58:32 AM EST

Any movie-lover will like this movie
Not necessarily. I know plenty of movie-lovers that will probably hate it, and I'm pretty sure that I will not enjoy it either on most days. Now, if you meant artsy-movie-lovers when you said movie-lovers, you might have a point.
lavish hollywood style movies are the least enjoyable
I disagree. I saw plenty of lavish Hollywood movies that were enjoyable. Perfect example: AI (despite its flaws, the movie was very enjoyable). And not all third-world country movies are gems (I've seen plenty of duds).

And lavishness in itself is not a hindrance to good movie making. Kurosawa and Kubrick can attest to that.
--
Proud supporter of Students for an Orwellian Society
[ Parent ]

On Dogme95 (none / 3) (#34)
by brain in a jar on Wed Aug 04, 2004 at 10:10:03 AM EST

I think some of the ideas in the Dogme95 rules are wrong headed. The aims seems to be to free cinema from the desire to make things pretty, from superficiality, from the triumph of image over substance. However the solutions they propose are too invasive.

I find handheld camerawork disturbing, camera shake constantly reminds us that the camera is present in the scene. It reminds us that what we are watching is not truth, but is instead a scene being acted out for our behalf. In short it destroys suspension of disbelief.

Also, the restrictions on the use of lighting are wrong headed. If the idea is to give the viewer the image they would have if they themselves were present then lighting is necessary. The eye and the camera react differently to different levels of light. The eye for example copes far better with large variations in light intensity within a scene than the camera does. Again a rule designed to bring out truth, distances the viewer from the scene by reminding them that they are watching a movie.

I agree that the there should be truth in a story, that it should arise naturally from the characters, their motivations and the situation in which they find themselves, but this straightjacket does more harm than good. The prescription fails to cure the illness.

Finally, I tried to watch "waking life" once. I found it unwatchable because of the way it was filmed/animated. The whole scene seems to shimmer and shift slightly thoughout the movie, which gave me a mild sensation of motion sickness, hurt my eyes somewhat, and distracted me totally from the plot.

Although Von Trier is perhaps trying to poke fun at the excessive use of technical meaures, the Dogme solution is itself a technical measure, and a flawed one at that. If we are going to have gimmick cinema, it should at least be easy on the eye. Otherwise he should get on with making character driven movies and not obsess over the use of tech or the lack of it.


"The ships hung in the air the way that bricks don't." Douglas Adams.

Good points (none / 1) (#35)
by Doctor Philopolous on Wed Aug 04, 2004 at 01:09:19 PM EST

...but even Von Trier got bored with the Dogme stuff and moved on, it seems, so I don't give that set of limitations too much weight. The underlying (and counterintuitive) point, that restrictions are a great help to the creative process, remains valid. I'd recommend at least a couple semi-arbitrary restrictions or obstructions to anyone undertaking something creative...they give you a framework to start thinking from.

[ Parent ]
on obstructions (& not liking Waking Life) (none / 2) (#37)
by edgarde on Fri Aug 06, 2004 at 01:03:00 PM EST

I think the Dogme95 Vow of Chastity is a great idea, especially since no one's all that dogmatic (i.e. straightjacketed) about it. It's another set of obstructions designed to challenge the director not to fall back on familiar techniques that make clichéd, ordinary movies. Where the obstructions work -- for me the Cuba and Bombay versions -- they have really wonderful side effects that (I imagine) would have been really hard to arrive at deliberately.

On the particulars, I don't object to hand-held cameras and low contrast images using available light. I find it easy to compensate for these reminders-that-it's-a-movie; in fact I never really notice them. And I do tend to notice how stagey artifical lighting makes everything look.

Just my humble opinion. Nothing I wanna fight over.

Lars von Trier won't steal Tarantino's audience any time soon, but I really like his stuff. And whatta racket: if this new film-making technique where Lars just sits on his butt thinking up obnoxious concepts and has masochists do all the work for him really takes off, we'll be able to have lots more von Trier movies.

Point of Information: the Animation Director was Bob Sabiston, who also did Waking Life, hence the resemblance. I suspect Jørgen Leth chose Sabiston's company (I can't remember the name) because of the good notices WL got.

I didn't enjoy Waking Life, and found the animated part of The Five Obstructions to be the least interesting. Generally I think cartoons (and comic art) become uninteresting when they strive for an audience beyond cartoon (& comic book) fans.

Here's hoping there'll be a DVD release with all 5 "Perfect Human" films as bonus viewing, and that Von Trier will be given a steady supply of cred-seeking Hollywood actors to torture.

[ Parent ]

Huh? (none / 0) (#38)
by ttsalo on Wed Aug 11, 2004 at 07:24:13 AM EST

I find handheld camerawork disturbing, camera shake constantly reminds us that the camera is present in the scene. It reminds us that what we are watching is not truth, but is instead a scene being acted out for our behalf. In short it destroys suspension of disbelief.

The handheld camera has been used throughout the ages to give a film a "documentary" and "truthful" look. How did you learn to interpret it in a completely contrary fashion, and why do you use plurals "us" and "we" when describing your thinking?

[ Parent ]

Something Interesting (none / 0) (#39)
by vidrohi on Sat Oct 16, 2004 at 12:29:17 PM EST

http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0001885/

It gives a complete filmography and biography of Lar von Trier. Doesn't look as if he's a megalomaniac schmuck.

Its just his way of approach towards film-making that seems impossible to many, hence they try to bake him in the furnace.

To be noted is his movie "Dimension" which takes a 3minute short during christmas each year for 33 yrs and will be out by, guess when, 2024!

Wow, I have something to extol just because nobody can review it.
As they say in parachuting circles: "The sky is not the limit, the ground is."

Review: The Five Obstructions | 39 comments (35 topical, 4 editorial, 0 hidden)
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