Thursday, November 12, 2009

"The Five Obstructions"

by Jason Pyles

In keeping with the spirit of this unusual documentary, I’ll place an obstruction on my review and limit myself to 500 words or fewer to hone my craft.

For those who are unfamiliar and therefore unprepared, “The Five Obstructions” documents a contest between two gifted filmmakers, Lars von Trier, and his mentor, Jorgen Leth.

The latter made a 13-minute, experimental film in 1967 called “The Perfect Human.” Von Trier apparently has always loved Leth’s film and has watched it numerous times. But von Trier wanted to challenge Leth to remake five variations of his movie, with each new attempt having some sort of handicapping stipulation(s) inhibiting the filmmaker. In fact, the obstructions often are multi-faceted.

I won’t list the obstructions here, because learning of the new requirements is part of the fun. I will say that many of them are technical with regard to filmmaking itself, but not all. Intriguingly, von Trier tries to delve uncomfortably deep into his mentor’s psyche, seemingly wanting to punish him but “for his own good.” (Why is this is not surprising coming from the maker of “Dogville,” “Dancer in the Dark” and “Antichrist”?)

It is a wonder that Leth agreed to entertain von Trier’s bizarre challenge, which takes a couple of years to play out, and involves location-scouting, casting, etc. But what is most endearing about “The Five Obstructions” is Leth’s sincere determination not only to hurdle over each obstruction, but also to make a film that excels in spite of it. Watching the seasoned filmmaker work out these cinematic puzzles is what makes this film worth watching.

Still, “The Five Obstructions” is the kind of art film — much like “The Perfect Human” — that leaves moviegoers with a distaste for art films, in general. Indeed, I suspect that only those viewers who are filmmakers or film art scholars, or both, would truly enjoy this documentary. I’d wager that most people I know would shut it off because of its “weirdness.” As for objectionable content, this unrated film would probably be rated R (though the original 1967 version of “The Perfect Human” would be approximately PG).

A note for those who plan to watch this on DVD: I have three exercises for you that I think will enhance your enjoyment and appreciation of the film:

1.) Before watching the documentary, go to the DVD’s “Extras” and watch the original version of “The Perfect Human.” It is interspersed throughout the feature film, but I personally wish I had seen it first in order to gain my bearings.

2.) Watch the documentary next.

3.) Watch the U.S. trailer and observe how a trailer can be effectively cut together to make a film seem like it has widespread marketing appeal. The Danish trailer wasn’t nearly as appealing to my American sensibilities.

By the way, my favorite new versions are the results of Obstruction 1 and Obstruction 4.

Word count total: 497

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