Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Five Obstructions

Danish director Lars von Trier reminds me of my Finnish friend Matti, with his trickster sense of humor and sharp eye for hypocrisy and other stupid human tricks. They’re both allergic to clubfooted sincerity, preferring to express their love and concern in the form of teasing insults. And they both revel in a challenge, the thornier the better, like the time Matti took apart a lopsided old barn on the property he’d just bought, nail by nail, poured the missing foundation, and then rebuilt the whole thing from scratch. From the outside the barn looked just like it had when it was first built, but the inside was full of quirky improvements -- including a sauna and a man cave.

Like that renovation, The Five Obstructions is a creative act with a healthy dose of bemused self-awareness, but von Trier goes even more meta than Matti. Not only does he use someone else as a proxy for himself, but his goal is not just to rework an original creation: He wants to remake the maker, another Danish director he admires and identifies with.

Von Trier’s detractors often accuse him of toying sadistically with his actors and audiences, but his exchange with Jørgen Leth, the mentor he puts through his paces here, is more like an impassioned S&M session between two consenting adults who keep changing roles. Leth uses a ping-pong analogy to describe their back and forth, saying von Trier serves the ball hard and “we return hard, hard as nails.”

Von Trier tasks Leth with making five new versions of Leth’s The Perfect Human, “a little gem that we are now going to ruin,” as he puts it. Each time, Leth must make the film in accordance with a new set of rules that von Trier creates seemingly on the spot, in chats we see conducted over Scotch and caviar – things like shooting only 12 frames at a time or making the entire film as a cartoon. Von Trier’s goal is to get Leth to “expose himself” by shedding the artistic perspective the younger director thinks they both use to distance and protect themselves from the real world. He wants to push Leth so far outside his comfort zone that he loses his ability to control the situation and create a work of art. Or so he says.

In The Five Obstructions, a documentary co-written and directed by the two men, the camera often comes in uncomfortably close from an off-kilter angle while the two talk about the challenges von Trier has cooked up or discuss Leth’s responses. We get intriguing snippets of Leth at work, scouting locations or working with actors, crew members, and others to realize his vision. And we see excerpts from the deadpan black-and-white original and from each of the remakes, which stick to the same script but look and feel completely new.

It’s fascinating to see these variations, each of which feels at least as powerful as the original. (“The trouble is that you’re so clever that whatever I say inspires you,” von Trier laments), and it’s fun to hear the two old pros talk about the creative process in a kind of verbal shorthand. It’s also interesting to see how different Leth’s story feels in different contexts.

At one point, von Trier commands Leth to film in the most miserable place he knows, and he chooses a street in the brothel district of Bombay, where he sets up in front of a transparent plastic scrim. Part of the action involves eating an elegant meal while extolling the “subtlety” of the flavors and the esthetic appeal of the presentation. That read a little differently in the original – in which the actor was silhouetted against a featureless background – than it does when Leth does it in front of a crowd of impoverished people who peer through the plastic as he feasts.

The final variation was written by von Trier and read by Leth in voiceover. After talking about the “provocative, perverse perfection” both directors hide behind and the depression and insecurity they share, von Trier addresses himself through his doppelganger. It was really himself his exercise wound up exposing, he writes, not Leth, who sidestepped his obstructions and refused to pathologize himself or his art, as von Trier insists on doing.

Is The Five Obstructions a soul-baring self-portrait of an artist? Or is that just one of the boxes-within-boxes in a film about filmmaking that’s essentially a valentine to the creative process? I can't say for sure, and I’m not sure I care. Either way, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Written for TimeOFF

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