Movies at the Mudd: “The Five Obstructions

Corey Lehnert

In 1967 Danish filmmaker Jorgen Leth directed the film “The Perfect Human,” a 12-minute short on the peculiarity of man in all his normality, as examined by a detached observer. The film, though consisting only of a man, woman, and this impartial witness, is fascinating for all of its philosophical contemplations. It also exudes an inescapable coolness, what with its postmodern aesthetic and the mod-ish beauty of its actors.
“The Perfect Human,” in fact, is so fascinating and so cool to Lars von Trier, the Danish director of such films as “Dogville” and “Dancer in the Dark,” that he believes it to be the perfect film and Leth the perfect director. But if von Trier’s films suggest anything about his cinematic ideology, it is that perfection, if it exists at all, is fleeting.
From this comes the basis for a scheme by von Trier to destroy the perfection of “the Perfect Human,” as chronicled in the documentary “The Five Obstructions,” co-directed by von Trier and Leth, by challenging Leth to remake the film five times, each time with a new obstruction to its composition.
In presenting Leth with this challenge, von Trier aims to break down Leth’s calm, almost alien detachment that is at the heart of his style, causing him to create a film that is, as von Trier says, pure garbage. Thus, we watch numerous scenes of von Trier discussing film with Leth, studying him ceaselessly to catch a glimpse of any exploitable insecurities.
Those insecurities that von Trier does turn into obstructions largely seem ridiculously impossible or inhumane to convey on film. The first series of obstructions von Trier mandates, for instance, requires that the final cut of the film contain no take longer than 12 frames. In another obstruction, von Trier suggests that Leth travel to a poverty-stricken portion of the world and film a starving child as the “perfect human.”
Regardless of the perversions von Trier thinks up, however, Leth seems to persevere every time, creating films that are not only true to their origin, but also remarkably innovative and entertaining. Indeed, von Trier might grudgingly say that they are perfect.
Being a collaboration between the two directors, “The Five Obstructions” does an adequate job of showcasing their immediate interactions, but otherwise falls into a sparse and repetitive style that leaves one wanting. We are treated to a few moments of Leth planning and composing any particular version of the film, but otherwise we are disappointingly left in the dark as to the director’s personality and technique.
With this in mind, it is my suspicion that “The Five Obstructions” is simply a vehicle to carry Leth’s new shorts to a wider audience, acting both as a testament and tribute to his style and virtuosity. Granted, Leth’s cinematic responses to von Trier’s propositions certainly are the main reason to see the film.
Just as the original “Perfect Human” poses as an encyclopedia entry on the fundamentals of being human, the new shorts appear as elaborations on this humanity, examining the actions of man, character and director, when placed in a diversity of situations.