Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash: Pick Two (aghrivaine) wrote,
Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash: Pick Two

The Five Obstructions

The Perfect Human.

This is the perfect human. You are looking at the perfect human. Look at him. Look at him now. Look at how he dances. Look at him. Why is he moving like that?

In 1967, Jorgan Leth made a strange little film, a sort of faux anthropological study of the perfect human. The film watches the man as he does random things, like dance, walk, fall down, blink, eat. Leth does the voice over, and the result is a surreal but oddly pleasing 13 minute piece that is highly regarded by many film critics for its technical perfection. Leth's camera has amazing discipline, framing and zeroing in on exactly that which he chooses to reveal, and omitting anything extranneous.

Almost 40 years later, Leth's protege, Lars Von Trier, challenged Leth, the man he admired more than anyone else, to a very peculiar sort of duel. Von Trier would challenge Leth to remake "The Perfect Human" (which Von Trier had publically pronounced "the perfect film" years before) with certain restrictions intended to frustrate Leth. The result was a movie called "The Five Obstructions".

At first, the discussion between the two film-makers (shot as a documentary) as they dream up the obstructions together is warm but funny. Von Trier has a sadistic cunning at challenging Leth, and takes the older man's weaknesses, well known to him, to heart when challenging him. For instance, the first remake can't have any shot longer than 12 frames, and because Leth likes cigars, he has to film it in Cuba, a place he's never been before. As Leth worries on screen about how on earth he'll make a movie that's not spastic at 12 frames per shot, I sat and worried the same thing. How could such a film be enjoyable to watch?

Leth ably proves his mastery - the resulting short film is beautiful, sensual, intimate, and deeply rythmic. It was beguiling to watch. Von Trier seemed genuinely shocked when they watched it together that his hero and old teacher had turned the obstruction into a gift. In each successive attempt to foil Leth, he reaches deeper and deeper into his knowledge of Leth's psyche (not to mention a bag of dirty tricks) to make his projects impossible. One must be filmed in "the worst place on earth", which Leth decides is the red light district of Bombay, and must star Leth himself. As he drives through Bombay, Leth is accosted by a painfully thin young mother, begging for money. The scene is excruciatingly awkward, because he has nothing for her - and he comments to the camera, "This is just the thing Lars wants to see."

As each successive short film is invented, filmed, and then brought back in triumph to Von Trier, we see not only the astonishing breadth of Leth's masterful talent, but also the strength and sincerity of their friendship. Through their conversations with each other, we learn that Leth has sunk into a years-long depression, retreating from the world in retirement to Port-au-Prince. Von Trier has challenged him, not just to put proof to the manifestos of film-making that the two men have both written, but also to rescue his old friend and master from his own depression. Cajoling or comforting him would never work, but challenging his pride and talent would, and does.

The final obstruction is that Leth must read what Von Trier has written, and in no other way interact with the film, though he will be credited as director. It's a beautiful piece, a heartfelt letter written by Von Trier for Leth to read to him, accompanied by images which pay honor and tribute to the impossible obstacles that Leth has overcome not just with ease, but with consummate artistic poise. The documentary of the making of a series of movies about "The Perfect Human" has become a record of a perfect friendship. It is suffused with a sort of perverse empathy, that transcends simple sympathy and elevates the two men as not just colleagues in filmmaking, but wholly human. It is a documentary about humanity, perfect humanity.

You are looking at the perfect human. Look at him! Look at him now!

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