I wrote two long posts here in the past few hours. They were about something that has been happening to me recently, which is that I find myself limited in my paths through my neighborhood by various social forces—an ex’s children, whom I miss terribly and who hate me because they think I abandoned them, and a serial harasser—and that it is stupid to find myself moved in bizarre paths by my very different anxieties regarding these two entities.

These two posts I wrote were clever. One was clever by being funny and gimmicky. The second was clever by positing a theory about moving through urban spaces and memory and all that. While I was writing each of these posts, I was also, because I love multi-procrastinating, watching The Five Obstructions, which I think might be responsible for my having deleted both of these posts.

I knew going in what the idea was, as you might even without having seen it. It was sort of a “thing.” Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier has somehow gotten his own favorite filmmaker Jørgen Leth to agree to remake his 1967 short film The Perfect Human according to five sets of rules, to be determined at whim by von Trier in the process of their conversations. The idea seems to be a sort of murder-your-darlings fantasy on von Trier’s part—the darling itself belonging both to Leth, who made it, and von Trier, who idolized it.

I won’t get into the particular obstructions here, but they range from the technical (no single edit may be longer than 12 frames) to the subjective (it must be filmed in the “worst place in the world”). Each time, Leth is terrified by the “diabolical” restrictions put on his style, and each time, he nevertheless ends up creating a little masterpiece, each with the same cool, clean aesthetic of his original film. He proves again and again that the artist is simply himself, and cannot be another. Von Trier gets frustrated and says that he wants to see Leth like a tortoise on his back, flailing, and that the next one should be crap. It’s OK to make crap. And it’s never crap. Leth cannot let himself make crap.

In the end, von Trier seems to admit that the experiment failed. The aesthetic obstructions don’t upend the artist. They inspire him. In trying to offer him impossible tasks, von Trier is merely giving him material. This is something that should not be new to anyone who writes, of course.

The more interesting aspect of the film, to me, was the therapeutic relationship that develops between Leth and von Trier. Leth resents, then flouts, then craves, then avidly applies himself to the obstructions, seeing the freedom in submitting to the will of a lesser filmmaker. Von Trier sees his own vanity and belligerence reflected back at him in the films, and seems hardly able to appreciate their accomplishment. Each thinks so intensely about their own desires of the other that they can’t actually see what the other is doing until the end.

It made me wonder if I have not been obstructed enough recently—commanded to do, but commanded not to do. It’s a tantalizing scenario, and one that is highly productive. I am tired of my own wiles.

6 responses to “Obstruction”

  1. Whoa — and this is available on Netflix streaming, too. What a find, thanks! “I am tired of my own wiles” is clever.

  2. Were you familiar with “The Perfect Human” before you watched this?

  3. jeremy says:

    I loved The Five Obstructions for many of the reasons you cite here… not to mention the fact that, for me, it’s probably the most likable and accessible of von Trier’s films (even if von Trier himself isn’t exactly likable in it). Since Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark, I’ve always wanted to like his movies, but he makes it so very difficult. Has anyone seen his latest, Antichrist?

    Also, obstructions might make for good art, for good blog fodder too (not that that’s not encompassed by “art”), but how about in real life? Do you find these obstructions to your daily routine inspiring, productive?

  4. A White Bear says:

    TMK, no, I didn’t know “The Perfect Human.” It’s very late-60’s, and reminds me of some of the poetry I wrote in college when I was reading a lot of late 60’s poets–cool, abstract, clean. I quite liked what Leth did with it in T5O.

    Jeremy, I have issues with LvT, too. On one hand, Dogville is a great movie. On the other, I really wish I hadn’t seen it. It made me feel terrible. I don’t think you could pay me to sit through Antichrist. I’ll give him credit for deeply understanding filmmaking and psychology, but at a certain point, I realized that I have enough trouble believing in the goodness of humanity enough to leave my apartment and talk to people. And a whole movie about violent sexual guilt? It’s not something I need in my life.

    It probably will say far too much about me that I find obstruction a really tantalizing aspect of my relationships with people. I have those friends to whom I can say anything. But almost all of my sexual relationships have created the sense that there are some things that can’t be addressed, or certain things we can’t do, and the relationship flourishes as long as it can grow around the trellis of those obstructions. In the long run, it turns out this isn’t a very healthy way to form relationships, and the idea of responding to constantly shifting obstructions is becoming far less attractive in my adulthood. Without obstruction, though, where is the challenge? What am I being asked to do?

  5. I watched TPH this evening — I liked it for its Tralfamadorian properties but it seemed like its rhythm was sometimes off, a little jerky where it should have been smooth. I’m going to watch the film later on, really interested to see what he does with being 30 years older… The director’s voice in TPH (not sure the narrator’s voice in that was the director’s — speaking more of the way he comes across through the movie) already seems sort of ageless. I haven’t got a clue what to expect from von Trier, though. Are you thinking of late 60’s poets like the New York school? I’m not sure how well I know any poets from that time beyond Ferlinghetti, Koch, and then a general sense of the Beats as a school and the New York poets as a school…

  6. Have to break off in the middle of watching to note: Oh my God what a great film! The scenes with them talking about the movies Leth is making are making me think I should revisit The Seventh Seal, that maybe I could “get it” this time with the aid of the things this movie is showing me. And the movies themselves!