The Five Obstructions

Everybody who knows a little bit about Danish director Lars von Trier knows that he is, to put it kindly, a little different. Some say he is difficult to work with, yet his output is so fascinating that people are willing to put with this. He has never been to the United States (reportedly because he is afraid of flying) yet has made films many consider distinctly "American," like Dancer in the Dark and Dogville. Most importantly, he was part of the group that created the Dogme style of filmmaking, a fascinating way of filmmaking whose influence has crept into some films on the edge of mainstream. The Five Obstructions is his homage to Jorgen Leth (Dreamers, I Am Alive), a director that von Trier looks up to. In 1967, Leth directed a short called The Perfect Human. It's pretty arty and pretentious, but well respected. Von Trier challenged Leth to remake it, each time with a set of rules. He wanted Leth to improve his film, and made a series of 'obstructions' Leth needed to overcome in order to produce a better film.

The two are clearly friends, but von Trier is a sadist. His first obstruction is actually five, the most difficult being that Leth could use no more than 12 frames of film per shot. It feels like von Trier is looking for a way to break Leth, giving him rules that are seemingly impossible to overcome. They laugh at the rules, the Leth goes away baffled at how to solve them. The great thing is, every time von Trier comes up with an insurmountable obstruction, Leth comes back and makes a great film. This elates Leth, and frustrates von Trier enough to come up with another set of rules (amusingly, some of the obstructions actually consist of multiple rules). Since Leth has never been to Cuba, von Trier orders him to make his first film there. They both hate cartoons, so Leth has to make one. It's a fascinating test of wills that, because of the friendship never becomes acrimonious, yet remains heated. Leth takes every rule that von Trier creates and instead of viewing it as a hindrance, Leth turns it into an advantage.

The Five Obstructions shows extended clips from each of the five films (the original was 12 minutes long), and it still remains much too arty for the public. In fact, the original is pretty much the epitome of pretentious art house fare, with a voice over asking "what is the perfect human" as a man in a tuxedo jumps, falls, and eats. This film is perfect for fans of cinema or aspiring filmmakers, who have an in-depth look at how a director approaches his subject and makes a film with serious hindrances. Leth shot his films over a period of a few years. It is extremely fascinating, and highly entertaining watching how Leth manages to foil von Trier every time. Even von Trier is amused at how Leth continuously succeeds. It's a friendly contest of wills, based not on ill will but on a desire to make a good film better. The last obstruction is surprisingly emotional, almost warm and fuzzy. The rule here is that Leth read from a script that von Trier wrote. It is an intensely personal side of von Trier not usually seen in film, and when combined with the rest of the documentary, cements that fact that while one may not necessarily like his films, Lars von Trier is a gifted filmmaker and makes interesting ones.

Mongoose Rates It: Pretty Good.
1 hour, 30 minutes, Danish and English with English subtitles, Not Rated but contains some language and nudity, an R.

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