The Imperfect Experiment

Lars Von Trier tortures his mentor by forcing him to remake a classic under adverse conditions

In 1967, Danish filmmaker Jørgen Leth made the influential short, The Perfect Human. This 13-minute film couples faux-anthropological narrative with images of an average Dane eating, shaving, musing and falling down. It's widely considered a masterpiece and was tremendously influential on a generation of Danish filmmakers.

Chief among these is Lars Von Trier, co-founder of the Dogme 95 movement, director of Dancer in the Dark, Dogville and Breaking the Waves, and--if reports are to be believed--a total jerk.

Von Trier, in the latter role, decided that it would be fun to torture the aging Leth by having him remake Perfect Human five times under difficult conditions, some of which are aimed at aesthetic enhancement, many of which are aimed solely at making Leth's life miserable.

Thus, The Five Obstructions. In theory, this is a perfect expression of experimental art: A set of conditions are imposed in advance on the artistic product, and the artist strives to produce something that follows precisely these rules of creation. Unfortunately, a lot of Von Trier's rules--or "obstructions," as he calls them--are, well, just stupid. Still, others are brilliant, and in each case, Leth rises to the occasion and makes some amazing short films.

Since Perfect Human was 13 minutes long, all five films together, combined with Perfect Human, would have made an amazing 78-minute film. Unfortunately, only segments of each film are shown. Those bits alone, though, make Five Obstructions worth sitting through.

And you're going to have to sit through some awful crap to get to them. Most of this film is documentary footage of Leth talking to Von Trier or making his films. While Leth is a genius filmmaker, he's not much fun to look at. Imagine watching your depressed grandfather forced to struggle through an Indian slum. Unpleasant, but not exactly art.

Nonetheless, Leth does make some amazing art. The first remake is set in Cuba, and has Von Trier's best obstruction guiding it: No shot can last for more than 12 frames (about half a second). This makes for a weird, jerky, almost cartoon-like film that is unbelievably engaging. Sadly, we only get to see a few minutes of it, but they're great.

It also showcases the power of a good, rule-based art system. Von Trier is a big fan of this idea, of course, as his Dogme manifesto is essentially a set of limitations imposed on filmmakers to force them to be more creative. It's reminiscent of the experimentalism that was practiced by mid-20th-century musicians like Cage, Lucier and Reich, but, applied to film, it seems to produce an even stronger effect.

This is especially clear in the fourth obstruction, in which Leth has to remake his film as a cartoon. Leth and Von Trier start out by talking about how much they hate cartoons. They keep repeating this: "I hate cartoons"; "I hate cartoons, too"; "I hate them"; "Yes, I hate them." This really gave me the impression that these two guys hate cartoons.

But then Leth goes ahead with the cartoon, after making a phone call during which he states, surprisingly, that he hates cartoons. (Is not fond of them. Dislikes them with an intensity bordering on hatred.) And yet, with the help of a (hated) cartoonist, Randy Cole (Waking Life), he turns in an amazing, animated version of Perfect Human. Apparently, sometimes doing things you don't want to do makes you a better person.

Which is essentially what Von Trier is getting at with this film. He sees that Leth has been depressed for years and hopes to snap him out of it with his obstructions. In fact, what he wants is for Leth to make a bad film, because he thinks that's what Leth, a devout perfectionist, really needs. Or at least, that's what Von Trier claims: His real intention might be the more Freudian motive of torturing someone whom he sees as a great influence and father figure.

Or maybe Von Trier is really just a sadist, as so many of his critics and actresses have claimed. Unfortunately, sometimes his sadistic streak gets the better of his artistic streak, and he puts forward obstructions that have nothing to do with enhancing Leth's art, but are rather aimed at bedeviling Leth. Maybe Von Trier, upon seeing how well Leth did with this first film, decided not to aim his experiments at the film, but rather at Leth's life and particular inclinations. The final obstruction, for example, is that Leth is free to do whatever he wants, which seems to trouble Leth more than any of the other obstructions. In another case, he tells Leth that he must go someplace unpleasant to make his film. Neither of these really seem to enhance the final product, though in each case, Leth makes a great little film.

In fact, the final, rule-free Perfect Human is amazing, even if Leth pretty much just updates and remakes the original. Or at least I think he does: At no point is the entire original shown in sequence, nor are the complete versions of the remakes shown.

It would have been amazing to see all the Perfect Human versions complete and in a row. This is sort of what Hal Hartley accomplished with Flirt, but I think Perfect Human X 6 would have been an even better film. I hope it will be available in that form when the DVD is released, but until then, this is as close as it gets.

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