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The Beauty of Obstructions

Lou Kaloger

Kaloger copy In 1967, Danish filmmaker Jørgen Leth wrote and directed a 12-minute experimental art film. The name of the film was The Perfect Human. Like a lot of experimental art films from the 1960s, The Perfect Human was quirky collection of black-and-white images accompanied by a minimalistic soundtrack and a odd voiceover. The voiceover said:  

Here is the human. Here is the perfect human. This is what an ear looks like. This is what a eye looks like. This is the perfect human shaving. This is the perfect human putting on a bow tie. This is the perfect human eating. This is the perfect human dancing.

Okay, it was no Crime and Punishment.

In 2003, director Lars von Trier collaborated with Leth on a film he titled The Five Obstructions. As the film opens, von Trier announces to Leth that he wants him remake his 12-minute movie with specific "obstructions" that von Trier will supply. Leth agrees. For one version, von Trier tells Leth to make the movie in Cuba but to allow no shot to last for more than a half a second. Leth argues that the film will look "awful and disjointed." Von Trier insists and the film is made. For another version, von Trier insists that the film be made in the streets of India with Leth playing the role of the lead character. Leth protests, explaining that he doesn't want to serve as both actor and director. Again, von Trier insists and the film is made. For yet another version of the film, von Trier tells Leth to remake the movie as an animated film. Leth confesses that he hates animated films. Von Trier insists and Leth makes his cartoon.

Interestingly, in the next scenario, von Trier tells Leth to do whatever he wishes. Leth jumps at the chance. He picks an exotic location in Brussels and shoots his film in a widescreen format. It is fancy and expensive and full of clever split-screen effects. The net result is a cross between a James Bond movie and a luxury car commercial.

So here are four films: Three with limitations and one without.

Guess which was the weakest of the four?

For some reason, von Trier's obstructions and limitations birthed something in Leth's art that was not there when Leth was left to choose as he chose. I'm not sure I want to say this, but I think the same may be true in life. God speaks, and what he says is rarely to my liking. He calls me to a certain constraint; he calls me to a certain love. Given free reign, I'm sure I would choose differently. But hey, that's the price one pays for art!