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The Five Obstructions

As part of my January regime of staying in reading books, drinking tea, writing stuff and watching DVDs, I rented Lars von Trier’s latest movie “The Five Obstructions” from the video store.

I love LvT’s films. They’re so perverse, so irritating in the way that provokes pearls. And this one, like many, runs like a little wind-up mechanism, a set of rules that von Trier sets a-running at the beginning of the movie and sits watching, gleefully, as it purs its way to the end. In this instance, he set the venerable Danish film director Jorgen Leth the task of remaking his classic 1967 black-and-white movie “The Perfect Human” five times, each time with a different set of handicaps. The original “Perfect Human” is a hyper-stylised minimalist film lovingly recording the movements and banal details of 2 immaculate looking people against a pure white background. Van Trier clearly loved the movie as a teenager and clearly idolises Leth — but the increasingly lacerating conditions he imposes on Leth effectively dismantles the latter’s cool, disengaged style.

As with most of von Trier’s movies, it teeters on the brink of wanky pretence, but as with all of them he manages to conjure up something difficult but wonderful. There is a version of the film where Leth has to re-enact his hyper-cool movie in the midst of the squalor of Bombay’s red light district. You’d think this would be rather obscene – showing up the trivial nature of art-house films and scandalizing the poor Indians. In fact it does neither directly. Instead there’s a rather subtle play between Leth’s stoic embarassment and the Bombay prostitutes’ unjudging bemusement. Those sort of moral half shades are rarely if ever foregrounded in movies.

In the end von Trier pays tribute to his beloved Leth by forcing him to be the subject of the film, and thereby become the “Perfect Human” – but by this stage, 5 mutations in, he’s far from the cool, detached, hip Human of 1967. Instead he’s a stoic, exasperated, lost, depressed, charmed, vulnerable, heroic Human who von Trier has turned inside-out for the camera. His constant desire to make Leth’s beautiful film more “crap” is telling. He says the greatest gift an actor can give him is when he fucks up. it reminds me of my insight after listening to Leonard Cohen: there’s a crack in everything/ thats how the light gets in.

There’s an interesting exchange between the two directors when they’re discussing the horror they have of cartoons. Cartoons are the opposite of film because for them film is setting up a frame and allowing the random and uncontrollable to happen inside it. Cartoons have no space for the random or un-planned because every frame is pre-drawn. Von Trier’s film becomes a dizzying example of this freedom for things to happen within a certain frame work…

Just sitting with the iris open, the frame steady and looking at whatever comes past the lens, crap, cracked or crazy, whatever – the frame makes it perfect. That’s the little wonder of art. It doesn’t save prostitutes in Bombay – but in focusing our eye for just a moment, it allows us to see beauty in cracked things. Or perfect humans in manifestly imperfect ones.

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