I finally got around to watching The Five Obstructions the other evening. And among other things it helped me re-realize that one of my favorite directors, Lars von Trier is an insufferable prick.
In this doccumentary von Trier challenges his cinema hero and mentor Jorgen Leth to remake his own short film, The Perfect Human five times with different "obstructions" set up by von Trier himself. These obstructions include no cut being more than 12 frames (1/2 second), shot in cuba, shot as a cartoon, answering the questions posed in the original, shot in the most miserable place on earth, and complete freedom. It's difficult to really explain, but what you wind up seeing is von Trier and Leth in a battle of wills and in a complete mental chess match.
Seemingly Lars von Trier's objective througout the movie is to humiliate Leth, or at the least have him give in entirely and proclaim von Trier the winner in this battle. And at times it seems that might happen, we see Leth losing sleep over the first obstruction, before having a breakthrough and telling von Trier that the 12 frames were a "gift." Similarly you see him make the most out of the cartoon obstruction and the remake in Bombay is just fantastic stuff. Yet at times, you see von Trier visably frustrated and saying that Leth has made a great film, but not what he wanted and that he will need to punish him. Redo it again.
The documentary is fascinating, and not in the least part because of von Trier and Leth going at eachother. But you get to see film being made. You get to see the creative process, even if through a series of ridiculous dares and double dares, tested to it's limits and still out of that again, great film is made.
On the DVD one of the extras is the original version of The Perfect Human at only 18 minutes long it is highly entertaining and to watch it before the actual main presentation gives even more insight into the film and the creative processes. So, I highly reccomend that.
At one point in the film von Trier admits, "I am not an expert at many things. But Jorgen Leth is one of those things about which I know more than anyone else. I know more about Jorgen than he does. I am doing him a favor here." In an interview shortly after the films release Leth was asked what film he would put through the same obstructions that von Trier put his through. Leth simply stated he wouldn't choose to do that to any film because it wasn't right. The last obstruction leaves the viewer to contemplate whether von Trier did do Leth a favor, and leaves one to wonder who came out on top, if either in this little game. Both are left standing and we have a great and compelling film come out of it, but I can't help but wonder, for what reason?