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Five times a wizard

Jorgen Leth relies on creativity to reinterpret his own film in 'The Five Obstructions.'

June 04, 2004|Mark Olsen | Special to The Times

In "The Five Obstructions," a film created by Jorgen Leth and Lars von Trier, the two filmmakers take part in a series of conversations about remaking Leth's 12-minute 1967 film "The Perfect Human." In a scheme that is part game, part torture, part therapy and part perversely art-damaged riff on "My Dinner With Andre," Von Trier gives Leth a series of instructions on reshooting the film five separate ways. Stemming from a dinner conversation and a casual e-mail exchange, this mutual project would take nearly three years to complete and stretch from Copenhagen to Bombay, Texas and Cuba.

The elegant, eloquent and ever-composed Leth, 66, makes a surprisingly perfect foil for the manic Von Trier. Since 1991, Leth has lived part time in Haiti, where he has made five films and was appointed honorary Danish consul. He is also a published poet, and for more than 20 years he has been a commentator on Danish television covering the Tour de France bicycle race every summer. Among his former students are such acclaimed filmmakers as Thomas Vinterberg and Lone Scherfig. Leth first met Von Trier in the mid-1970s, although their recollections are slightly different.

"I was at that time teaching at the Danish Film Institute, and he was a young schoolboy who had a job there in his free time," Leth said recently on the phone from New York City. "On his coffee breaks he was going to an editing table to watch Carl Dreyer's 'The Passion of Joan of Arc' and my film 'The Perfect Human' again and again, back and forth, many, many times. He wanted at some point to talk to me about my film, and I didn't have time for him.

"I think it's come back to haunt me. Of course, once he reminded me, I could vaguely remember this incident, but he remembers it very, very vividly and has told me this story several times. He never forgets such things."

It is perhaps unsurprising that Von Trier would attempt to exact revenge for a nearly 30-year-old slight by engaging his prey in a film. Von Trier's recent work, including "Dancer in the Dark" and "Dogville," often includes an element of gamesmanship. He is notorious for his cruel and demanding attitudes toward actors."I'm not naive," Leth says. "I knew that playing with Lars von Trier could be a very difficult game. I knew his reputation for being devious and mean, diabolic even. But I thought it might be fun. I was quite confident that I could be his match."

Among the more remarkable aspects of the project is how arrestingly beautiful Leth's filmed responses to Von Trier's increasingly difficult stipulations are. As it becomes apparent through the course of the film that Von Trier's real motive is to drive Leth to failure, perhaps even emotional breakdown, the elder director responds time and again with a wellspring of creative resourcefulness.

For example, on the first obstruction Von Trier directs that no edit be longer than 12 frames (half a second), which is anathema to Leth's usual style. After some initial hair pulling, Leth is soon seen relaxing in a pool chair declaring the rule a "paper tiger." His interpretation of the editing command creates a fluid and sinewy syncopation, rather than the choppy and disjointed mess one might expect.

As Leth explains, "I did at times feel angry or threatened and I felt he wanted to sabotage me so totally that I could not finish the work. Every time he imposed an impossible obstruction, I had to solve it in an artistically satisfying way. Not cheating, but I believed the more difficult the conditions, the more interesting the result could be, and the more creative energy could be liberated."

A turning point comes when Von Trier, visibly upset at being unable to stump his collaborator, accuses Leth of interpreting his instructions too broadly and attempts to force a return to Bombay for another try. Leth refuses, and so Von Trier declares he must make a cartoon, a form that both men despise.

After Danish animators declared the budget too small and time frame too tight, Leth (with the assistance of his son and the Internet) turns to Bob Sabiston, the Austin, Texas-based computer animator behind Richard Linklater's "Waking Life." Again, Leth turns creative hindrance into artful inspiration, further infuriating Von Trier.

Heading into the fifth and final obstruction, Leth is clearly winning their creative battle of wills. With one last trick up his sleeve, Von Trier has Leth read a prepared text, a letter written as if from one to the other that begins, "Dear stupid Lars." Surprisingly touching, reflective and tender, Von Trier at last catches Leth off his guard and renders the overall outcome, perhaps, a draw.

Having fought with Von Trier during the process of recording the letter, Leth was later finally forced to admit that Von Trier had, at least this once, bested him.

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