Lars von Trier's tendency to be a deliberately provocative pain in the ass prevents some from appreciating his playful wit. In print, the Danish filmmaker's political/aesthetic ultimatums come off as arrogant and presumptuous, but in person or on-camera, von Trier often wears a puckish grin, as if daring listeners to take him seriously.
Von Trier's playful side comes through in The Five Obstructions, a cinematic game in documentary form. Von Trier calls up Jørgen Leth—a one-time '60s avant-garde firebrand now residing on an estate in Haiti and making a good living as a cycling commentator for Danish TV—and invites him to remake his 1967 short "The Perfect Human." The original film is an amusingly removed behavior study, but von Trier prods him to drop the "amusingly removed" part. He orders Leth to remake "The Perfect Human" five times, each time following a set of rules that von Trier concocts pretty much at random. The first film has to be shot on location in Cuba, with no shot held for more than 12 frames; the second has to be shot in one of the most miserable places on Earth, but the misery must be kept offscreen; and so forth. Each new rule is punctuated with a big boom on the soundtrack and the edict popping up on screen: "12 Frames!"
Von Trier staggers footage from the original "Perfect Human" with extensive location footage and long excerpts from each of the remakes, which is unnecessarily confusing, given that he could have just lined up the original, the remakes, and the work surrounding them in a straight line. Maximum information in minimum space makes its own meaning. Then again, the films themselves aren't the point. Some are excellent—especially the 12-frame version and the version that, to save the surprise, is best referred to as "the Austin film"—but they take a back seat to the von Trier/Leth postmortems, where the young punk gets increasingly frustrated at how well his hero is handling the pressure. Von Trier worries that Leth is trying to make the films too good, and he grumbles repeatedly that he wants to force Leth to evolve "from the perfect to the human."
It's fascinating to peek at the natural camaraderie of two artists bickering over the need for creative limitations. Aside from being a partial rehabilitation of von Trier's reputation, The Five Obstructions provides a challenging study of how a filmmaker works around the conditions of the day, and his own nature, to record some kind of truth. The film is also valuable for raising awareness about Leth, whose work hasn't been as widely recognized as that of his European contemporaries, but who now makes an impressive case for his skills, five times over.