Every artistic endeavor begins with a concept. Any work of art that achieves the highest level of success does so because the final outcome realizes and even surpasses the original concept. For every masterpiece by Henri Cartier-Bresson, there are thousands of photographers who develop an idea with infinite potential, yet never produce that brilliance in their final product. Ultimately this is what separates the artists we know and revere from those whose works exist only in their own minds.
At first glance, Lars Von Trier and Jørgen Leth's "documentary" The Five Obstructions might seem heavy on concept, light on artistic substance. The two filmmakers come together for an exercise, which begins as a series of challenges by one filmmaker to another. In the end, we are left with a fascinating, sometimes diabolical how-to guide, best suited to any fledgling artist who has faced the wide and varied bumps in the creative process.
Von Trier (Breaking the Waves, Dogville) recognizes the staggering gift for filmmaking his idol, Leth, possesses. You don't need to look much further than the visual sophistication of Leth's 1967 short film, The Perfect Human, the catalyst on which the principle of this film is built.
Perhaps as a way of forcing the perfect filmmaker into the unenviable position of making an imperfect film, Von Trier imposes a series of arbitrary, often bizarre constraints on Leth as Leth remakes his masterful short film five times over. In what can only be described as a dismal failure for Von Trier, the resulting new versions of the film not only equal but in some cases far exceed the elegant richness and beautiful thematic of the original version.
While Leth is often perplexed and disturbed by the rules Von Trier imposes, at no point do we get the sense that he is without the resources to solve the problems. This is where both the success and the failure of this film lie. The success of Leth's films spells doom for Von Trier. His experiment does not work. For every impossible and offensive challenge, Leth has a solution. He understands his art far better than his younger colleague and outsmarts him every step of the way.
In the end, Von Trier's concept for The Five Obstructions is but a memory shortly after the lights go up in the theater. What linger for the viewer are Leth's gorgeous films. Final product triumphs over concept, every time.
The Five Obstructions screens Saturday, December 11, in the Dryden Theatre, in the George Eastman House, 900 East Avenue, at 8 p.m. 271-4090.
--- Christopher Nakis and Katie Papas