The different sets of restrictions imposed on Jørgen Leth by Lars von Trier in The Five Obstructions (Leth & von Trier, 2003) link to some of the ideas about montage and long take which I’ve explored before. Leth’s style is not exactly traditional long-take, but he definitely sits closer to that end of the long-take/montage continuum, so it was interesting to see how he handled von Trier’s first restriction that no shot should last longer than 12 frames. Initially Leth was horrified at this prospect, but he made it work for him by being inventive with his cutting.
Leth dealt with the restriction by using it to create jump cuts in continuous footage, exaggerating the techniques of repetition and layering which he used in his original version of The Perfect Human (Leth, 1967). By playing with the restriction in this way, Leth stayed true to his aesthetic ideal, whilst creating something new.
But how should this obstruction be classified on the cinematic continuum? By jump cutting within the same shot, Leth is not following the tradition theory of intellectual montage which requires two or more disparate audio-visual cues, the juxtaposition of which creates a new meaning. Instead it seems to sit closer to André Bazin’s concept of imaginary documentary and his belief that true cinema occupies a space between reality and imagination (Bazin, 1968). By cutting up a continuous take Leth is highlighting its construction, while the lack of juxtaposing images between these brief cuts keeps it grounded in reality.
Leth could also be seen as a proponent of camera movement combined with expressive editing of which Orson Welles is considered an exemplar (Menard, 2003). His original version of The Perfect Human uses zooms to re-frame shots, giving the audience time to absorb what is presented to them before an inter-scene cut. If the intra-scene jump cutting used in obstruction 1 is ignored, it follows broadly the same pattern of longer takes with zoom re-framing and expressive editing (especially in the shots of the man and the woman).
I found it interesting that Leth admits to a detached style of filmmaking, especially when making documentaries, because long take (whether pure or combined with expressive editing) does seem to breed empathy in an audience, rather than embodiment. It puts the audience in the same frame of mind as Leth himself, “waiting and observing (Leth & von Trier, 2003)”.
However, Leth’s experience making the first two obstructions seems to have made more willing to experiment with juxtaposition. In his third revision of The Perfect Human he uses split screens extensively to juxtapose two scenes side by side. He also begins to use mirrors to create a similar effect. Yet there is still a detachment to this montage, it’s still too oblique to be fully immersive. Instead we’re actively questioning what these two scenes are and how they relate to each other. We’re still waiting and observing, aware of the direction.
Von Trier seems to be more keen to create an immersive, subjective experience through montage. But he does it on a broader scale. Von Trier doesn’t focus on cuts within or between single scenes, rather he edits the documentary footage of Leth so that sequences of events are juxtaposed to inspire pathos. One that stands out to is the sequence in which Leth makes the second obstruction in Bombay; the local woman begging for money as Leth drives to the location seem to have been included in the film by von Trier to hammer home the poverty and starvation of the people amongst whom Leth must sit and eat a prodigious amount of food for the sake of the film.
Von Trier’s montage isn’t the shot to shot cutting espoused by the Soviet Montagists. Yet it works on an emotional level, as opposed to the more remote, intellectual work of Leth. I wonder if this is why I found the fifth and final obstruction so powerful, because after the detached observation of Leth’s work, the more subjective style of von Trier is magnified in comparison. A juxtaposition on an even larger scale? Is the mix of detachment and immersion as vital to film as the Bazinian blend of reality and fiction?
Bazin, A., (1968), What is Cinema: Volume 1, Oakland: University of California Press
Leth, J., (1967), The Perfect Human, Laterna Film
Leth, J. & von Trier, L., (2003), The Five Obstructions, Almaz Film Productions S.A.
Menard, D., (2003) Toward a synthesis of cinema – a theory of the long take moving camera, Montreal: Hors Champ, Available from: http://www.horschamp.qc.ca/new_offscreen/synthesis_theory.html [Accessed on 5 May 2016]