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20110919-learning-to-be-the-perfect-human-by-jeffrey-overstreetDeadlines? Don’t get me started.

The past few years, I’ve tested my friends’ patience by complaining about deadlines for essays, novels, interviews, marketing assignments, and film reviews. Sometimes I tell myself that I’d become a decent writer if only I’d break free from deadlines.

But the fact is that I designed this cage. And if my jailers unlocked the door, I’d stay inside.

I need deadlines. I’m easily distracted from the slow, steep climb of concentrated work by the alluring promises of easy pleasures and flashy trivialities. Sometimes I need a threat. I need to be afraid that I’ll disappoint people I respect, or I’ll never get work done.

How humiliating.

Like now, for instance. I have a deadline (today) and a word limit (1,000 words). Within those constraints, I must accomplish the impossible: Compose an inspiring blog entry about a memorable movie.

My editor is waiting.

So let me tell you about The Five Obstructions, a movie that’s about the “curse” of limitations.

We watched The Five Obstructions, a documentary by Lars Von Trier, on the second day of the 2011 Glen Workshop Film Seminar. (I wrote about Day One, Film One in my last post: “A Room Full of Lion Tamers.”)

A celebrated Danish filmmaker, Von Trier has inspired comparisons to his famous countryman, Carl Theodor Dreyer. But discussions of his influences and aesthetic have been eclipsed by debates about his reputation as a provocateur.

Von Trier tells stories about characters in crises so excruciating that audiences are pushed to the limits of what they can bear to watch, not to mention limits of what they feel is appropriate to observe. Is he a sadist? A genius? Both?

In The Five Obstructions, Von Trier, his tongue fixed firmly in his cheek, is a diabolical manipulator, assigning another Danish filmmaker—Jørgen Leth—to accept a series of challenges.

Von Trier admires Leth and reveres his thirteen-minute art film called “The Perfect Human.” But he’s concerned. Leth seems to have fallen into a creative slump. So, to rejuvenate his hero, Von Trier challenges Leth to remake “The Perfect Human”… several times. Each time, he’ll impose harsh limitations (or “obstructions”) to complicate the work.

Leth, a man with an ego as big as his impressive cranium, cannot refuse.

“The Perfect Human” is already distinct because of Leth’s self-imposed limitations. In it, solitary human figures perform mundane tasks and ponder philosophical questions against a blank backdrop. Leth zooms in on particular details, asking what “perfection” looks like. Is perfection about physical traits? Behavior? The way a man dances? The way a woman dresses?

The new obstructions? Leth must work in a foreign environment—Cuba. Worse, no shot in his movie can be more than 12 frames (a half-second) long.

Leth is visibly upset by Von Trier’s demand for a “spastic” and “insane” movie.

But then something amazing happens.

As Leth gets comfortable in Cuba, directing actors to recreate “The Perfect Human,” he strikes a spark. Creativity ignites and spreads. The project blazes to life.

Leth returns to Von Trier in triumph. His movie is excellent—maybe even better than the original.

Is “The Perfect Human” one who is free from boundaries and responsibility? Or does he submit to certain boundaries and work toward revelation?

Von Trier responds with harsher restrictions, requiring Leth to be both director and actor in the next remake.

Worse, he poses a test to Leth’s ethics. He makes him film sophisticated, sensual scenes—including the scene of man in a tuxedo eating a gourmet dinner—against a backdrop of human suffering.

Many are offended by what follows. Leth, dressed to the nines, slowly savors an extravagant meal at a table set in the middle of Bombay’s red light district, surrounded by the poor, the starving, the sick, the desperate.

It’s an abomination. An act of cruelty and insensitivity. Right? Von Trier has committed a crime against humanity, and Leth is his accomplice.

And yet…and yet.

The image of “the perfect human” reveling in the midst of poverty is a revelation. We’re blessed with an unforgettable picture, our own cultural ideal exposed as a monster when seen in the context of the world’s need.

Von Trier is rejuvenating his mentor’s imagination. He’s also reminding him that art can “catch the conscience” of the audience and the artist. He explains, “There is a degree of perversion in maintaining a distance. I want you to move on from there, to make you empathize.”

While Leth’s previous films have made him seem like an aloof intellectual, now he’s involved and suffering for his art, his conscience troubled by the fierce gazes around him. Soon, he confesses that he’s suffering from nightmares.

Is “The Perfect Human” one who enjoys expensive extravagance without flinching? Or is “The Perfect Human” one who is pained by conscience?

Don’t let me spoil the film’s many surprises. Suffice it to say that Leth suffers more curses—including “complete freedom.” What happens when all restrictions are removed? The artist is lost, and must immediately set new boundaries.

The harder he works, the happier he becomes.

In the seminar we had only a few hours to discuss this film. The time limit inspired us. We made every minute count. Our discussion was incredible, leading us to reconsider our own work, our own obstructions. Financial limits. Time pressures. Demands on our attention and energy.

I thought about my deadlines. I may need gimmicks that force me to work—a deadline, a contract, a threat to my ego. But when I experience inspiration, the singular joys and exclusive revelations of the work become their own motivation. I’m working for love, the best provocation of all.

I’ve met my deadline. I’ve reached my word-limit. But I love this movie and I’d like to go on writing. Why I was so reluctant to do this assignment?

P.S. Everything I’ve said about reluctance to do the work and the blessings that come from it? The same can be said about going to church.

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The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Written by: Jeffrey Overstreet

Jeffrey Overstreet has been recognized for his writing on cinema in The New Yorker, Time, The Seattle Times, and Image, and spent an award-winning decade as film reviewer for Christianity Today. Overstreet writes fiction, memoir, reviews, and arts journalism. He is an international public speaker and teacher of creative writing, film studies, and cultural engagement for people of faith, including a term as Writer-in-Residence at Covenant College in Georgia. Random House’s WaterBrook Press has published four of his novels including Auralia’s Colors. Through a Screen Darkly, his “memoir of dangerous moviegoing” is available from Baker Books. He lives in Seattle with his wife, the poet Anne M. Doe Overstreet, and serves as contributing editor to Response magazine at Seattle Pacific University (SPU), where he works as a Communications Specialist. He is currently writing two novels, a book about film, and is enrolled in SPU’s MFA in Creative Writing program. He blogs at Looking Closer.

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