Smartass, Baadasssss! -- Fathers and Sons
By Fernando F. Croce

Lars Von Trier soldiers on down the path of anti-cinema. Dogville, his most recent filmic harangue, located a dead end by reducing the whole medium (and, with it, humanity) down to chalk-lined desiccation that took away from his intriguing critique of the roots of American oppression -- not a new direction, but a willful shriveling of expression. The most pleasurable surprise of the snarky Dane's elaborately prankish The Five Obstructions, then, is the way Von Trier dispenses with the inhuman rigidity of Dogville in favor of limberness and a teasing unpredictability, the abilities needed by any artist facing eminent disaster. Since this is a Von Trier joint, he's the one summoning up dark clouds around his subjects, namely former mentor Jørgen Leth. Lars, smirk always at hand, complements Leth on The Perfect Human, a modernist 1967 short about a guy in a tux bouncing around while a voice asks, "This is the perfect man. Who is he? Why does he dance?" etc. "A little gem we are going to ruin," Von Trier gleefully tells Leth.

Leth, a now-forgotten documentarian in his late 60s, has in his pupil's eyes become complacently detached about filmmaking and art, and Von Trier's sadistic imp aims to rouse him out by forcing him to remake the short as crap according to the rules he pretty much pulls out of his ass. "No single edit may be longer than twelve frames. Remember all the questions in the film? I want them answered." Lars pauses to check out the cigar Leth is savoring, before concluding that it also must be shot in Cuba. That's just the first of the kamikaze film missions Von Trier sends Leth out on -- others include filming in what they call the "most miserable place on Earth" (Bombay's wretched red-light district), and recreating The Perfect Human as a cartoon, a medium both directors despise. Stuck somewhere between film-school workshop and Willy E. Coyote slapstick, The Five Obstructions is funny, self-reflexive whimsy, with deadpan Leth playing dry straight man to Von Trier's self-conscious art-house naughty boy. Every time Von Trier thinks he has stumped Leth, the older filmmaker turns his pupil's insane rules to his advantage. Only 12 frames? The jump cut becomes a rhythm. Filming the unfilmable? A plastic sheet simultaneously hides and shows. Animation? Leth gets his Waking Life freak on and turns in a piece of beautiful liquidity.

Von Trier is disappointed, as well he should, since the project, despite the reality-show format, is about him, and possibly his most self-revealing since the obscure Epidemic. The noted torment he lavishes upon his performers (especially his leading ladies) here is turned into a kind of wacky generational standoff, projected onto his old idol only to boomerang back to himself. Snacking on caviar and vodka, stubbly Von Trier unleashes his patented cruelty by forcing Leth to reshoot the film without any rules (predictably, it turns out to be a ponderous mess), yet by the end it is he who admits (through Leth, reading a letter written by Von Trier addressed to Von Trier) being trapped within the perfection of art, and seeking liberation through messiness. As usual, it's impossible to tell where the put-on joker ends and the vulnerable seeker starts, although whose reality exactly are we intruding on when Leth fumbles for change as a miserable Indian mother and her baby beg outside his car window? Therapy, indeed. Still, I enjoyed The Five Obstructions a good deal more than Dancer in the Dark or Dogville -- by the end, I still had no clear idea of who the hell Lars Von Trier is, yet unlike those films I felt like I wanted to find out the answer.

*

The clash of artistic generations is also central to Mario Van Peebles' Baadasssss!, a more overtly Freudian experiment. A lovingly fictionalized evocation, the film traces the making of Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, Melvin Van Peebles' 1971 landmark cinematic flame-thrower, with son Mario playing the maverick whose groundbreaking hit ("classified X by an all-white jury") inaugurated the blaxploitation era. Fresh off the success of "uppity" comedy The Watermelon Man in 1970, the director becomes the studio's token black artiste, but instead of settling for a safe three-movie deal, Melvin, cigar rammed between his teeth Sam Fuller-style, plunges ahead toward a combative political tract. Sweet Sweetback becomes a blazing document of racial fury, though getting the project made is itself no less arduous a struggle. Dodging the (white, natch) studio suits to retain complete control, Van Peebles runs the gamut of Hollywood bottom-feeders, queer millionaires, far-out hippies, smut auteurs, and threatening backers before assembling his crew and getting his vision etched on celluloid. Getting it made, however, turns out to be half the battle: if birthing a politicized bombshell is a militant act of revolt, then getting the public to see it is nothing less than the quest for revolution.

Baadasssss! is at its most engaging recreating the daredevil production of the "first Black Power film," where secretaries make histrionic entrances in hopes of snatching a role and the crew gets thrown in jail after the Man takes their telescope lens for a bazooka. Like Von Trier's conceptual armwrestling with Leth, albeit on a more benign level, the film is a young filmmaker's act of cross-generational acknowledgement, a personal essay on the need to interact with and even challenge the older artist who has whelped his sensibilities. Where Von Trier's desire to "banalize" his mentor is a regeneration-through-soiling impulse, Mario Van Peebles directing himself playing his own father may be more of a confessional work than he suspects. For all the warm filial tribute for the grizzled rebel, there's no stinting on Melvin's penchant for megalomania, where passion could often alienate his crew and, more importantly, his family. When Mario-as-Melvin re-stages his father's decision to shove young Mario (that is, himself) into the movie's sex opening, is he alluding to Sweet Sweetback as an act of tough-love bonding? Or is Mario, whose own movies are flashy rather than radicalized, revealing a need to go back to his roots and pick up his father's torch? Either way, Baadasssss! is his most potent work in years. Revelation does that to artists.

Reviewed May 27, 2004.


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