I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Jorgen Leth’s Examinations

by Jake Goldman
May 9, 2015

To consider the Danish filmmaker and erstwhile poet Jorgen Leth a creator of “experimental” works seems almost reductive. Experimental is often the word we use when we see a piece of art that cannot be easily explained. Perhaps it is something that plays with form or introduces new materials not previously associated with the given medium. Often, works considered experimental can be exciting whether in their impressive presentation or the discussion a work may generate. However, too often, the descriptor feels like a copout, that experimental work can be excused somehow, because of its seemingly difficult-to-discern structure, narrative, form or otherwise.

This somewhat pejorative construction of the word, I think, is derived from a desire to uncover an artwork’s ultimate “meaning.” Of course, this desire is natural. When we encounter artwork--a painting, a movie, a sculpture, a novel, and so on— we assume the person behind it had some sort of intent in creating the piece, and so we want to try and understand what that intent is.

Sometimes this desire can prove to be dangerous, which brings us back to Leth. When I began watching the trio of short documentaries helmed by Leth, I started to piece together my own version of a narrative, and subsequently, my own version of what the point of the whole film was. I first watched “Stopforbud,” an eleven and a half minute portrait of Bud Powell, the late, Harlem-raised piano and bebop whiz. It’s a sparse film that opens with a slow, upwardly tilting shot of Powell, standing in a dapper suit. Dexter Gordon, our narrator (and heralded tenor saxophonist) then plainly states: “This is Bud Powell. The famous Bud Powell. Pianist. Composer. Innovator.” From here, the rest of the piece follows Powell around Copenhagen with Gordon occasionally stepping in to recite a fact about Powell or relay an anecdote against the soundtrack of the soft tinkle of pianos. Perhaps the most stunning aspect of the piece is the shot composition. Leth seems keen on never repeating a shot and favoring non-traditional angles, some times leaving Powell with an odd surplus of headroom. But the photography has a unique rhythm, one that never lags, but motors on with beautiful tracking shots of Powell walking solo through a park, by a shit, by oil drums and through the industrial back alleys of Copenhagen, occasionally staring into the camera, or into space for borderline uncomfortable periods of time.

Leth is playing with our notions of what a documentary “should” be. Simply, a documentary ought to be after some version of the truth, maybe with a concrete narrative, maybe not. But, there are certain conventions we’ve come to expect from the form – the talking head, the re-enactments, the archival footage and so on. For all intents and purposes, Leth is creating a documentary here: Powell is a real person, Gordon narrates real facts about his life, and at the end, we get to see Powell at work, playing music in a dark night club. The presentation is simply beautiful and patient, and done in a way that by the end I was beginning to scold myself for wanting to force a definitive narrative into the piece rather than just sitting and letting the experience unfold before me.

And so I took that into account when the next doc, “The Perfect Human,” fired up. This, I think, is Leth at his funniest. The entire film is centered around two anonymous human beings: a man and a woman in a white, boundless room, performing banal activities while Leth narrates in English, monotonously, reeling off phrases like “Here is a pair of knees,” and “Look at this human’s eye,” while the camera moves around each character’s body. Its feel is that of a scientific examination with one distinct difference: Leth doesn’t begin with a problem or hypothesis just a promise of presenting the “perfect” human, telling the audience that “we will look into that,” where that is the perfect human being.

This is where I started to understand the best way to look at Leth’s work: it’s an experience, a portrait, a brief glimpse into one man’s psyche. Leth presents these two humans, shows them doing things and then let’s his audience decide what the hell is going on. Maybe there’s some greater meaning, but maybe there’s not. Maybe it’s truly an examination, a pondering turned into moving image.

And, I think, this is what I love most about his work. It’s not asking you to dig deeply (though, the material is rich and you certainly can), but rather it’s asking you to just experience it and to think about it, to simply think about what just happened on the screen, and maybe what it means to be a living, breathing person existing on the sometimes nightmarish muck of Earth. Leth’s work, then, is somehow (and, forgive the stoner-ish quality to this flimsy hypothesis) about nothing specific, but everything about being human. See? Stoner. I know. But I think I’m right on some level. Or maybe I’m not. It doesn’t matter. These films are damn good, and that is that.

Jake Goldman is a writer and a teacher. He lives in New Haven, Connecticut.  Occasionally he writes songs.  If you are so inclined, check out Internetdogfist.com for words and Otsego.Bandcamp.com for music.