Monday, June 29, 2009

jørgen leth

Just less than a week to go before this year's Tour de France kicks off with the traditional short individual time trial in Monaco. Just less than a week to go before the much-awaited return of Jørgen Leth as Tour de France commentator for Danish TV. A national event, no less.

Jørgen Leth. Poet, filmmaker, bon viveur.

A short selection of Leth's poems under the title Boredom will be published in my translations in The Literary Review this coming spring. A lengthier collection will hopefully be appearing in Canada some time next year.

In the meantime, here's an extract from a sample I did for Gyldendal from Leth's recent book Tilfældets gaver - tekster om at lave film [Gifts of Chance: Texts on Filmmaking].

Oh, and you can watch the trailer for De fem benspænd [The Five Obstructions] here>>

The Five Obstructions


It started with Zentropa Real’s chief executive, Carsten Holst, saying that Lars von Trier wanted to make a film with me and suggesting that we meet next time I was in Denmark.

We met at Lars’ bungalow. Lars wanted to know what I found trivial. I mentioned a few things. He nodded and said he would think. He would come up with something.
I returned to Haiti. During the time that followed we exchanged a number of short mails. Lars wrote that he still needed to “think a bit”, but that he would soon be in touch again.
A couple of months later he wrote that he now believed he had an idea. He called it Obstruction. He wanted me to make a film based on a number of hindrances.
What follows is an excerpt of our correspondence (December 2000):

“The challenge/film you are to make/solve is called: The Five Obstructions.
I’d like you to show me a film to begin with, and to talk about it, after which I set up a number of restrictions, orders or prohibitions that require you to remake the film. This we do five times … hence the title. I think it would be natural for our discussions to be included in the final film … plus of course the six small films.
Hope you like the challenge. Perhaps the subject for the first film could be something we agreed on? Obviously, it would be best if the subject were to allow as much progression as possible between film one and film six. [In our initial correspondence he referred continually to six films, although we ended up doing only five.]

Tell me what you think.

Hope the depression’s doing fine. I actually understand you now … the whole Haiti thing. A place where you’re allowed and expected to go to the dogs!!! You sure figured that one out.

All the best, Lars.”

I replied the same day:

“Re. The Five Obstructions.

Dear Lars

I find the challenge appealing. I can see an interesting progression between films one and six, the pathway around the obstacles, the discussions. I can see us making something out of it. A compelling prospect. I look forward to facing your obstructions.
(I’m reminded of Michael Laudrup, who so elegantly avoided being injured by the brutal challenges to which he was always exposed.)
I really like the idea of having to change, adapt, pare down according to stipulated conditions. Progressively.

But how do we get started on the first film you want me to do?
If I’m expected to devise it, alone or with you, and then shoot it here in Haiti, then obviously it would be on DV, with all the built-in restrictions, especially as to sound.

Or should the first film simply be a note? I’m sure that if I pull my head out of the morass in which it’s immersed – spurred by your brilliant idea, I’m certain I can – then I might be able to think up a simple story to tell which can be filmed here. Maybe.

Is that how you see it? Or do you want me to do it some day in the spring when I get back to Denmark?
Is this correspondence already a part of the project?

The depression’s doing fine. Bouts of cheerfulness. As you’ve discovered: My arrangement here is a good one.

All the best, Jørgen.”

Still later the same day, Lars got back to me with these words:

“Dear Jørgen,

Thanks for the mail. Glad to know you’re feeling as planned. The first of the six films could also be an excerpt from something you’ve already done. That would be about the most clear-cut option, I think. What about The Perfect Human! You know that was the one I sat and watched over and over back then at the SFC.

All the best, Lars.”

I thought that was a great idea. I very much wanted to go back to The Perfect Human, recultivate the film’s simplicity, its emblematic character. I could see the possibilities immediately. It was like going back to a motif in much the same way as a painter is able to return time and again.
Perhaps I could use the actor Claus Nissen again. Maintain the very stringent aesthetics, the empty space in which the characters perform a variety of simple actions and utter a number of words.

The arrangement was then to meet up at Lars’ bungalow at Zentropa when I arrived back in Denmark prior to my commentating the spring cycling classics for television.
We agreed that our meeting should be filmed using two DV cameras. Lars had already suggested that our discussion as to how the project should develop was to be documented and perhaps included in the final film. I liked the idea. At the end of the day I would be selecting what was to go in, completion of the project being left up to me.

I was received by Carsten Holst and Lars von Trier. We walked over to the bungalow together. I saw the two DV crews as soon as I came in through the door: photographers Kim Hattesen and Jakob Bonfils with assistants. They were already rolling.
Lars and I sat down on the plush sofa and chatted over a variety of topics, but in particular my original film The Perfect Human. Lars told me again how great an impression the film had made on him. He’d seen it more than thirty times and said he’d also had it in mind working on his latest full-length feature, Dogville. Then we watched it together on his TV, after which we said nice things about the film’s keeping qualities. It all felt good, and I felt at ease.

Later we had The Perfect Human lunch – poached salmon with white potatoes and Hollandaise sauce accompanied by a fine Chablis. That’s how he set me up for the impending attack. I lit a Havana cigar.

We were agreed on the starting point. I was to do a number of remakes of The Perfect Human and each time Lars was going to set up various obstructions to make it more difficult for me. Obstacles to be overcome. We agreed that the new versions – five in all as stipulated – each were to be five minutes in length.

Lars was eager to reveal his first obstruction, but first he tried to get me to say something about how I envisaged making the film if I had to do it over again. I was rather reticent about giving anything away. I might prefer to do it in colour, perhaps in a black room rather than a white one. But I had made no decision about anything. I evaded his attempt to get me to start the ball rolling. I realised that he wanted something he could obstruct and my response was that he could obstruct a repeat of the original film. That was my starting point.

Then he presented his conditions. The first he tabled was that no cut should be longer than twelve (12) frames, i.e. half a second. That was what he said. I took a sip of Chablis and said that would be fine. It was madness.
Then he wanted the questions asked by the narrative voice in the original film to be answered. Further, that the first obstructed version should be filmed in Cuba. Why? Because I was unfamiliar with Cuba.
He left the room for a moment and asked Carsten Holst if there was enough money in the budget to send me to Cuba. It didn’t sound much like a question. There was, and that was that. The film was to be shot in Cuba, no cut more than 12 frames, questions to be answered.
I wasn’t entering into any discussion about the conditions laid down, but I did ask a question about the Cuba shoot. I wanted to take a screen with me, in the style of the photographer Irving Penn, as I had previously done in e.g. Notes on Love in order to isolate the characters. That was the thing I mentioned.
Lars thought about it for a moment and then said: “It’s a shame. You can’t.”

© Jørgen Leth & Gyldendal, 2009
Translation © Martin Aitken, 2009

Monday, June 22, 2009


Pulitzer prize winner 2008 Junot Díaz, author most recently of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, has this to say about the stories of Dorthe Nors (here>>), soon to be out in my translations in AGNI Magazine, The Boston Review and now Fence Magazine:

Beautiful, faceted, haunting stories ... Dorthe Nors is fantastic ... a rising star of Danish letters.

Thanks, Junot. And thanks to Thomas E. Kennedy (here>>), author of the Copenhagen Quartet (soon destined for world fame courtesy of Bloomsbury in NY), who says this:

Meticulously observed glimpses of everyday life and its small dramas, Dorthe Nors' stories will make you chuckle, make you feel, break your heart and make you see - all in the turn of surprisingly few pages. These are stories for our time, paced for our time, yet old as the human heart. Dorthe Nors is the real deal!

Two more stories from Dorthe's Kantslag collection are on their way soon. Look out for them.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

revenge of the lawn / gräsmattans hämnd

Richard Brautigan's wonderful collection Revenge of the Lawn from 1971 has just appeared in a Swedish translation, Gräsmattans hämnd, by Jonas Ellerström and published by Bakhåll (here>>).

The first reviews are deservedly more than positive. Svenska Dagbladet's web edition (here>>) says "Major literature in a small format", while Borås Tidning (here>>) enthuses:

Brautigan's texts exude a marvellous joy of language and I can think of no better book than this to give as a source of inspiration to any young writer in spe (...) With this publication, Backhåll have once again done us a cultural favour.

My own translations of five of the texts in the collection have recently appeared in the Danish journals Apparatur and Den Blå Port (Lars Bukdahl here>>: "cool, wittily sensitive 70s short prose").

Someone ought to do like Backhåll here.

Friday, June 12, 2009

husum and jesus

Lars Husum went through the roof earlier this year with his debut novel Mit venskab med Jesus Kristus, which was sold to all over the place even before it was out in Denmark. I did the English sample translation for Gyldendal, and though Portobello in London already had a translator in line when they snapped it up, I'm still pretty chuffed about my own shot. A short extract from that sample is up here>> in the Danish Literary Magazine.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

nordic voices

Nordic Voices in Translation (here>>) is a new blog "devoted to the English translation of the literatures of the Nordic countries - Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden. And also Estonia." Among its instigators and regular contributors are David McDuff, known for his excellent translations of Pia Tafdrup, and "Reg" aka. Steven T. Murray, one of the most prolific forces in the translation of Nordic literature, most recently Stieg Larsson's megaselling Millenium trilogy.