Lizard Brain is a shared blog about Science Fiction and Fantasy from Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck.

Valente, von Trier, and Obstructions

by Daniel Abraham

So it happened like this.  A few years back I was at Walter Jon Williams’ Rio Hondo Workshop with Catherynne Valente.  Now I’d just read her Orphan’s Tales books, and had been delighted and blown away.  Structurally there were (and are) some of the prettiest, most elegant books I’ve ever seen.  Reading them was like watching some gorgeous clockwork move through a predetermined and unpredictable course.  I’m a hard sell for books these days, but I loved those.  Working with her at the workshop was a real treat.

“Out of limitations comes creativity.” — Debbie Allen

In the course of the week, she brought up a film I hadn’t heard of before.  The Five Obstructions.  It’s a documentary of sorts by Lars von Trier.

So yeah.  Lars vor Trier.  Lemme tell you about me and Lars von Trier.  The first time I came across him, I was living on Staten Island and working in Manhattan.  The Angelika is this wonderful little movie house on the edge of Soho, and it showed films that weren’t on anyplace else.  My fiance at the time (not my wife now — long story) and I went there to see something called The Kingdom.  I knew pretty much nothing about it.  It turned out to be four episodes of a Danish miniseries directed by this fella named Lars von Trier.  It was grim and it was horrific and it was funny as hell.  The production looked like it had been done with no money, and the editing jerked and jumped.  The special effects were minimalist and surprisingly effective.  I loved it, and declared myself a lifelong von Trier fan.

It took Lars years to talk me out of that, but he managed.  I sat through Breaking the Waves, which I almost couldn’t watch because of the Blair Witch-level of unsteady camerawork.  I watch Zentropa, which I tried hard to love and managed almost up to the end.  I read his Dogme95 manifesto and wasn’t particularly impressed.  When Dancer in the Dark came out . . . honestly, I just didn’t have it in me.  The films he’s done since, I’ve just taken a pass on.  Antichrist.  Melancholia.  Nah, man.  I’m done.

Except The Five Obstructions.  Because it’s freaking brilliant.

In it, von Trier gets this other director – Jorgen Leth — to remake a surrealistic short film that he made (The Perfect Human) five times with a different set of rules every time.  And, because Lars von Trier is a cruel bastard, the rules were hard. So for instance, one time, Leth had to remake the film 1) in Cuba, 2) with no set, 3) answering all the rhetorical questions from the original film (and okay, none of those sound so hard, but wait for it . . . ), and 4) with no cut in the film longer than 12 frames.  And that’s the easy one.  It gets worse form there.

But the thing is, Leth does it.  And he gets better.  Every version of the film is better and more interesting than the original, and watching Leth overcome the problems set out for him is one of the most profound things I’ve ever seen about creativity and boundaries.  I love that film.

Which brings me back to Cat Valente.

She and I were talking about obstructions and creativity, and we agreed to try writing a series of stories with different sets of obstructions.  Each of us would set the rules for the other.  She went first giving me rules for a story.  Her instructions went like this:

I have a set of four rules for you.

1. It cannot be set in this world. While I know you have written secondary world fantasy in your novels, every short story I read of yours, even the Cambist, is plausibly set in this world. It’s a comfortable place, full of characters we instinctively know–get out of it.

2. You are allowed 6 lines of dialogue in this story. You are over-reliant on it as a means of plot delivery and character development–I want you to find another way to get your characters to communicate and tell us who they are.

3. 1st person. I was tempted to require first person female protagonist, since I haven’t seen you do that, and feel free to do so, but right now, I just want you to get out of 3rd person limited/3rd person omniscient.

4. You’re ability to use “to be” verbs has been temporarily rescinded. No “am” no “was” no “were,” even with -ing verbs. I would have taken articles, but Heinlein did that already. To be verbs are not used colloquially in several languages, so this should lend an interesting lilt to your English–you love the transparent prose, and while it works for you most of the time, I want to see what you look like when you’re out of that comfort zone.

The rest is up to you. Good luck!

Well, I did it, I think.  I may have fudged a little on that last one, but if I did, it wasn’t much.  The result was a story called A Hunter in Arin-Qin, which has just gone up for folks to listen to over at Podcastle. There’s also a forum board for folks to comment on the story if they’re of a mind.

So if you’re in the mood and want to see how this one came together, go check it out.  And also rent The Five Obstructions.  And if you haven’t picked up and Catherynne Valente, you might should.  She does some pretty damn interesting work.

7 Responses »

  1. I had no idea you lived in Staten Island, Daniel.

    That’s my hometown!

  2. Sounds like an interesting challenge. Do you know of any plans to publish Leviathan Wept as an ebook? I’m trying to avoid physical book purchases these days due to overloaded bookshelves and lack of room for more.

    • There isn’t a solid plan yet, but I think it would be a good idea. I should probably talk to the folks at Subterranean to see if they’d want to be involved with that (or at least if I could bum their files so formatting wouldn’t be a problem).

  3. Hey Daniel,

    I hope you don’t mind me asking, but I’d be very interested in how much the stylistic restrictions / rules influenced the content of your short story. For example, did you think “Oh, I can’t have a lot of dialogue so let’s write about hunters because they aren’t a very talkative lot” or something like that? Or were these rules more like subconscious influences?


    • I did decide to have the characters (generally speaking) not share a language so that it wouldn’t seem weird that they didn’t talk. The plot of the story came pretty much while I was thinking about other things, though.