Objectively and in Detail

VOICES. Can the erotic be measured? Can it be framed? Or defined? In his new film, "Erotic Man", more than 10 years in the making, Jørgen Leth touches on these simple yet wide-embracing questions.

Photo from Erotic Man

"Erotic Man". Photo: Jakob Langvad

In his artistic production over the past five decades, documentarist and poet Jørgen Leth has been propelled by the desire to capture sensuality, often taking an anthropologist's investigative and experimentally objective view of the world.

"Jørgen Leth is a generous man. He first and foremost recognises the virtues in people."

In "Erotic Man", the 73-year-old European artist travels the world and his inner self to document the erotic, to search for its form and meaning. The film is perhaps Jørgen Leth's most personal and idiosyncratic film to date. A film about growing older, about loss, about the moments you remember.

Three women played crucial roles in the creation of "Erotic Man": producer Marianne Christensen, editor Camilla Skousen and film commissioner Molly Malene Stensgaard. FILM asked them for their personal comments on "Erotic Man".

Photo af director Jørgen Leth and producer Marianne Christensen
Jørgen Leth and producer Marianne Christensen in Senegal. Photo: Adam Philip

A Long Journey

Producer Marianne Christensen is a key person in Jørgen Leth's film life. On "Erotic Man", she performed numerous other functions besides producing, mainly continuity and memory. Over the many years of the film's gestation, she also did sound, makeup, operated the camera, found costumes and stage-managed, scripted, coordinated and served as a runner.

It all begins at a birthday party in 1997, with a treatment in 1998, pilot shooting in Haiti in 1999, followed by development support, research trips and numerous reports on the state and forms of eroticism in different countries. In between, we are interrupted by other projects, but the erotic film is always with us, the subject is discussed and notes are taken.

In fall 2005, the project is put on ice after the publication of Jørgen Leth's controversial autobiography "Det uperfekte menneske" ("The Imperfect Human"). The financing falls apart and things are quiet for a while. In 2006, Lars von Trier and others encourage Jørgen Leth to take the project back up, and he does.

The concept of mapping eroticism globally is replaced by a much more personal and artistic interpretation of the subject based on Jørgen Leth's poetry, personal memories and experiences.

Over the years of production, five film commissioners at the DFI are replaced, countless LOCs renewed, more than 30 budgets set up, one TV station replaced, thousands of e-mails written, footage shot by five different photographers in six different formats, and texts written, which today fill four fat ring binders.

The pleasure of doing a film with Jørgen Leth and his "working family" is that everyone has a voice, the director has confidence in everyone – and every penny is turned over twice to make sure it ends up on screen.

In 2009, the 40th anniversary of Denmark's legalisation of pornography is celebrated, while neo-puritanism continues to rage and the subject of eroticism remains controversial.

In August 2010, Jørgen Leth tells an interviewer, "It's not a film I could have made earlier in my life, it could only have been made now." Over time, the film's long journey becomes an advantage.

In light of the earthquake that hit Haiti in January 2010, while the editors Camilla Skousen and Morten Højbjerg and I were all in Haiti with Jørgen, which could have cost us our lives as well as the film, it seems like the film wanted to be made, in spite of it all.

'It shouldn't Be A Smart Film'

Camilla Skousen and Jørgen Leth have been friends for 40 years. She has stood in front of the camera for a couple of his films and she has been his trusted editor on 12 films – the last two, "The Five Obstructions" and "Erotic Man", co-edited with Morten Højbjerg.

Jørgen Leth is a faithful man. If you win a place in his heart, you remain there forever. That goes for both working and personal relationships. I'm one of the lucky ones.

Jørgen Leth is a generous man. He first and foremost recognises the virtues in people. Vices merely express the fact that we are all human. Jørgen is not in advance interested in a film's structure or dramaturgy, so we don't discuss that during the editing process. The footage just has to be ordered. The sequence of the scenes, what scenes go first or last, is dictated by the process. Individual cuts just have to be surprising and bring the material to life. That's the requirement.

Jørgen Leth has a lot of respect for his co-workers and he has kept the same people around him for years. When Jørgen makes a film, the photographer photographs, the editor edits, the sound engineer engineers the sound and the composer composes. He supervises every work process on and off – often at long distance – but he never dictates. Still, all his films are undeniably "Jørgen Leth films." That's the mystique.

Photo from Erotic Man
"Erotic Man". Photo: Jakob Langvad

"It shouldn't be a smart film," Jørgen says, when the editing process begins. Is he being coquettish? I don't think so, but I don't know so. "Go into the world and use your eyes," Jørgen's father told him when he has young. And that's what he does. Uses his curiosity and his openness to the world to see and experience people, places, things and situations. Then he shows it to us in a film, opens our eyes – and maybe it's not a smart film we see, but it does make us smarter.

He probably gets smarter, too. I think that's one of the reasons why he can watch his own films and enjoy them over and over again a long time, sometimes years, after they were finished. When Jørgen talks or writes about his films publicly, he always – unlike other directors – credits his co-workers by name. And once the final cut of the film has been made, we quote Jørgen's dad and all go, "Everything in place, a place for everything."

Nudging My Perspective

Molly Malene Stensgaard, who is currently working as a film editor on Lars von Trier's upcoming film "Melancholia", was the DFI film commissioner who supported "Erotic Man".

Films about the erotic tend to spell trouble. However, "Erotic Man" was never intended to be an issue film but rather a sensual, poetic and also objective investigation of human eroticism. That seemed simple and doable enough? Perhaps now we have finally established what the erotic is! I find today's erotic reality to be oddly ambivalent. On the one hand, there is the puritanism that Jørgen Leth personally experienced in its worst form. On the other hand, there is the commercialised erotic – at erotic conventions we can prove our liberal-mindedness by waving pink dildos in the air, while silicone boobs sell anything from ice cream to car washes, and rare is the music video that does not have babes rubbing kittenishly against the singer.

Photo from Erotic Man
"Erotic Man". Photo: Jakob Langvad

I view "Erotic Man" as a film that insists on the erotic being poetic, sensual, pleasurable, universal – and human!

Jørgen Leth takes a stab at documenting and curiously investigating something essentially human and important – with minimalist means and loving care for details. He proceeds alphabetically, an anthropologist-like figure taking a tangible, physical approach.

He pursues his leads to places where eroticism finds unique expressions, to examine whether a universal erotic message exists that can be read with the senses anywhere in the world. The erotic is universal, but it takes singular national forms.

The anthropologist searches the tracks of his own memories of erotic encounters. On his way, he loses his detachment from his subject. He gets lost in sensual memories, in looks, a woman's beautiful gait or the name of a city ringing with the distant sound of a special meeting, all too humanly losing his grip and his overview. The hope of a rational conclusion recedes, both for him and for me as a viewer.

A man with a long, lived (erotic) life presents his picture to me. The film includes scenes that approach my personal limits and push my view of men, women and eroticism – and bully for that! That's what a film should do – as long as it is an honest and forthright expression of another person's view, in this case that of a gifted filmmaker.

Photo of Jørgen Leth
Photo: Søren Solkær Starbird

On Jørgen Leth

"All of a sudden I've become a rock star in my old age," Leth said recently, full of surprise but pleased nonetheless with this unexpected honour. Indeed, Jørgen Leth has for nearly 50 years been a significant figure on the cultural scene as director of forceful, personal and poetic short and documentary films, as poet, sports commentator and much more. But he has never been as popular as he is today, even attracting young audiences with his laidback croon and freestyle poetry in the musical trio "Vi Sidder Bare Her" (which translates as "We're Just Sitting Here"), sided by two young musicians.

It was only five years ago that Jørgen Leth found himself vilified as a sexist by the Danish tabloid press because of his autobiographical "The Imperfect Human". A shocked Leth went underground, but emerged stronger from the media storm some time after. Encouraged by his old playmate and admirer Lars von Trier, Leth resumed work on "Erotic Man", a film the 73-year-old director describes as perhaps his most important.

Jørgen Leth, born 1937 in Aarhus, is considered a leading figure in experimental documentary filmmaking. He has directed over 40 films since the early 1960s, and his writings include poetry, essays, non-fiction books, and radio and television drama.

Leth as the anthropologist looking upon the world with curious wonder is characteristic even of the director's early films, notably "The Perfect Human" (1967), "Life in Denmark" (1971), and "66 Scenes from America" (1981). He developed a unique epic approach to the genre of sports documentaries, best exemplified by "Stars and Watercarriers" (1973) and "A Sunday in Hell "(1976), both films a result of his passion for bicycle race.

Acclaimed films from the 80s and 90s are "Notebook from China" (1986), "Notes on Love" (1989), "Haiti. Untitled" (1996), and "New Scenes from America" (2002). In 2000 Lars von Trier challenged Leth to do five remakes of his signature work "The Perfect Human", resulting in the mischievous and playful game of "The Five Obstructions" (2003).

Leth has directed two fiction features, "Interference" ( 1983) and "Traberg" (1992), both set in Haïti and both revolving around a searching male character.

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