With its mohawk-sporting protagonist Travis Bickle and a terrifying depiction of New York blighted by crime in the 1970s, Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver has remained a favourite among film fans and critics over the 35 years since its release. But how would audiences feel about the movie if Robert De Niro had been banned from opening his mouth while in the role and forced to deliver the classic line "are you talking to me?" by holding-up cue cards? Would the masterpiece of American cinema still be viewed as such if its director had been obstructed at every turn while making the movie? Well, we may be about to find out.
Before the controversial Danish director Lars von Trier made headlines at Cannes for all the wrong reasons when comments he made at a press conference saw him barred from the festival, it was announced that he will team up with Scorsese to create a follow-up to the Danish director's 2003 film, The Five Obstructions. The documentary about filmmaking saw von Trier challenge his mentor, Jørgen Leth, to remake his 1967 short film Det Perfekte Menneske (The Perfect Human) five times. In each new version, Leth had to overcome an "obstruction" dreamt up by von Trier. These included using only shots of 12 frames or fewer and being made to shoot in the "worst location on Earth" (an insalubrious district of Mumbai, apparently), but without revealing that backdrop on film.
While it has not been confirmed that Taxi Driver will be the Scorsese film subjected to von Trier's new batch of obstructions, rumours began to circulate last year after the Berlin Film Festival that a remake of the 1976 film was being planned with not only von Trier and Scorsese on board, but also De Niro.
Von Trier and Scorsese plan to begin shooting their project next year.
"The idea behind this obstructions thing is that you give each other tasks that will move you into an area where you have been reluctant to go yourself. Under protest, you do that and then you enlarge your repertoire," von Trier told the film website Screen Daily.
Referring to his initial meeting with Scorsese in Berlin, the Danish director said: "He turned out to be a gentleman. Maybe you could see him a little bit as a gangster! But he was certainly not - not on the surface, anyway."
While artistic constraints of the kind outlined by von Trier might seem counterproductive, or even insulting, to a filmmaker of Scorsese's calibre, artists have sought to expand their horizons, by temporarily limiting them, for decades. The modernist composer Igor Stravinsky once said: "The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one's self. And the arbitrariness of the constraint serves only to obtain precision of execution."
Writers have also attempted to liberate themselves by imposing restrictions on their work. Members of the French Oulipo writers' group, for example, use literary techniques such as lipograms (poems or writings that exclude certain letters, often a number of vowels) to challenge the limits of the form.
A well-known advocate of artistic constraint in recent years has been the musician Jack White. The White Stripes frontman limited himself and drummer Meg White to using only vintage instruments, refused to allow set-lists for live shows and would record entire albums in as little as five days.
"Telling yourself you have all the time in the world, all the money in the world, all the colours in the palette - that just kills creativity," he said, during the documentary Under the Great White Northern Lights.
As well as his Five Obstructions projects, von Trier is also known for promoting artistic constraint through the Dogme 95 filmmaking movement. Created in 1995 by von Trier and fellow Danish director Thomas Vinterberg, the "Dogme 95 Manifesto" banned filmmakers from creating props and sets, using artificial lighting, overdubbing music and even being named as director in the credits. While the pair (and others, including Harmony Korine), made a number of Dogme 95 movies, both have since abandoned the principles.
Audiences will have to wait at least a year to see Scorsese and von Trier's obstructions project, as both filmmakers have movies set for release in 2011. The Dane's latest film Melancholia was a contender for this year's Palme d'Or at Cannes, and Kirsten Dunst, who plays the lead, collected the Best Actress award. The "psychological disaster movie" also stars Charlotte Gainsbourg and Keifer Sutherland. Scorsese's next feature, the 3D family adventure Hugo Cabret, starring Jude Law and Sacha Baron Cohen, will be released later this year.