Realism in Glawogger’s travels through a globalized world
von Giovanni Marchini Camia
Michael Glawogger’s stated aversion to travel guides is immediately recognizable in the films that comprise his trilogy on globalization: MEGACITIES (1998), WORKINGSMAN’s DEATH (2005), and WHORES’ GLORY (2011). Though never short of eye-opening, travelling with Glawogger is entirely disconnected from the conventionally associated pleasure and gratification. When in Bangkok, Moscow or New York, his camera does not comprehend temples, Red Square and the Statue of Liberty, but leads us into brothels, a detoxification prison and skid row. These confrontations with scenes of utmost abjection, however, do not invite a voyeuristic gaze, one of perverse fascination with the ‘other’ as unrelated to us. Glawogger’s images derive their intensity from the way in which they disallow disassociation regardless of how appalling or alien their subjects may be to the viewer, thus compelling disconcerting introspection. This quality, which distinguishes his films from exploitation, is achieved through a resolute and unflinching commitment to realism.
Glawogger’s conception of realism is not one of orthodox documentary practice and his documentaries belong to the category only ostensibly as they seamlessly interweave genuine documentary footage with scripted scenes and situations. These fabrications range from the apparent, such as the scene in MEGACITIES in which a New York hustler takes a john up to his room and once undressed robs him at knifepoint, to the covert, as in the Indonesian chapter of WORKINGMAN’s DEATH where Glawogger set up small groups of tourists along the path of the men carrying chunks of sulphur. If we abide by the definition of the great realist critic André Bazin, these ‘deceptions’ do not degrade Glawogger’s films to the “pseudorealism of a deception aimed at fooling the eye (or for that matter the mind); a pseudorealism content in other words with illusory appearances,” but in fact keep them anchored to “true realism, the need that is to give significant expression to the world both concretely and in its essence” (Bazin 2005: 12). For generating that essence through film requires the filmmaker to go beyond the mere exercise of re-rendering reality, he must use the cinema’s unique potential for conveying the intrinsic truth accessible through the captured reality. “We shall thus call realist any system of expression, any narrative procedure which tends to make more reality appear on the screen” (Bazin 1976: 27).
In his autobiographical treatise Postcards from the Cinema (2007) Serge Daney, Bazin’s critical heir, likened cinema to the experience of travelling. The same way in which one travels to another country “to verify the immateriality of the border and the arbitrariness of the sign and one goes to infinitely enjoy the moment of coalescence that one approaches by plane when the map is the territory” (ibid: 59), so too one goes to the cinema to have an analogous confrontation with reality. Daney recalls the traumatizing and foundational experiences of watching Alain Resnais’ NUIT ET BROUILLARD (NIGHT AND FOG, 1955) and Georges Franju’s LE SANG DES BÊTES (BLOOD OF BEASTS, 1949), which helped him discover the world and opened his eyes to the human condition. These documentaries exercised a “just gaze” on their subjects and by rejecting unethical aestheticisation and didacticism, imparted on the young Daney the “gruesome and unavoidable knowledge that we were the first generation to fully inherit [the legacy of the Holocaust]” (ibid: 19). For realists such as Bazin and Daney, cinema possesses the unique capacity of bringing the viewer in contact with reality, of providing the bridge to a deeper understanding of our world, which simple historical knowledge or awareness cannot provide.
The defining trait of the just gaze Daney identified in the films of Resnais and Franju was fear and trembling in the face of death; only in the aptitude for representing death with fear and trembling could the director be just and his film legitimate. Death pervades all three of Glawogger’s films and never does its representation fall victim to necrophilia, “the erotic double of the ‘just’ gaze” (ibid: 24). According to Glawogger, one of the scenes in MEGACITIES that most shocked audiences, causing numerous walkouts and post-screening debates, is the one depicting a chicken factory in Mumbai (see Kamani 2006). A shot showing men systematically slicing the throats of chickens and throwing them off-camera cuts to a shot of the bucket the chickens are being thrown in. We watch the chickens closest to the top flap wildly in post-mortem convulsions, their arterial blood gradually spraying the white tiled wall behind the bucket a uniform bright red. The camera remains immobile and the shot is held for an interminable minute, with only the diegetic sound of the factory and of the squawking chickens to accompany us. The visceral impact of this shot is so powerful and immediate, it transfixes the viewer in simultaneous awe and revulsion, while its obstinate length and immobility triggers violent self-reflection and its placement within the hectic editing pace of MEGACITIES – particularly the Mumbai episodes, whose frenetic stream of images bombard the viewer with a variety of life experiences – leaves one at the mercy of a flood of association and causality.
In taking us to twelve countries across four continents, Glawogger does not provide us with off-screen commentary or statistical data; his trilogy’s unifying theme, globalization, is explored largely through its absence. As argued by Bazin scholar Dudley Andrew, absence plays as important a role as presence in the Bazinian definition of realism, which requires “ever to keep the subject of a film in view, even as it resists being represented by an image. Fascination comes […] through haunting absence, as recorded traces of a subject lead us in search of it” (Andrew 2010: 25). Omnipresent but never mentioned, globalization is the ghost that hovers over Glawogger’s entire trilogy, the elephant in the room that will not fit within his camera’s frame. Dialogues such as Thai and Mexican prostitutes’ comparisons of their international clients in WHORES’ GLORY or a Javanese worker’s admiration for Bon Jovi (whose records he cannot afford) in WORKINGMANS' DEATH sometimes suggest them, but it is through the meticulous mise-en-scène of Glawogger’s images that the traces of globalization are most vividly conjured. The opening chapter of WORKINGMANS' DEATHdepicts miners working in illegal coalmines in the Ukraine. In extreme long shots of the workers traversing the barren landscape, derelict factories stand abandoned on the horizon like gargantuan carcasses, evoking a Soviet legacy while simultaneously emphasising its collapse. The film’s epilogue reprises the industrial imagery at a former steel mill now turned into a leisure park in Germany. These closing shots of the perfectly maintained steel mill, lit in a rainbow of colours by contemporary artist Jonathan Parks’ light show and swarming with Duisburg’s carefree youth, contrast starkly to the monochrome desolation with which the film opened, granting ingress, in Andrew’s words, “onto a larger reality with a contested political future, one that spectators, eyeing each other upon the leaving the theatre, can better imagine” (ibid: 24).
- Andrew, Dudley. 2010. What Cinema Is! (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell).
- Bazin, André. 2005. What Is Cinema? Vol. 1 (Berkeley; Los Angeles; London: University of California Press).
- Bazin, André. 1976. What Is Cinema? Vol. 2 (Berkeley: University of California Press).
- Daney, Serge. 2007. Postcards from the Cinema, trans. by Paul Douglas Grant (Oxford; New York: Berg).
- Kamani, Ginu. 2006. ‘Michael Glawogger on “Megacities”’, in Michael Glawogger – Independent Hero, ed. by Nuno Seno (Lisbon: Zero em comportamento), pp. 4-9.