Think you know New York or Moscow? That you’ve seen all the sights in Mexico City or even took a tour of the slums of Mumbai? Well, you haven’t seen anything until you watch Megacities by Michael Glawogger, one of my favorite documentaries. It’ll take you to places and people in these four megacities that you’ve never seen. Oh, and the cinematography!
“I don’t use beauty filters!” says Austrian filmmaker Michael Glawogger, concerning his 1998 documentary, Megacities. “If the place wouldn’t have beauty in itself, it’s not possible for me to make it look beautiful.” Through a mastery of cinema aesthetics-from color and composition to the mixing of the soundtrack and manipulation of the scene transitions-Glawogger infused the apocalyptic urban wastelands he saw, a world populated by blue-dyed men, knife-wielding hustlers, and sagging prostitutes in the nude, with an aura of the surreal.
This film reject standard documentary conventions, such as the use of voiceovers and a strict narrative arc; yet they ultimately offer, through their flipbook storytelling structure, a coherent narrative of a world in flux, buffeted by unseen forces of globalization.
Glawogger noticeably restages many scenes in Megacities, and while some shots were staged due to logistical reasons (for instance, hiring extras for a scene inside a train carriage since there were too many bystanders in the way), other shots were so fantastical in their intimacy that they require a conscious suspension of disbelief. Two particular scenes, both involving Tony the New York hustler, are particularly salient to the degree that they were staged.
The first involves Tony hustling a young 20-somethings man, whose eyes dart every which way in suspicion-but never in the direction of the camera. The target is led to believe that for $60, he can have an hour “to do anything you want” with a prostitute. The camera follows him up the stairs to the prostitute’s alleged room, where a gruff stranger (a man, no less) answers the door and promptly slams it in his face.
This scene stretches the imagination: why did the target never question the presence of the camera, or acknowledge it? Why didn’t he display any emotions after finding out he had been hustled, or direct his anger to the cameraman, for that matter? The cognitive dissonance resolves itself once the viewer realizes Glawogger hired the target, albeit without telling him the exact context of the gig. “So, to a degree, those people also didn’t know what was going to happen. And it almost looks like what it looked like when I saw him really do it,” explains Glawogger.
The second, more controversial scene, involves Tony once again hustling a man, this time someone slightly older and of Persian descent. The two go up to a room, where both Tony and the target completely undress. As they are about to have sex, Tony pulls out a box-cutter and mugs the man; in the process, he smacks him on the head in intimidation.
This scene pushes the limits of what one would consider a documentary (and one reason you should go watch the film). Granted, such intimacy is logistically impossible to film, as Glawogger elaborates, “If you’re in a small room and somebody robs some other preson or even if there’s a private conversation between a couple, that’s not, in that sense, ‘documentary’ filmmaking-that even though you’re there it will happen anyway.” Thus, the resulting image fulfills the voyeuristic urge of a viewer in a similar, but more corporeal manner than that of a fiction biopic of a New York hustler.
Although we witness Tony hustling his marks, in another sense, we see Glawogger hustling Tony. Here, Glawogger subverts the traditional role of the documentary filmmaker as one who assigns, rather than records, the dynamics of social actors within his gaze. Ironically, the most powerful scene from this story, and possibly the film, is unscripted: the sight of Tony, high on heroin and splayed out on a couch, ranting on about the realities of his life. Although his words are visceral, the very image of this hustler at his most vulnerable, with eyes drooping under the lull of a drug addiction and his bare chest drenched in sweat, says more about the human condition and his alienation in this urban jungle than any of the staged scenes. The section on Tony ends here as he drifts off, mid-speech, into a drug-laced stupor.
Part 2 tomorrow