‘Workingman’s Death’ Film Review: Dirty jobs, global edition

Michael Glawogger’s “sequel” to Megacities (which I reviewed last week in two installments, part 1 and part 2), Workingman’s Death, also documents the plight of workers from around the globe. It is not meant of course, by any means, to be Megacities II.

His style has evolved in the last few years, from a more experimental approach in Megacities, with its exploration of staged shots, unorthodox soundtrack, and a complete lack of structure to a more traditional documentary approach in Workingman’s Death.

In Workingman’s Death, Glawogger hews a more traditional approach to documentary filmmaking than in Megacities. He rejects reenactments, but he also does not favor the shaky first-person style common to many documentaries. Rather, he crafts his images with close attention to traditional cinematic forms-composition, color, lighting, camera movement-which juxtaposes with the jumbled and often jarring sights within these alien workplaces. Even without reenactments of intimate moments-the dehumanizing striptease scene in Megacities, for example-Glawogger still conveys, through the contrast of time and place, a poignant sense of personal narrative.
In one scene, the camera looks out at the Ukrainian miners, who are having a picnic of sorts. They proceed to carry on a seemingly mundane conversation about their daughters. Only the viewer can appreciate the bizarre gaze of the situation-their picnic is in the crawlspace of a deadly abandoned mine buried deep beneath the barren land.

I think what makes these two films stand out is that they reject the more or less standard conventions of documentaries to rely on a “voice of God” narrator (see Michael Apted and his 7UP series). While Megacities is to some extent filmed in the interventional mode-due to the staging of certain scenes-this film, as well as Workingman’s Death, is very much in the observational spirit. Glawogger, stripped of his voice and presence, certainly still stamped his own editorial style on the two films, by overlaying found objects, such as background sounds, text, archival footage, and conversational recordings, to the recorded image.

Workingman’s Death relies more heavily on dialogue, which contributes to developing the characters that he encounters. Here, on-camera characters provide the narration. Glawogger shows rather than tells. We hear the dialogue between two Indonesian sulfur carriers: “I like the way she moves,” says one about his favorite prostitute. “Well, moves aren’t everything,” cracks the other. Such intimacy enable the viewer to develop empathy with the workers, who are humanized here.

One of the sulfur carrriers proceeds to narrate, through dialogue, his life outside the sulfur field. “I go down to Banyuwangi after weighing in. You have a little fun, you come back up here, climb the mountain, go back down, and have your load weighted,” he says with little expression. The backdrop, a moonscape set against a sky shrouded by the volcanic smoke, underscores the despondency of this situation. We realize these workers spend their precious earnings on prostitutes because it is the only happiness they can procure.

Workingman’s Death boasts of a substantially more tangible structure to Megacities, namely in the narrative arc that revolves around five distinct profiles which together trace the progression of a worker’s paradise from the past to present and the future. He begins in the figurative past, in a sequence titled “HEROES,” alluding to the Stakhanov worker’s mentality that grew from the Soviet communism movement.

Glawogger splices in footage from Enthusiasm (1932) that sets the paternal lineage between the two generations of miners. The next three sequences-GHOSTS, LIONS, and BROTHERS-all reference this Stakhanov sensibility, but places the gaze in the present, as Indonesian sulfur workers have to contend with Japanese tourists, Nigerian goat butchers fight for the heads and skins while the choice cuts are ferried far away, and Pakistani workers disassemble the ships that have made the international shipping business possible.

Through these workers, Glawogger gives the viewer a glimpse of the implications of globalization, although he shows rather than judges. These scenes, more so than the ones in Megacities, also show processes, which in itself give the film a skeleton of structure. For instance, we follow the sulfur carriers in an epic journey from the volcanic hell-hole to the weighing station miles away. We follow the butchers on a typical day’s work in the killing fields, in all its blood and glory.

The next sequence-FUTURE-brings the story to a hopeful resolution in China, where workers no longer toil in the death-defying conditions that their Ukrainian comrades must endure. Finally, he ends at a steelwork complex-turned-fairground, an epilogue that, by paralleling the abandoned heavy equipment at Duisburg with the Promethean struggles of the Stakhanov worker, elicits the nostalgia of a past era.

Unlike most filmmakers, Glawogger moved from a more experimental school of filmmaking, as seen in Megacities, to the more conventional mode in Workingman’s Death. But through both films, Glawogger has redrawn the limits of documentary filmmaking. His restaging of events in Megacities calls into question the axiographic nature of pursuing the truth and of imagining reality. His postmodern approach to narration in both films, and in particular the skillful use of alternative soundtracks, has introduced new possibilities of storytelling. And his minimalist structure in Megacities, and to a lesser extent Workingman’s Death, furthers his thesis that the world often cannot be reduced into simple narratives.

‘Megacities’ Film Review: An eye-opening tour of the world’s greatest cities (part 2)

Read part 1 of my review.

Megacities in particular features a rather unorthodox audio track that escapes categorization. While Workingman’s Death employs a soundtrack composed by the industrialist musician John Zorn, Megacities relies on the “discarded” sounds of the local environments and cultures to fashion a coherent narrative voice. In this way, Glawogger becomes one of the refuse-combers that he films in Mexico City and Mumbai, gleaning what others in a global consumer society have left behind.

He astutely employs sound to highlight the absurdity of everyday situations-the squishing of headless chickens flapping around in a bloody oilcan, the overly-saccharine Latino pop music playing during the striptease, triumphant blares of unseen trumpets during an awkward photo shoot of Mexican soccer players, who happen to be standing next to a trash heap.
In Megacities, Glawogger also experiments with other audio narrative devices, such as replaying previous dialogue on a cassette player and verbalizing (although not in his own voice) what he imagines people on a Moscow subway are reading on their way to work. Such elements, including his emphasis on filming locals who are singing (even staging a scene in which one woman mouths the words of a Russian song into her phone), establish a lyrical, larger-than-life atmosphere that envelopes what would otherwise just be the unseemly underbellies of urban decay.

But Glawogger is sometimes not as circuitous in his objective; he occasionally voices his own belief through surrogates, as in the scene in which we hear a New York radio personality’s speel on living in the Big Apple, that it was “a city of disguises and masks. This city expands and collapses.”

Megacities may at first seem like a complete postmodern repudiation of traditional constraints on structure and conventions of storytelling. There is no narrative arc or character development (in the sense that they change through the course of the film). Glawogger admits that the first iteration would have surprised viewers even more, “I was collecting bits and pieces … the first cut that I showed to people, they thought it’s a confusing pile of images, and it took very long till it got its form.”

The finished form, through its minimalist structure of twelve snapshots of people and places around the world, speaks to the very nature of its subject: the global diaspora. By giving us hundreds of jumpy snippets of life in Moscow, New York, Mumbai, and Mexico City, Glawogger underlines the complexity behind these megacities, from the geopolitical to the cultural and sexual. He glorifies the diversity and bewilderment of the new world order, a place where you can walk two blocks and fall down the rabbit hole. To place these stories into neat little boxes with a storyline from A to B would be to attempt to simplify the indivisible.

But Glawogger does retain some semblance of structure in Megacities, most significantly in the use of motifs. In Mumbai, he finds a backroom shopfloor brimming with Indian workers sewing blue robes. In the next sequence in New York, we see these blue robes being hawked by a streetside vendor (in the DVD commentary, he admits to staging this New York segment). In another scene in Mumbai, he captures the image of a girl hidden away in an alleyway, holding a baby chick. Later in the film, we see a salesman selling baby chicks for a peso out of a rolling car to little kids.

Such connecting motifs highlight Glawogger’s thesis about how globalization has impacted every corner of the globe, from the slums of Mexico City to the slums of Mumbai. Thus, his editing choices reflect Nichol’s belief that “…images are not quite as unmanageable as they appear. They can be joined together with words or other images into systems of signs, and hence, meaning.” Glawogger has sewn these little patches of the everyday fabric of life into a flowing tapestry of the human condition.