The simple problem posed by any given Michael Glawogger film is a challenge to get one's head around it. The simple solution is to come out feeling a little faint, vowing never again to complain about one's job, and making helpless uneasy jokes about needing to swear off poultry for a while, or prostitutes. Right, but then what?
A native Austrian whose apprenticeship includes a stint at the San Francisco Art Institute, Glawogger has achieved international standing with a loose trilogy of documentaries about globalization and human labor. He returns to the Bay Area this week for two inevitably intense days of screening and conversation at the Pacific Film Archive.
Neither mushy profusions of shiny banalities nor hectoring calls to action, Glawogger's documentaries rebuke more familiar modes of nonfiction engagement. They might seem more like bourgeois-guilt-trip travel tours, neatly packaged in pungent nuggets of neo-Mondo masochism, if not for the director's conviction to keep looking: Whores' Glory, from last year, extends the scope of 2005's Workingman's Death, which in turn elaborates on 1998's Megacities. What he sees is unambiguously demeaning transactional labor, including sex, made even more untenable by the advent of technology. At times it's downright ghastly, and also challengingly quotidian.
Heavy-duty epigraphs -- from Faulkner, Dickinson, William Vollmann -- mitigate ostensible detachment by implying a mind at work. Glawogger suggests that condonation and condemnation aren't worth much, cinematically, whereas consideration is. And so he recognizes an immense, planet-wide squalor, from which sprouts of human culture tenaciously and perversely emerge. "The absurd is the cultural legacy of mankind," says one masked Mexican prophet. A Ukrainian coal miner tells us she wanted to be a dancer, but "now I dance with sacks of coal in the mine." A junkie hustler in New York asks, "What's my dream in life?" and passes out before he can answer. Meanwhile the so-called City of Joy in Bangladesh seems so ironically named as to suggest cosmic cruelty. The outdoor abattoir in Nigeria looks like a Bosch painting brought to life.
If these are places most of us would rather never go, their emotional auras are richly familiar, film history-wise. Unabashedly staged in parts, and aestheticized by increasingly slick cinematography and music supervision, Glawogger's nominal documentaries flit across geographical and categorical borders as if waved through by Werner Herzog, himself a proponent of invention as a way toward truth. It's the world but it's also an odd cinema dreamworld, where spectacles contrived by the likes of scrappy mysterio-wayfarer Jim Jarmusch and moneyed city-demolitionist Christopher Nolan have been held socially accountable. People in Megacities talk about going to the movies for recreation, and whether or not this explicitly endorses the Preston Sturges theory of movie make-believe as noble diversion from life's "cockeyed caravan" is hard to say. Paradoxically, it is safe to assume that they aren't going to see the films of Michael Glawogger.
Kill Daddy Good Night
The PFA's slate also includes one fiction feature: In Kill Daddy Good Night, based on Josef Haslinger's novel, a vaguely patricidal young Austrian video game designer finds himself refurbishing a Nazi war criminal's hideout, and therefore in dialogue with a bona fide first-person shooter. Even escapist catharsis, it seems, demands a reckoning.
Afterimage: Films of Michael Glawogger runs Friday, May 4, through Sunday May 6, 2012, with the filmmaker in conversation with New York critic and programmer Dennis Lim, at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley. For tickets and information visit bampfa.berkeley.edu.