Movie Night: Life in Loops – A Megacities RMX (2006)

Sunday December 21st 2014,  Life in Loops – A Megacities RMX. Directed by Timo Novotny, 2006, 80 minutes, with English subtitles. Door opens at 8pm, film begins at 9pm.

“Radioglaz and the Global City

Glawogger captured the grinding routine of everyday labor and escapism of people on the outskirts of the metropolises New York, Mexico City, Moscow. and Mumbai in his awarded documentary essay Megacities. By finding a film language that not only reflects Zygmunts Bauman’s (1997: 328) assumption of globalization’s force to stratify the world population in globalized wealthy and localized poor, but that also offers an idiosyncratic insight beyond the description of urban peripheries as slums, the filmmaker came close to the poetics of his (aesthetic but not political) role model Dziga Vertov.

However, it was not until 2006 that the Austrian video artist Timo Novotny reviewed the original footage of Megacities in order to rearrange it in the spirit of Dziga Vertov’s radioglaz (3), a film concept and montage policy that counts on the “complex interaction of sound with image’ (Vertov in Hicks 2007: 77). sometimes even favoring the sound as the overriding rhythmizing element over the image. Whereas Megacities tells twelve geographically interspersed but serf-contained stories of survival, Life in Loops breaks them open and uses the audiovisual fragments to paint only five portraits of clandestine ways of living and working in global cities against the backdrop of a filmic contemplation on urban topographies. That way, Life in Loops traces, like Megacities, the conditio humana in relation to glocal subalterntiy, though making use of Vertov’s radioglaz in a more radical way.

Filmmaking in the Global City

In general Michael Glawogger’s body of work is characterized by his attempt to question and irritate the often negatively stereotyped gaze at people seemingly unusual and different in established Western media (most notably TV. newspapers, and feature films). His documentary Megacities and its follow-ups Workingman’s Death (2004)(4) and Whore’s Glory (2011) reflect his humanistic quest not only in the choice of the social strata depicted but also in the filmic gaze. ‘The world is a horrible and still livable place that’s what I want to show. I think a lot about our relationship with the rest of the world’ is shaped by fear; we know this rest because of bad news or… because of the neo-colonialist perspective of vacationers of resort hotels. But behind these bad news and the friendly exotic waiters of the hotels stand people with very similar fights and dreams like us (2006a).

In the case of Megacities, the setting for his controversial look at subaltern living and working worlds seems at once far away and just around the comer; far away geographically, but in montage just around the corner. Like globalization, the film depends on the local living and working force of people (captured on celluloid) as well as on the speed and vehemence of worldwide interconnectedness (established via swift juxtaposition of images and sounds taken several time zones apart). Like Saskia Sassen (2005: 65) highlights in her analysis of the glocalization of megacities, the globalized spatial dispersal of economic activities and the neutralization of place go hand in hand with the territorial centralization of top-level management, control operations, and specialized services. As a result, the concentration of capital, finance, and resources reserves freedom of choice and action only for a minority.

‘Glocalization is first and foremost a redistribution of privileges and disfranchisements of wealth and poverty, of possibilities and hopelessness, of power and powerlessness. of freedom and bondage,… in whose process a new, worldwide, socio-cultural self-reproducing hierarchy is established (Bauman 1997: 324).

Glawogger searches for his protagonists at the bottom of this hierarchy. They are pimps, sex workers, and thieves, but also street musicians. hawkers, manufacturers and factory workers. In their struggle of survival and their multifaceted ways of escaping the daily grind they seem to be neighbors, not only by their human constitution but also in film space.

“I tried to find cities that were closer to my own knowledge of upbringing and civilization… I had the feeling that I wanted someone in Mexico or Bombay who saw the film – that for him the images of New York and Moscow should be exotic and vicevesa” (Glawogger in Kamani 2002: 12).

The latent exoticism in Glawogger’s representation of poverty aroused many critical voices. The beauty that the spectators had discovered in the portraits of the poor urban strata was seen as euphemistic alienations born out of sensationalism (Keitbach 1998). His philosophical-artistic intention of evoking the recipient’s affects and reflections by means of filmic condensation of social phenomena-accomplished by a selection of locations “where (already) the landscape, the people, the colors, the moment and the sound are intensified (Glawogger in Tonnar 2006), of stylized camera angles and frames as well as cliff-hanging compositions of images – divided the audiences.

Skinny men wading through drains in Mumbai with stoic ease in enter to find waste that can be recycled, a man under a sunlit tarpaulin making dye and glowing in primary colors because the pigments have found their way into his pores, a white horse grazing alongside a haggled couch in the middle of a garbage dump in Mexico City – those pictures are fascinating to look at and uncomfortable at the same time.

Thus, not everything that is colorful is picturesque. The contradiction that emerges between the living conditions and their stylized filmic image, the antagonism between a ‘beautiful’ picture and a precarious situation can be significant insofar as it provokes the audience to confront itself with those social problems and phenomena (Reicher 1998). “For, when not equated with mere techniques of beautifying. aesthetics allow one to experience life differently or, as some would say, to give it ‘another sense'” (Trinh 1993: 100).

At first sight, Glawogger’s film stands for the non-argumentative, essentially visual quality of cinematography, where already the act of looking – i.e. the act of framing one’s gaze onto the world and the (subaltern) ‘ Other’ – is political.

The aspect that may unsettle the spectator most about this aesthetical choice is the fact that the cinematographically registered process of looking – “as form of active bodily engagement with the world” – does not draw a line between subject and object, but constitutes an “artifact in which the two are inseparably fused” (MacDougall 1998: 265), It is this play on identification and othering that challenges the spectator of Megacities to “position him-/herself to the world (Schön 1999) and that, consequently, allows Glawogger to put his aesthetics to sociocritical use.

In general Glawogger wants lo draw a clear line between him and the land of filmmakers that sally forth to find proof for an already prefigured message. ‘I look at what is going on out there and put it together. A meaning or a message is to be found in every camera angle or in the juxtaposition between the shots – but I wouldn’t want to give it away in one sentence (2006a)(5) He is conscious of the subjectivity of his representations and does not claim to depict universal truths. Mis ambition is to establish his films as “open systems, paintings that are never fully completed, frescos for which the rooms are too small and which swell through the windows into the open’ (2007b:. 2).

Life in Loops: A Megacities RMX

On this account, nearly ten years later, Glawogger immediately welcomed Timo Novotny’s project of remixing Megacities and provided the Austrian VJ (visual jockey) with the original forty hours of footage. Novotny maintained, though reedited, 30 percent of the originally used material, completed it with yet unseen footage and fused it with shots from Tokyo – freshly taken for this purpose by Megacities cameraman Wolfgang Thaler. This meant a continuity of photographic style and, in large part, concealed the asynchronicity of the material.

Life in Loops deviates from Glawogger’s rather stringent and conservative narrative approach, which divided Megacities into twelve stories of survival (6) by omitting extra-diegetic geographical dues and interweaving the footage to a point where the impressions of the different megacities merge into one big global village by means of association. Also. the number of portraits is shrunken down to four and presents only the most remarkable or catchy social performances: Cassandra, a sex-vaudeville dancer in Mexico City; Mike, a hustler in New York; Larissa Tatarowa a factory worker in Moscow; and Babu Khan, a dye maker in Mumbai. They are joined by a Japanese otaku(7), a young man obsessed with Manga culture. Contrary to the other protagonists who talk abundantly about their aspirations in life, he is satisfied with his virtual two-dimensional world consisting mainly in interactive pornographic Mange games and sees the only purpose of his work at a fast food shop in enlarging his collection of Manga fetishes, posters, and life size pillows painted with half-naked Manga girls. In his case, the main overarching question asked by Glawogger and consequently by Novotny – ‘What is your dream in life?’ – falls on deaf ears. Trapped in his private cyberspace, he is “too exhausted by everyday life” to have a dream. Or at least his dream has become intangible and of immaterial nature. For Novotny (2006), the sterility and anti-sociably of the otaku’s living world presents an intriguing counterpart to Glawogger’s earthbound characters. Moreover, there is none of Glawogger’s aggrandizement of glocal subalterniy in the depictions of Tokyo. As film critic Angus Reid concludes: ‘The alienation expressed in these scenes is nearly unbearable, whether it be the blank indifference of commuters in the underground, the autism of the computer freak or the dressing up of real women as girly cartoon characters. Glawogger’s subjects are people, but Novotn’s are barely people at all: either deadened consumers or people that are actually imitating commodities, being them, turning themselves into them” (2006).

While Megacities talked about “life-as-performance (-under-working-conditions)”. Life in Loops contemplates on “performance-as-(way-of)-life” (Möller 2006).

Megacities and its remix, Life in Loops constitute controversial examples of experimental transcultural montage. Not only do Glawogger and Novotny compare subaltern living and working experiences and their socioaesthetic conditions in global cities, but they do so by exhausting the aesthetic and reflexive potential of cinematography at all stages of montage.

On the one hand,, they create transcultural film spaces by juxtaposing and blending reality fragments from all parts of the globe. While Glawogger tries to give a comprehensive, though still fragmentary insight into subaltern living and working experiences and their respective environments, Novotny disintegrates space and rearranges the geographically dispersed impressions (often by audiovisual association) into one unsettling paste of glocalized subalternity (Bauman 1998). On the other hand, their joint acknowledgment of the omnipresence of creative intervention defies prevalent notions of documentary film about objectivity, non-intervention, and authenticity. Their idiosyncratic artistic handwritings challenge traditional aesthetic and discursive forms of documentary film and blur the thin line between the reflexive shifting of meaning and mere distortion of sociocultural phenomena.

Megacities and Life in Loops demonstrate that aesthetics, especially the creative manipulation of footage based on Dziga Verov’s radioglaz and Trinh T. Minhha’s interval theory, cannot only serve as catalyst for the audiovisual translation of social conditions and the expression of their physical and psychological manifestations. but might also lead to subjugation of footage to a certain artistic form or message. Clearly, they illustrate the inseparability of aesthetics and politics in the constitution of documentary.

Thus, Life in Loops attests to both the rampant audiovisual imaginary of its author as well as the miserable living and working experiences of its protagonists, though often being at risk of degenerating into a narcissistic exercise of selfreflexivity – an ‘unbearable spectacle’ (Raid 2006). Likewise, Michael Glawogger’s aesthetically appealing quest for the underlying similarities of people’s struggles and dreams and his simultaneous celebration of their otherness oscillates between being a provocative example of transcultural montage and a contemporary variation of an exotic ‘cinema of attraction’ (Gunning 1989). Similarly, but in a less radical way than Timo Novotny, he employs Trinh’s (1993: 104) reflexive interval, ‘a break without which meaning would be fixed and truth congealed (in order to) challenge representation itself while emphasizing the reality of the experience of film as well as the important role that reality plays in the lives of the spectators’. At best, transcultural cinema can be ‘self-reflexive to an extent that it engages the spectator with an evocation of being in-the-world involving subject, filmmaker and spectator. This evocation in turn aims to replace assumptions of extreme or absolute alterity with an intersubjectivity grounded in an identification with (rather than of) the other (Ungar 2003: 317).

For anthropological filmmaking, these two examples of transcultural montage might be instructive for several reasons. Regardless of the filmmaker’s epistemology, the authority of the filmmaker and respectively his or her point of view inevitably pervade all stages of montage: the choice of topic, the reexamination of an already approved profilmic reality on location, the negotiations between filmmaker and his or her protagonists in the field, the actual process of filming as well as the filtering of the recorded material at the editing table.

In addition, inferring from Trinh’s premise that “meaning can be political only … when it does not rely on any single source of authority. but rather, empties it or decentralizes it (1993: 100), collaborative film approaches may help to destabilize the powerfully charged processes of filmmaking. In combination with experimental montage that plays on the boundaries of documentary, they work to unsettle the spectators’ point of view so as to ultimately open up new sociocritical perspectives on and ways of engaging with the world.

Moreover, experimental forms of montage may go beyond what Jean Rouch (2003: 85) called the ‘(transcultural) miracle… of cinema (that occurs) when the filmgoer suddenly understands an unknown language without the help of subtitles, when he participates in strange ceremonies, when he finds himself walking in towns or across terrain that he has never seen before but that he recognizes perfectly, In contrast to such transcultural identification. (radical) rearrangement of sounds and images works to point to phenomena that exist beyond the audiovisual such as corporal (sensuous) experiences or social dynamics and tensions.

It is a question of anthropology’s audacity to actively engage with the expressive possibilities and ambiguities that these experimental forms of montage entail. The ‘overtapping of experiential horizons, where certain indirect and interpretive leaps of understanding can take place” (MacDougall 1998: 272) is not constrained to observational approaches of filmmaking, but constrained by the shared power and responsibility of signification – shared between the filmmaker, the protagonists, and the audiences.

In the end,’it is about the ethos of the right demeanor in an encounter between people on this planet. Perhaps Glawogger has invented the impossible genre … the melodramatic documentary, the attempt of reconciling reality’s exorbitance with itself’ (Kämmerer 2006)(19).”

Source: Binter, J. T. S. (2013) “Radioglaz and the Global City. Possibilities and Constraints of Experimental Montage”, in: Transcultural Montage, Rane Willerslev and Christian Suhr (eds.), Pp. 183-197. New York, Oxford: Berghahn.

Film night at Joe’s Garage, cozy cinema! Doors open at 8pm, film begins at 9pm, free entrance. You want to play a movie, let us know: joe [at] squat [dot] net