Michel Gondry, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, 2004, still from a color film in 35 mm, 108 minutes. Joel and Clementine (Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet).

TEN YEARS IS AN AWKWARD AGE in cultural memory: too recent to provoke nostalgia, but far enough away to be unfashionable. The preceding decade is what we have just grown tired of; not-yet-classics still sit side by side with their not-yet-forgotten mediocre imitators. If it often seems that every era of the cultural past has been reanimated and now stalks the present, this valley (what is three to ten years old) may be the only respite in the life of the artistic artifact, a period of enforced obsolescence and disuse.

The Museum of Modern Art’s “Focus Features: 10th Anniversary Salute” is a reminder that even those of us who trade in for a new iPhone every six months are walking around with ideas about Brokeback Mountain that are seven years old. Until recently, I had seen all of the movies in this series precisely once. But those experiences, atrophied and half-remembered, were made to stand long past their expiration date. So here, an update.

Some of these films, I suspect, only a college freshman would admit to liking in 2012. Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), however, no longer strikes me as gimmicky and twee, but as hugely depressing. The cliché premise—lovers with amnesia! Double amnesia!—masks the disturbing conclusion that we are not the “better selves” of our hopeful imaginations, that our identities are only the sum of our illnesses and errors. When the free-spirited lovers (Kate Winslet and Jim Carrey) end up together, this is less a cloying affirmation than a destitute admission that we cannot escape ourselves. Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation (2003) might have been switched out for another Focus Feature, the documentary Babies (2010, not screening here), with no real difference. Both depict a strange time in life when the world is a confusing blur of symbols and illegible rituals, where everyone speaks a strange language, where it is impossible to articulate our desires, there is no need to work, and a lot of time is spent lying around in bed.

Two of these films were self-consciously Important Moments in the mainstreaming of gay culture in America. Although I remember bawling during the trailer for Gus Van Sant’s 2008 biopic Milk, the movie itself is boring. Characters often seem to be reading lines that would have been better left to a documentary voice-over, while the subplots are confused. (What is James Franco doing here?) When Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain was first released, it was widely insisted to be a “love story,” i.e., an exploration of true and beautiful emotions usually denied to representations of gays in film. But this is not the film you will see in 2012. None of these characters are so glib or transparent. The looming Western cinematography often stands in for feelings that can’t be accessed or easily named. And the plot consists entirely of Heath Ledger pushing away intimacy: keeping Jake Gyllenhaal at a distance, boxing out his wife and children, and being left finally only with regrets. The story is that he rejects a love story for himself. This is finally a story about emotions, not about their objects. It is a different movie than people have wanted it to be, but possibly a more interesting one.

Left: Ang Lee, Brokeback Mountain, 2005, still from a color film in 35 mm, 134 minutes. Jack Twist and Ennis Del Mar (Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger). Right: Sofia Coppola, Lost in Translation, 2003, still from a color film in 35 mm, 104 minutes. Bob Harris (Bill Murray).

In a later moment, Mike Mills’s Beginners (2010) and Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right (2010) chose to forgo the grandiose gestures and just make interesting dramas about gay characters. Beginners does not entirely succeed. The premise—a terminally ill father coming out of the closet juxtaposed with a son’s reluctance to risk vulnerability—remains only a premise. The movie toggles between two time periods to little effect other than to disguise that the story is always at a standstill. Certain gimmicks, like subtitling the inner thoughts of a dog or interrupting a scene to flash a picture of Richard Nixon onscreen, are just so many nonnarrative, nonscenic distractions. Moreover, the straight/gay, young/old dynamics are less descriptive of the movie than is the axis depressed/not-depressed. Ewan McGregor’s problem is that he is depressed, while his problem with his father is that he is not depressed. But in film as in life, depressed people are uninteresting time-traps. So, watching this movie I kept wanting to make excuses about how I would call soon, while edging toward the door. By contrast, The Kids Are All Right looks like Ibsen: all character study, interactions building to tension, and a classic three-act form. There was a time when Hollywood regularly produced movies like this. One can imagine Montgomery Clift or Robert Mitchum playing Mark Ruffalo’s role, as the charming interloper who threatens the family unit. Only, in 2010, it is as the biological father to the children of a lesbian couple.

Auteur filmmaking, if it had its way, would never be compared with contemporaneous works. Instead, like certain cycles of the Mayan calendar, the temporality of auteur films is the long span, maintained in a separate sphere. Any given decade in film can reliably be expected to produce ten Woody Allen movies and something like three-fifths of a Terrence Malick movie, but who would juxtapose Tree of Life (2011) next to Midnight in Paris (2011)? For this reason, The Pianist (2002) is best seen as a quintessential Roman Polanski movie: aloof, devoid of sentimentality, and set mostly in urban apartment interiors—like his enclosed masterpieces Repulsion (1965), Rosemary’s Baby (1968), and The Tenant (1976). The extermination of Warsaw’s Jews seems to have presented itself to Polanski as a cinematic occasion for numerous Hitchcockian close calls, tense raids, and ambiguous motivations. Nowhere is he interested in identification by the viewer. Survival is portrayed as an unattractive, mute, dead-eyed persistence, and Adrien Brody plays Wladyslaw Szpilman with complete detachment from any “artistic” warmth or depth, totally unromanticized. The story, in its resolute particularity, is a kind of anti–Schindler’s List, which was ultimately a “feel-good” movie by the director of E.T.

One of the tautologies of auteurist self-referentiality is that the best work by a filmmaker is taken automatically to be what most bears the auteur’s “signature.” The best Fellini must also be the most Felliniesque. Among the seven movies that they made over the past decade, the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man (2009) somehow feels like the key to their entire body of work. It’s at once obviously personal, even autobiographical, as though all of their existential absurdism had its home here. For this reason, it was easy to overpraise the movie. A Serious Man sits somewhere in the middle of the pack of their films, with the likes of The Hudsucker Proxy (1994).

Mike Mills, Beginners, 2011, still from a color film in 35 mm, 104 minutes. Hal Fields and Oliver Fields (Christopher Plummer and Ewan McGregor).

Fernando Meirelles’s The Constant Gardener (2005) aspires to be a stirring incitement to moral outrage and political consciousness, concealed in the Trojan Horse of a taut spy thriller. It is easily the worst film in the series. The movie’s polemical notion, that Africa needs to be saved from evil white capitalists by virtuous white humanitarians, must have originated in the Angelina Jolie Center for Social Thought. But even worse is how this insipid moral indignation is addicted to its own obvious symbolism—starting with the awkward and pompous title. In English, we would say, “He’s always gardening.” This combination of inscrutable pretentiousness and heavy-handed, Oscar-motivated yearning for effects quickly grows tiresome. The ending of this movie, a surprise denunciation delivered as a eulogy, is ripped off from the teen drama Cruel Intentions.

David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises (2007) is superficially similar—a thriller about the “dirty secrets” of international capitalism. Here it’s sex trafficking by the Russian mafia instead of pharmaceutical company malfeasance. But this appallingly violent film (Cronenberg’s whole career, really) spits on the idea motivating The Constant Gardener—that just watching is itself a kind of quiet moral victory. Contemptuously dragging the viewer through a sewer of degradation, Cronenberg dares anyone to leave the theater feeling self-satisfied, or anything but gross and sullied. This was one of the best movies of the decade, with at least one scene—a naked knife fight in a Turkish bathhouse—that no one who has seen it will ever forget.

It would have been easy to curate a Focus Features retrospective that would just look like someone’s OkCupid profile. 21 Grams (2003), Atonement (2007), and The Motorcycle Diaries (2004) were, after all, as big as any of the movies here. Nor do we get any of the prestige literary adaptations (Jane Eyre [2011], Pride and Prejudice [2005], Vanity Fair [2004]) that will continue with Focus’s upcoming Anna Karenina. The films culled for this series instead represent the balancing act Focus has always maintained in the cultural field. On one hand, a relentlessly earnest liberal topicality, the kind of gesture at zeitgeist that George Clooney or Tim Robbins finds himself “really believing in.” The Constant Gardener and Milk stand in for a number of similarly intentioned Focus films. On the other hand, an uncoordinated slate of the latest works by the great directors: Cronenberg, the Coen brothers, Polanski—and, coming soon, Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom. In a sense, this alternation reprises how we experience something like a decade—oscillating between a same-y, wearisome clutching at the present, and the eclectic, intermittent detachment of vision.

Ben Parker

“Focus Features: 10th Anniversary Salute” runs May 3–20 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Raymond De Felitta, Booker’s Place: A Mississippi Story, 2012, black-and-white film in HD, 91 minutes. Production still. Vera Douglas, Katherine Jones, and Yvette Johnson. Photo: Danielle Anderson.

SOME STORIES need to be told and told again. Raymond De Felitta’s Booker’s Place: A Mississippi Story (2012) is the sequel to his father Frank De Felitta’s NBC News documentary Mississippi: A Self Portrait (1966). Both films explore racism and a still unresolved struggle for desegregation in Greenwood, Mississippi, the town that was the home of Byron De La Beckwith, finally convicted in 1994 of assassinating Medgar Evers in 1963. At the time of the NBC film, De La Beckwith belonged to the statewide White Citizens’ Council, headquartered in Greenwood and virtually synonymous with the Ku Klux Klan.

The elder De Felitta, aware that he was putting his life in danger by filming in Greenwood, was given the telephone numbers of undercover FBI agents living in the area, and on one occasion had to call for protection. It’s a small measure of how far we have come (still not nearly far enough) that no such protection was necessary for the son when he visited Greenwood a year or two ago to show the 1966 film to current residents and to interview them, in particular, about Booker Wright, whose two-minute monologue—delivered straight to the NBC cameras in the original film—is still riveting today. Wright seized the moment to tell an entire nation the truth about racism and black servitude, speaking through lips set wide in a minstrel smile. It was an act of extraordinary courage and transformation. As the camera rolled, Wright metamorphosed from a man who played the clown for those who treated him like dirt into a confrontational civil rights activist, so that, he explained, “my children can get an education and not suffer what I suffered.”

The younger De Felitta is an undervalued American independent film treasure. His fiction movies, among them Two Family House (2000) and City Island (2009), are that rare thing—popular culture entertainments that are uplifting but unsentimental, and deeply humanist in the manner of Jean Renoir. De Felitta’s characters discover that they cannot live by the rules of their working-class conservative communities. In liberating their sense of justice and creativity, they experience, however tenuously, real joy.

Since those characters are not black and not living in Mississippi in the 1960s, they do not pay with their lives, as did Booker Wright, for doing the right thing. After Mississippi: A Self Portrait aired, Wright was fired from the job he had held since he was fourteen as a waiter in a white restaurant; his own restaurant, Booker’s Place, was trashed; he was beaten nearly to death by the cops. In 1973, he was murdered. Many people, the elder De Felitta among them, believed that his appearance in the NBC documentary factored in his death. A few years ago, while trying to archive his father’s films, De Felitta found Mississippi: A Self Portrait and put it on YouTube. Wright’s granddaughter Yvette Johnson saw it and contacted De Felitta. She had heard about the film but never seen it. In watching Booker’s monologue, she realized that he was not an “accidental activist” as she had believed but rather a courageous man who took charge of his life by performing an existential act, knowing fully its possible consequences.

De Felitta and Johnson traveled together to Greenwood to show the original film and to put together the interviews and background material that would make up Booker’s Place. The backstory I’ve related here figures in the actual film, a “two-family house” that fluidly weaves two intergenerational narratives, that of Booker, his mother, his children, and his granddaughter and that of the De Felittas. The father is now in his nineties, and his guilt about Booker was perhaps alleviated by seeing Booker’s monologue through the eyes of his granddaughter, who understood that the film gave Booker the opportunity to “become a man.” To a certain extent, the new film gives us a chance to compare Greenwood then and now. Certainly there is improvement. Booker’s Place, however, remains unoccupied.

Amy Taubin

Booker’s Place: A Mississippi Story premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival on Sunday, April 22, and is now playing at Noho 7 in Los Angeles and the Quad Cinema in New York. Raymond De Felitta and Yvette Johnson will be present at Quad Cinema for introductions and Q&As on Friday, April 27, and Saturday, April 28. For more details, check the theater’s website.

Carmelo Bene, Capricci, 1969, still from a color film in 35 mm, 89 minutes. Right: Carmelo Bene, Nostra signora dei turchi (Our Lady of the Turks, 1966), still from a color film in 16 mm, 142 minutes.

WRITING ON THE ITALIAN THEATER IN 1968, Pier Paolo Pasolini invoked one name in particular as the benchmark of contemporary, avant-garde sensibility: that of Carmelo Bene. As playwright, actor, poet, costume designer, author, and, for a few years, film director, Bene envied nothing of Pasolini’s own extraordinary versatility. And like Pasolini’s similarly unclassifiable oeuvre, Bene’s work has long enjoyed a particular esteem in France (he was an intimate of Pierre Klossowski, Michel Foucault, and Gilles Deleuze, even coauthoring a few essays with Deleuze). He remains far less known in the United States, however. A retrospective this weekend at Anthology Film Archives featuring Bene’s core cinematic works, along with a few notable shorts like Il barocco leccese (1968) and Hermitage (1968), should go some way in redressing the oversight of his work on this side of the Atlantic.

By the time of his debut as a film director in 1968, Bene had already established himself as one of Italy’s bolder cultural figures, staging innovative versions of Albert Camus’s Caligula (in 1959) and Oscar Wilde’s Salomé (in 1964), as well as penning the novel Nostra signora dei turchi (Our Lady of the Turks, 1966). It is this last work—a hallucinatory meditation filmed at the Ossuary of Otranto, site of a famous Ottoman invasion and massacre—that served as the basis for Bene’s first feature-length film. Debuted at the Venice Film Festival to equal parts insult and acclaim, Nostra signora dei turchi launched the style that Bene would hone in what remained of his cinematic venture: nonnarrative sequences; surreal, staccato montages mixed with stretches of repetitive dialogue; and the use of music and sound to heighten visual dissonance.

Bene’s is first and foremost a visual cinema, a feast of sensuous colors, oneiric superimpositions, elaborate costumes, and provocative jump cuts. To watch Bene’s Capricci (1969) or Salomè (1972) is to get a basic lesson in art cinema. Veering from the expressionist to the affectless, the frenetic to the oppressively boring, Bene’s films are relentlessly paratactic, never settling into any fixed pattern or design, shifting in and out of coherence both optical and conceptual. Still, Bene was no mere formalist. Drawing upon the likes of Mayakovsky and Hölderlin, Leopardi and Collodi, he channeled his talents into a seemingly impossible range of media, of which the cinema served as a kind of consummation. Bene’s turn as a director was meteoric. Lasting just five years, his tenure behind the camera (as much as in front of it) resulted in a handful of extraordinary, genre-pushing films. These occupy an eccentric but firm position in the history of experimental, twentieth-century cinema.

Ara H. Merjian

“The Films of Carmelo Bene” runs April 26–29 at Anthology Film Archives in New York.

Twin Peeks


Jean-Luc Godard, Histoire(s) du Cinéma, 1988–98, still from a color video, 266 minutes. Greta Garbo.

THERE ARE STILL A FEW WEEKS to catch the current edition of the Museum of Modern Art’s “1980–Now.” Under the exhibition’s rubric, a rotating selection of the museum’s extensive contemporary art holdings is installed on the second floor. For the first time, the show places films whose historic context is not the museum/gallery system side by side with painting, sculpture, photography, and installation. One expects to see video monitors displaying Beth B’s The Dominatrix Sleeps Tonight (1984) and Steve McQueen’s Deadpan (1997) in “1980–Now,” but to come upon a room devoted to the projection of the opening section of Jean-Luc Godard’s four-part Histoire(s) du Cinéma (1988–98)—and to find the benches in that room nearly filled on several visits—is a surprise, and long overdue.

Placed next to the Godard installation is a wall card informing us that films by Stan Brakhage are projected daily at 3 PM in the Time Warner Screening Room, also on the second floor. It took me a few minutes to find the small, hand-lettered signs—simply BRAKHAGE, with an arrow beneath the name—posted along the corridor next to the cafeteria, and, judging from the tiny audiences at the four screenings I attended, not too many museumgoers walked the two hundred or so feet. Nevertheless, I count it as a major institutional breakthrough to have motion pictures from the Department of Film’s collection exhibited as if they were—and indeed they are—integral to the definition of contemporary art, rather than an addendum to be programmed in a world apart in the basement Titus theaters.

The Brakhage films—all of the artist’s 1980s work—look gloriously beautiful on the Time Warner screen. The 16-mm and 35-mm prints are immaculate and are being shown at the speeds Brakhage intended for each of them—either 18FPS or 24FPS for the silent films and the necessary 24FPS for the sound films. And yes, there are several sound works. Known as a maker of silent films—he believed that viewers relied on sound for meaning and emotional cues at the expense of becoming immersed in images—Brakhage nevertheless experimented intermittently with sound throughout his career. The largest sound work in the series, a multipart film (1987–88) based on the Faust legend and made in collaboration with composers Joel Haertling and Rick Corrigan, has its champions—Brakhage expert P. Adams Sitney among them—but I am not one, and I’d hesitate to recommend it to Brakhage novices for fear that its expressionist excesses and purple text would suggest that the avant-garde film emperor is just one nude dude. But even the dubious Faust films have eye-opening passages—specifically long landscape sequences (the Southwest, I believe) shot from a moving car. Similar images appear in Visions in Meditation (1989), one of the strongest of Brakhage’s ’80s films.

Stan Brakhage, The Dante Quartet, 1987.

The mid-’80s were a notably dark period in Brakhage’s filmmaking. In Tortured Dust (1984) and Kindering (1987), the family life that was the source of energy and inspiration for his earlier masterworks is depicted as desiccated and grotesque. Against these, we have his dazzling handpainted films, such as The Dante Quartet (1987). For me, the two not-to-be-missed films in the series are the anomalous (for Brakhage) found-footage masterpiece Murder Psalm (1980) and the amorphous yet formally precise Unconscious London Strata (1981), which Brakhage described as “a reconstruction of the mind’s-eye at the borders of the unconscious.” But just show up at the Time Warner Screening Room any day of the week at 3 PM through May 14 no matter which of the films is playing. Brakhage has never been shown to such advantage before and I fear may not be ever again.

Brakhage is included in Godard’s idiosyncratic cinema history, although his place is not as prominent as Hitchcock’s or dozens of others’—anonymous photographers of war atrocities among them. Personal taste aside, Godard and Brakhage transformed the language of cinema more extensively and radically than any other filmmakers of the second half of the twentieth century. That said, my taste privileges Godard—always has, always will. The obsessive, madly free-associative work that is Histoire(s) du Cinéma is now available on a DVD Region 1 box set from Olive Films, but I prefer seeing it projected large, as it is at MoMA. I suspect that most of the people on the benches came into the room to rest and were then mesmerized by the flow of images—the unimaginably beautiful and unspeakably horrific freed from their original narrative context and refigured within Godard’s gnomic voice-over commentary. Not merely meta, but the thing itself, a motion picture like no other.

Amy Taubin

Histoire(s) du Cinéma is on view at the Museum of Modern Art in New York until the current cycle of “1980–Now” closes. The Brakhage series runs through May 14. Check the museum’s daily film schedule for details.

Left: Terayama Shuji, The Trial, 1975. Performance view, Tate Modern, Turbine Hall, March 18, 2012. Photo: Brotherton/Lock. Right: Terayama Shuji, Pastoral Hide and Seek, 1974, still from a color film in 35 mm, 104 minutes. Photo courtesy of the Terayama Museum.

TERAYAMA SHUJI (1935–1983) famously did everything from offering refuge to runaway kids to providing the Japanese public with horse-racing tips, but he was foremost a poet. The liver disease nephritis, which killed him at a cruelly early age, kept him in hospital for longish periods throughout his life, and so he had all too much time to lie back and let his imagination soar. Despite the intermittent hospitalization, he led the theater troupe Tenjo-sajiki (“Children of Paradise”) to international acclaim in the 1970s; wrote novels, poems, and essays; exhibited highly crafted and manipulated photographs; delivered ringside commentaries on boxing matche; and made five and a half feature films plus numerous experimental shorts. Along the way, he nurtured such visual artists as Yokoo Tadanori and such actors as Niitaka Keiko, Wakamatsu Takashi, and Mikami Hiroshi. Much of his work remains current in Japan: There are revivals of his plays and films, the books are still in print, the photographs are still shown. He’s as much of a force in Japanese culture now as he was in his lifetime.

In March, Tate Modern in London hosted an exemplary tribute, curated by film scholar Thomas Dylan Eaton, showing most of Terayama’s film and video work—including all of the short films, which he described as “my poetry, my violence, my erotic jokes, and my visiting cards”—and various contextual odds and sods, all supplemented by a one-day symposium on the man and his work. (Full disclosure: I was asked to respond to the symposium papers, because Terayama invited me to work as a guest actor with Tenjo-sajiki for some performances in 1978.) There were many highlights, not least screenings of the three “expanded cinema” pieces Terayama made in the mid-’70s with help from his loyal assistant Morisaki Henrikku. Morisaki came to London to perform the live-action parts of these pieces. He still looks just about youthful enough to match his screen image from some thirty-eight years ago, but it will eventually become impossible to present Rolla (Laura, 1974), in which he enters the screen after being taunted by three painted harpies, only to be stripped, spanked, and ejected back into the auditorium naked.

Terayama’s remarkable feature Den’en ni shisu (Pastoral Hide-and-Seek, 1974) ends with the protagonist, a film director, talking with his childhood self in a countryside hut. Suddenly the wooden wall behind them drops to reveal that they’re actually sitting beside a busy intersection in Shinjuku, in the heart of Tokyo, with spectral figures from Tenjo-sajiki capering about on the sidewalk. The image cuts to the core of Terayama’s inspiration. During his first extended spell in the hospital, he found his childhood memories and fantasies of Mount Osore in Aomori Prefecture (legend holds it to be haunted, and it’s a magnet for shamans to this day) merging with his interest in the burgeoning ’60s counterculture that was becoming increasingly noisy on the Tokyo streets beneath his window. Like his contemporary Oshima Nagisa, his only serious rival as a culture hero for Japan’s student revolutionaries, Terayama was a nonaligned leftist who constantly warned that direct political action risked edging into fascism. Unlike Oshima, he was essentially a surrealist, dedicated to revolution in the head.

TateShots: Terayama.

The speakers in the Tate’s symposium made a good fist of exploring Terayama’s complexities and occasional contradictions. Carol Fisher Sorgenfrei from UCLA brought to life the history of Tenjo-sajiki, tracing the company’s roots in circus and other touring entertainments and noting parallels with the theater work of Kantor, Beckett, Grotowski, and Artaud. The poet Matsui Shigeru from Tokyo University of the Arts uncovered Terayama’s involvement in a long-forgotten TV program of the mid-’60s, an absurdist collage of vox-pop interviews. Steve Ridgely from the University of Wisconsin traced the origins of Terayama’s first feature, Throw Away Your Books, Let’s Hit the Streets (1971), in a book and a stage show. And Julian Ross of Leeds University set Terayama’s experimental shorts in the context of the nascent intermedia art of the ’60s and ’70s.

Terayama’s continuing impact in Japan has a lot to do with the blockages and evasions in Japanese culture and public life, and his poetic provocations will never have the same meaning abroad that they had and have for the home audience. But the Tate events proved once again that Terayama was a colossus in the fields of cinema, theater, and literature. His photographs and collages drew on all three, and they, too, stand as iconic images of their moment. Terayama was one of a kind, the kind that understands, for example, that a love of cinema can sometimes drive you to hammer nails into the screen.

Tony Rayns

A retrospective of the films of Terayama Shuji ran Friday, March 16–Sunday, March 25 at Tate Modern in London.

At the author’s request, Japanese names are given in their traditional form: surname first.

Left: Michael Glawogger, Megacities, 1998, still from a color film, 90 minutes. Right: Michael Glawogger, France, Here We Come!, 2000, still from a color film, 80 minutes.

“THE ABSURD IS THE CULTURAL HERITAGE OF ALL MANKIND,” says a man who identifies himself as SuperBarrio Gomez, declaiming to the slums of Mexico City while wearing the flamboyant uniform of a masked lucha libre wrestler, as though to illustrate his own point. SuperBarrio Gomez is one of hundreds of subjects in Austrian Michael Glawogger’s sensory overload Megacities (1998), a sui generis global-symphony film that displays its author’s intrepid, incurably curious camera and his dab-handed editing from the opening set piece sequence, which follows a train through Mumbai’s Govandi slums, breaking away along the tracks to isolate quotidian vignettes.

Megacities squirms with details of scraped-by, subsistence-level life as lived in the lower depths of Mumbai, Mexico City, Moscow, and New York. Our shared heritage of absurdity, and the tenacity with which humanity as a whole continues to bear up under it, is something like the film’s subject as well as the continuing theme of Glawogger’s hemisphere-hopping documentaries, which teem with bodies and bickering ideas.

In fact, SuperBarrio Gomez partially mouths Glawogger’s sentiments—of his dialogue, the filmmaker once said, “It’s sort of a commentary that was made between him and me.” Like Ulrich Seidl, Glawogger’s countryman, mate from the Vienna Film Academy, and sometime collaborator, he makes films that exist in the perilous no-man’s-land between observed documentary and scripted fiction, contrasting the veracity of their life-marred subjects and locations with obviously staged and blocked scenes, frequently ennobling formal tableaux and diorama-like compositions. (Glawogger has made a number of films that classify more purely as fiction, but none quite so awesome and awful as his documentaries, which connect to the heritage of the ’60s mondo film, while adding a philosophical breadth and reserve all their own.)

Glawogger’s 2000 France, Here We Come! follows the Austrian national team through the 1998 World Cup, counterbalancing spectator hopes at home and abroad as his camera travels to Cameroon, Chile, and then Italy to view the matches as reflected in the expectant faces of Austria’s national enemies on the soccer pitch. Illustrating the workaday function of hope and faith in that which is well beyond the faithful’s control, France, Here We Come! is a companion to Seidl’s collection of confessional religious longings like Jesus, You Know of 2003—the films are also linked by their superlative cinematographer, Wolfgang Thaler, who has lucidly framed much of Seidl and Glawogger’s best work.

Evidences of sorely tested light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel faith abound in Glawogger’s Workingman’s Death (2005), which collects instances of wretched work from around the globe. The film begins with potent images epitomizing the film’s subject, life on the perilous margins: Squatters mine an abandoned colliery in the Ukraine, their work consisting of wriggling into an underground claustrophobic nightmare, working their seam while separated from catastrophe by mere centimeters, trust in one’s fellows, and a prayer. We are all, in this world, one mistake away from disaster, but it is dizzying to see this plight made so tactile and immediate.

Material that would provide a full feature for most filmmakers is, for Glawogger, only one element in a larger cross-cultural dialogue of interacting pictorial parts, an unfolding multipanel work. Bong-Nam Park’s 2009 Iron Crows, for instance, documents life in the Chittagong ship-breaking yards and is, down to the ritual animal sacrifices, very near to a section in Workingmen’s set in a Pakistani yard. Glawogger’s latest documentary, the not entirely ironically titled prostitution panorama Whores’ Glory (2011), is in fact described as a “triptych,” and that word’s medieval associations pervade Glawogger’s work, showing not only the continued existence of toil, squalor, and superstition that seem distinctly premodern, but also a sense of doomsday that recalls plague times, as in Workingman’s open-air abattoir in Port Harcourt, Nigeria, the ground a mess of mud and surging arterial blood, the sky choked with Triumph of Death smoke from burning-rubber pit barbecues.

“Why should my job bother you so much?” sings a streetwalker in some Dhallywood confection excerpted in Glory, which, as with any of Glawogger’s meditations on labor, suggests a cacophony of point-counterpoint answers to that question. Glory is practically a sequel to Death, for it concerns rough shift-work—the sort done mostly horizontally—in Thailand, Bangladesh, and Mexico, and, as in Death, it shows people dealing, or failing to deal, with circumstances that almost anyone in a position to view these films would deem unendurable. Says one of Glory’s if not happy then at least pragmatic hookers: “A job is a job. We have to enjoy what we do.” Too true—and few today are doing the messy, vital job of etching life onto the screen as well as Michael Glawogger.

Nick Pinkerton

The first US retrospective of the films of Michael Glawogger runs April 19–29 at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York. Whores’ Glory has its US theatrical premiere in New York and select cities on Friday, April 27.