I've been trying to write about Michael Glawogger's documentary, but I haven't been happy with any of the results, so in lieu of my original plan I've decided to throw some scraps together in an attempt to bring a little attention to this beautiful, visceral film. If nothing else, check out the pictures!
Workingman's Death is largely comprised of footage of people performing tough manual labor for survival wages in a handful of locations around the world. It opens with the bold part of the following quote:
"There were many things I could do for two or three days and earn enough money to live on for the rest of the month. By temperament I’m a vagabond and a tramp. I don’t want money badly enough to work for it. In my opinion it’s a shame that there is so much work in the world. One of the saddest things is that the only thing that a man can do for eight hours a day, day after day, is work. You can’t eat eight hours a day nor drink for eight hours a day nor make love for eight hours — all you can do for eight hours is work. Which is the reason why man makes himself and everybody else so miserable and unhappy." —William Faulkner
Based on its title and the quote that opens it, I was expecting Michael Glawogger's film to be a depressing polemic against work, focusing specifically on inhumane conditions and the never ending struggle of workers. But, my dear reader (I know you won't believe it!), I was wrong! Yes, the film contains these elements, but it does so mostly from the point of view of respect and curiosity, and Glawogger's philosophy driving the film is simply to let the images speak for themselves. Despite its subject matter, Workingman's Death is ultimately a celebration of life and people; thus, sadly, the cyanide I prepared and had sitting on my nightstand will have to wait for another night. I simply cannot kill myself after feeling rejuvenated.
Some of the other themes/topics the film touches on/raises questions about include: technology, industrialization, community, class, violence, death, nostalgia, and religion.
Chapter 2 of Workingman's Death, Ghosts, is an incredible short film. At times it's reminiscent of Weerasethakul's languorous narratives and his focus on sensuality and physicality (Tropical Malady in particular). It's complex, simple, epic and small-scale all at once, and it has quickly found its way onto my imaginary list of favorite short films.
Early on we see people winding up a foggy mountain slope, and it's hard to imagine that Glawogger isn't purposely evoking the spectacular opening sequence of Werner Herzog's Aguirre.
The difference is that, for these workers, gold doesn't lie in some fabled city but atop the volcanic mountain they're climbing, and it's waiting there for them in the form of precious yellow sulfer crystals.
Chapter 3: An open-air slaughterhouse in Nigeria filled with bones, blood, burning tires, and dirty water -- evocative of hell. A woman walks by dragging the bloody skin of a bull across the muddy debris-covered ground as if it were a picnic blanket. The animal parts and rib-cages, mixed together in an every-day fashion with the surrounding people, creates simultaneous wonder and revulsion. Sometimes it seems like an unreal place, and instead of a documentary I felt like I was watching an experimental performance piece by the Vienna Actionists. But by the time this chapter was over, my impression of it had changed dramatically.
Glawogger ends Workingman's Death with a wonderful epilogue and credit sequence, both of which, in their own way, give a new perspective. He had originally wanted to conclude the film with The Rolling Stones song Salt of the Earth but wasn't able to secure the rights.
Let's drink to the hard working people
Let's drink of the lowly of birth
Raise your glass to the good and the evil
Let's drink to the salt of the earth
Say a prayer for the common foot soldier
Spare a thought for his back breaking work
Spare a part for his wife and his children
Who burn the fires and who still till the earth
I'm glad he didn't. The film already has an ominous score by John Zorn, and since it doesn't contain any voice-over narration it seems incongruous to all of the sudden have overt editorializing, even if only in the form of lyrics.
For an interesting double feature I recommend Nikolaus Geyrhalter's documentary Our Daily Bread (2005), specifically to question whether or not technology has improved workers lives. The two films play off one another in various ways and share many similarities, but they also function as intriguing opposites. One takes place almost entirely outside and captures natural light, the other takes place almost entirely inside and captures sterile, florescent light; one is about low-tech jobs in low-tech places, the other is about high-tech jobs in an interconnected, high-tech world; one makes a point to show people as individuals, the other shows people as parts of a whole (or machine); one film shows the ways in which people earn their daily bread, the other literally shows the production and processing of the food people purchase and eat.