Wednesday, January 9, 2013

210 Has a Good Attitude

I don’t watch documentaries as much as I used to. It used to be a form of much greater interest for me, but nowadays if I choose to watch a documentary it will more than likely be something like The King of Kong, about people who are great at playing Donkey Kong, or Best Worst Movie director Michael Stephenson’s recent The American Scream, which chronicles one season in the lives of three families who, every Halloween, turn their homes into massively complex haunted houses. I liked that one. It was funny and nice. More crucial to my current point, perhaps, is that the stakes were also very low. If Stephenson was in some way being appallingly dishonest about his subjects in The American Scream, then that would mean, what? They don’t really like Halloween as much as the film lets on? What I’m getting at, is I became very distrustful of documentaries right around the time the format, or genre, or whatever, started enjoying a relative burst in popularity. And before you think you’ve guessed the reason, no, it wasn’t Michael Moore that did me in. I naively considered his brand of condescending, phony, cowardly, dogshit ambush lie-mongering villainy to be a fluke, of sorts. No, what really did me in was Jean-Xavier de Lestrade’s The Staircase, a six-hour documentary about the murder trial of Michael Peterson, a writer who was charged with murdering his wife, Kathleen. If you view Peterson’s case only through the lens of Lestrade’s film, it appears to be a clear-cut case of a man being railroaded by a Southern court due to poor police work and the fact that Peterson’s free-living ways really got under the skin of the local bigots. However, and briefly, the prosecution’s story was that while alone with his wife one night, Peterson beat her to death with a blowpoke, leaving her body where it lay at the bottom of a staircase. The defense argued, and Peterson insisted, that she fell down the stairs. Apparently, the injuries she suffered were not entirely at odds with that story. But after being shown the crime scene photos of the woman’s body, one question nagged at me throughout, and was never addressed in the film, which was how Peterson could have entered the house from the patio, as he claimed, seen his wife in that horrible, bloody sprawl shown in the photos, after having last seen her only fifteen minutes before, and thought “Oh my God, my wife has just fallen down the stairs!” No one would have thought that, upon seeing her body in that state, they would think she’d been attacked, but that was Peterson’s story. So with this in mind, I looked online for reports of the trial given as it was happening, and found just some of the evidence the prosecution introduced that Lestrade didn’t think needed to be included at any point in his six-hour film, primarily forensic results that showed that Peterson’s wife had been bleeding out for a far longer period of time than he claimed, the time between finding her body and calling 911 being a key element in the case. In short, The Staircase, a film that is still spoken of with great respect, is a complete sham, and Michael Peterson’s prison cell is exactly where he belongs. May he remain there until the shades are drawn on him, far more peacefully, of course, than he pulled them on his wife.
So The Staircase left me feeling rather angry, and I remain angry, and generally distrustful of any issue or advocacy documentary. My distancing of myself from the genre has been helped along by the fact that documentaries, on the whole, are not especially artful. Meaning, the information and the personalities contained within them are almost always the draw, but if you suspect you're being given the runaround in that area, it might at least be nice to see some interesting filmmaking. But outside of Errol Morris, a documentary filmmaker I still admire and whose career I still follow, and the documentary work of Werner Herzog, what's left? Michael Glawogger, supposedly. Glawogger is the director behind, among other films, Whore's Glory, a 2011 documentary about prostitution as practiced in Thailand, Bangladesh, and Mexico, which was released on DVD yesterday by Kino Lorber. This film is part of Glawogger's "globalization trilogy," which, okay, but at the same time, oh shit. Although if the film has some point to make beyond "Prostitution is something else, isn't it?" then it fails to make it. Whore's Glory is subtitled "A Triptych," and it is broken up into three separate sections: first, a relatively clean, but somehow eerie, brothel in Bangkok, which gives way to an enclosed, self-contained city-in-miniature of prostitutes in Bangladesh called "The City of Joy," which itself gives way a hideous stretch of poverty and dirt and awfulness in Mexico. The order and presentation of these three locations, and the mode of prostitution on display in each, is obviously not accidental, but I'm not sure what Glawogger is on about, exactly. In Bangkok, the prostitutes are shown to potential clients sitting, basically, in a glass case. Each girl wears a numbered pin, and when she is picked, their number is called through a microphone. The prostitutes in each section are desperate for clients, because of course this is how they earn their living, but the Thai women are depicted as nothing much different from your ordinary young giggly office-workers. There is a safety and some kind of cold support system in place here, due in no small part, I'm sure, to the fact that, according to the multinational johns who frequent this particular place, the women are expensive. The place pulls in a lot of money, and employs a lot of people. When they go home at night, they talk about their work as work, and nothing more horrifying than that, or they talk about which kind of foreign client they like the least (a couple of them have very specific views on this). Their brothel has a time clock. And so the structure of Whore's Glory begins to take shape when we move to Bangladesh, and Glawogger chooses now, for some reason, to include much more footage of direct interviews with the prostitutes, rather than the ostensibly "overheard" chatter in Bangkok. And the Bangladeshi prostitutes are, get this, miserable, and are treated miserably. They're poor, they're mocked, the older women who take in younger women as prostitutes on a one-year contract -- the pimps, in other words -- are callous and abusive. These women, the young prostitutes, are very sad. When being instructed on what's expected of her as her year begins, one young woman, named Ruma -- and she appears to be very young indeed -- keeps her head down during the whole process with the older woman, and when she goes out to solicit johns she stands as still as a tree, barely trying because she doesn't want to, because who would want to?
The structure becomes this: Bangkok - interesting; Bangladesh - what's left for Mexico? Grotesque horror, or nearly that. In this particular stretch of Reynosa, Mexico, the prostitutes work for themselves. They rent little rooms and beckon to men from their doorways. Garbage and mud and nothing else surrounds them. The johns get a bit more camera time here (why?) and in comparison to these guys, the Thai and Bangladeshi clientele are a bunch of sweethearts. Sure, some of the Bangkok guys may chat with no self-awareness or shame whatsoever about their wives while they wait for the human girl body they've ordered, but you don't get a sense from any of them that perhaps they could possible tip over into becoming a serial killer should one girl on one night look at them the wrong way, as you do with one of the Mexican johns who we see driving around, waving to the girls in their doorways, alternately talking about how this one is very good at sex, and how "some of these girls' are such sluts," or just muttering "fucking whores" to himself, for the hell of it. He, and the cars full of young men who brag about what they get to do to the prostitutes in Reynosa, are basically terrifying. And I don't know if Glawogger's intention was to lull you into this world by presenting the comparatively antiseptic Bangkok brothel and then say "Oh yeah well it's not so great!" by the time we reach Mexico, but if so he's being dishonest. I know without asking that he could have found the conditions of the Reynosa prostitutes replicated quite closely in Bangkok if he'd wanted to, and quite possibly could have found the abuse in the Bangladeshi bazaar in the Thai brothel he did choose. So what's the point? What's the angle? Does Glawogger have one, or does he know? Very early into the film, while still in the middle of Bangkok, I became suspicious of the idea that Glawogger, "globalization trilogy" or no "globalization trilogy," is any kind of deep thinker when he chose to leave his camera trained on a group of stray dogs rutting outside of the brothel for so long that I began to think perhaps this bit could have been shaved down by thirty seconds or a minute. And also we're like animals, what with sex and everything. Later, in Mexico, at the end of the film, we see one prostitute actually having sex with a man. Whore's Glory has been relatively chaste up to this point, though it gets progressively more carnal, or maybe "frank," or more likely "blunt," as it goes along (curiously, the nearly sexless talk of the prostitutes in the Bangkok section is followed by the Bangladeshi women being very blunt indeed, in their openness about what they do, but more directly about what they won't do for religious reasons), but then in Mexico everyone's nude, or flashing the camera, and relating their long, drunken sexual histories, all suddenly very graphic. I'm forced to ask "Why Mexico?" but also, when the actual sex begins, I'm left wondering if this is, to Glawogger, the big reveal, as if perhaps he thought we might not realize this moment is what he's been talking around this whole time. Furthermore, and I don't want to be paranoid, but something about this encounter felt staged to me. The not-especially-talkative young man having sex with the prostitute suddenly starts pestering her -- mid- and post-act -- to tell him what her name is. The poignancy of her refusal to do so may come from a genuine policy of this particular woman, but I have a hard time believing this kid was dying to know.

But what's Glawogger like as an artist? Well, he's not nothing, and he at least doesn't take the route Jeff Prosserman took in Chasing Madoff, which was to basically do a shitty job of ripping off Errol Morris. There are several nice shots in the film, unquestionably helped along by the exoticism, to most of the people who will see Whore's Glory, of the locations. Even if you've been to Bangladesh, I'll just bet you haven't been to this part of Bangladesh. I do think his creative side is a bit illusory, though, because a great deal of the strange, almost ghostly tone the film occasionally achieves is propped up almost entirely by the series of songs by P. J. Harvey and others that Glawogger pours over everything. Not ineffectively, but when a film relies this heavily on the music of others to creat a certain effect, is the filmmaker doing his job, or is P. J. Harvey doing hers? On the plus side, Glawogger gets a lot of mileage out of the religious lives of the women in his film (I strongly suspect Glawogger is a big fan of William T. Vollmann), and he does so without ever making a show of it (until the end, anyway, when he indulges in a shot that is, if I'm correct in my assumptions about the scene, possibly unforgivable, but which you kind of have to allow was a shot he was understandably craving the whole time he was in Reynosa). Anyway, this aspect of the film hits its peak in Mexico, where some of the girls worship a kind of voodoo add-on to their Catholicism, named Lady Death. There are skull statutes and Grim Reaper statues and tattoos and everything, all over, and one of the prostitutes, one of the most interesting people in the film, worships this figure because of its promise of a "good death." That's the dream.

Honestly, I don't want to make baseless assumptions about Glawogger -- I don't think I really believe that he meant for his Bangkok footage to be in any way enticing, for instance, because it clearly isn't -- or his intentions. I'm too aware of my own prejudices regarding this kind of film, and that I might be treating Glawogger unfairly, and beating him up with someone else's movies. But then again, rutting dogs as a metaphor in a documentary about prostitutes is simply, as alarm bells go, too loud to ignore.


silberpete said...

Strange that I remember Peterson coming off as really creepy in "Staircase". Since I'm local to the case I might have mixed it up with the tone of news coverage.

C Morris said...

By definition all documentary filmmakers must choose which information to include in their films and which to exclude. The fact that some possibly incriminating evidence was omitted from THE STAIRCASE, then, is not necessarily proof that Peterson is guilty, or that the filmmakers were deliberately trying to stack the deck for the viewers. There may be perfectly good reasons why that information was left out.

Along similar lines, over the years Joe Berlinger was accused many times of omitting incriminating evidence in his PARADISE LOST films -- and on Internet forums many people took these omissions to be evidence that the WM3 were in fact guilty and that viewers had been duped. A careful examination of the omitted info, however, shows that Berlinger excluded these pieces because they were for a number of reasons less persuasive than other facts, and, well, you just can't include everything.

Errol Morris's recent book about Jeffery MacDonald is another case in point: Morris is persuasive that MacDonald is innocent, but a host of other writers and documentarians were equally persuasive otherwise. Who can say for sure who is right?

I enjoyed THE STAIRCASE, and I agree it's hard not to come away with the impression that the filmmakers thought Peterson was innocent. However, after viewing it, I was left with nagging questions, too, and ultimately felt that I couldn't decide one way or another about his guilt. If the best documentary is an unbiased documentary, then I suppose this reaction is about the best one could hope for, under the circumstances.

bill r. said...

You don't think that a filmmaker leaving incriminating evidence out of a film about a man accused of murder, a man who even you admit the filmmaker portrays as innocent from his point of view, is not doing something horribly unethical and dishonest?

The fact that I had questions after watching it isn't a tribute to Lestrade, but an indication that he's a bad liar.

C Morris said...

Yeah, I guess I am. Or rather, I'm saying that since it's impossible to include absolutely everything lawyers bring up in a long, involved trial in a single documentary, even a long one like THE STAIRCASE, the best you can hope for is that the omitted stuff isn't all that important. No documentary is perfect.

You know, to some extent I agree with you, though. I've always said that you'll find more truth on the fiction shelves in your local bookstore than in the nonfiction section, because 99% of all nonfiction is biased one way or another. Nonfiction is just some schmuck's narrative that links all the known facts about a case (or at least all the known facts the author wants you to know). That being said, I can't say nonfiction (or documentary film) is of no value at all. You simply have to view the material with a certain skepticism, and perhaps engage with the material outside the frame -- on the Internet, say -- to make up your mind about it.

As I said, there may have been perfectly good reasons for leaving out the evidence you cite. Clearly Peterson's trial had more than its fair share of failures. To wit: right now (at this moment) Peterson is out of jail on bond awaiting a new trial, so ordered because a judge agreed that Peterson's original trial included deliberately misleading incriminating testimony. Peterson will get his chance to persuade a jury he's innocent once again, and the original filmmaker Jean Xavier de Lestrade has vowed to cover the new trial too, for THE STAIRCASE 2.

So, you know, get excited and stuff. :)