January 8, 2013

DVD OF THE WEEK: Whores' Glory

by Vadim Rizov

Whores' Glory

At this moment, Michael Glawogger is cinema's most talented exploitation artist. "Exploitation" doesn't mean taking advantage of subjects who don't understand what he's filming, at least in the usual sense: to make Whores' Glory—a self-proclaimed "triptych" on prostitution in Thailand, India and Mexico—Glawogger made sure to visit his subjects "10 times and hang out with them and stuff." This means Whores' Glory's subjects got familiar with Glawogger and what he was proposing to do (which included promising not to widely distribute the film in their country). Nonetheless, it's a strong, questionable, queasy-making movie, as should be the case with a portrait of prostitution.

Whores' Glory

The subtitle for the first part is "The Fish Tank," the name of a Bangkok brothel's outside area in which prostitutes sit behind glass, giggling and chatting. Clients scan the prospects, then point to the girl they want; she's called by number and steps inside. All the men in this sequence (both locals and Joe Don Baker types) act like nightmare visions of straight male privilege. On the way to the room, the customer pays a clerk first, then the pair go to do whatever it is they're doing off-camera. It's all very systematic and as antiseptic as the business of bodily fluids could be. (The actual name of the establishment is "Hi-Class," and according to an article on "The 5 Best Thailand Brothels," "the women who work at this parlor are medium to larger size, so for those men that enjoy the touch of a young woman with soft hands who is not petite in size this is the place to do business.") Off duty, the women pray and chat about overly-clingy boyfriends while making dinner.

Opinions will differ widely (to understate) on how credible this no-damage portrait of happy hookers is. With no desire to wade into this, let me simply note that this sequence (as with all of Glawogger's documentaries) features many overtly staged moments. Thai critic Kong Rithdee was irked that at least two recognizable local actors "pose as customers who visit the fish bowl, and they say lines that sound forced and banal." Glawgogger's documentary aesthetics are the same as deployed in his narratives. He's an unrepentant stager comfortable with hybridization.

Whores' Glory

The film's second segment focuses on the "City of Joy," a heavy-handed name for a Bangladesh brothel. Here, prostitutes refuse to give oral sex, because they need their mouths to remain clean for prayer—an odd place to draw the line, given that much of this segment is given to a crying teen girl being sold off by her mother. If Whores' Glory is constructed on a straight Heaven/Purgatory/Hell schema, the descent accelerates too fast here: misery is prevalent, though sex isn't shown yet. Part three, "The Grid," begins with a Mexican hooker speaking about how happy and free she is and ends with a vision of absolute abasement: a prostitute implicitly trading cunnilingus for crack, exhaling smoke into another woman's crotch while her head's held down. Glawogger wasn't even there: he left the sound and camera guys to do their work, then skipped down the street for a drink.

Why watch something so awful the director didn't even have the guts to film directly? The most obvious reason is that Whores' Glory is, if not great, at least very good, attuned to the specifics of its three different locations and the many different types of misery and misogyny in the world. (Your humble reviewer doesn't believe prostitution should be outlawed, but he does believe that e.g. the men in the Mexico segment interviewed in their truck talking about all the anal sex they want to inflict on whores who may not be consenting before heading home to their madonna girlfriends are going directly to hell.)

Whores' Glory

Glawogger is equally proficient as a straight "narrative" and documentary director, though only the latter have been distributed in the U.S. That's a shame: his narrative features include the stoner comedy 2006's Contact High, whose acid freakouts make Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas look restrained, and 2009's Kill Daddy Goodnight, one of the few interesting and ethically complex movies about the Holocaust. Glawogger's documentaries are closest in spirit to his 2006 narrative Slumming, in which two terrible Austrian men take an equally awful, sleeping bum off a park bench and drive him over the border to the Czech Republic, leaving him confused and undocumented in a foreign land. The film's subject is what happens when the abuse of others is enabled on a globalized scale, the theme of two of Glawogger's other related docs, 1998's Megacities (misery in four cities with no other connective tie other than suffocating, indifferent urban environments) and 2005's Workingman's Death (five awful jobs around the world). All are partly staged and gorgeous, pushing back against degradation through aestheticization. Megacities is the first film in which Glawogger examines Mexico's semi-illicit ladies of the night (strippers rather than hookers); his recurring emphasis on sexual humiliation is a little suspicious. At a certain point, it's hard not to suspect he's getting off on it a bit.

Troubling as his films are in execution and intent, Glawogger's style and subject matter both deserve attention. Like all his films, Whores' Glory is almost over-shot, full of hazy neon light and stylized. (His one flaw is a very heavy hand with strenuously hip song choices: PJ Harvey doesn't need to be singing "the whores hustle and the hustlers whore" over footage of actual whores and hustlers.) Why watch this film? To find aesthetically pleasurable ways to scar your psyche in empathetic solidarity with the dispossessed.

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Posted by ahillis at January 8, 2013 4:51 PM