P. Stuart Robinson (1958), is an Associate Professor in Political Science at the University of Tromsø. He is a regular contributor on cultural events for Tromsø’s net publication, Tromsø by.
Michael Glawogger and Monika Willi’s Untitled (2017) offers precious little of what you might reasonably expect from a film – not even a proper title! It might be a cliché but Jagger and Richard’s words ring true in this regard: ‘You can’t always get what you want…’
The premise is so unusual it’s enough, in itself, to give your spine a tingle. Glawogger set out to shoot a moveable feast of a film, to capture life itself in all its random bounty – and died in the attempt.
Film editor, Monika Willi, salvaged his raw footage and notes and cobbled together a finished article, all the same – except for the title. In keeping with Glawogger’s wishes, this remains unspecified, unresolved. After all, he wanted to make the most open-concept film ever, one with no natural ending and no natural title either. Untitled, unfinished and at times unlovely, it still adds up to one extraordinary cinematic statement. Whose statement? Everyone’s. No-one’s.
The dumpster empties its garbage-load and scavengers are in there like a shot, like bargain-hunters on Black Friday, except here the desperation is more rational. These are the rag-tailed, filthy, something-for-nothing consumers, the ones capitalism never intended yet spawned in their droves. Fights soon break out between rival children – and goats.
Glawogger may have brought us among the proverbial bottom-feeders, but this is life as vital, as vibrant, as good as any. And this is just one of the stops along the way, in an inscrutable journey across the conflict-torn margins of a seedy and magnificent world, from the Balkans to sub-Saharan Africa.
And so we watch life in all its tumult unfold before our eyes – his eyes. We might be piled into the back of a lorry, bound for who knows where. We might be night-surfing water-canisters on skateboards with fearless, hardworking children, as they skelter their way down precipitous, traffic-clogged town-sides.
We might be alone in some desolate outpost, lamenting the impossibility of disappearing, however remote the hideout. It’s noisy and it’s quiet; nervous urgency continually punctuates the long lacunae of quiet reflection; but there is no plot, no hero, no message, just like life itself – and just like death, its constant companion.
The voice and even the world-view of the author of Untitled nevertheless makes its presence felt in every shot, every word, every cinematic gesture. Is it their posthumous status that lends them such gravity? Glawogger seems to speak to us with a timeless, disembodied wisdom.
Film has taught us that context is everything, and it certainly colours our impression to hear him speak, as it were, from beyond the grave. The ‘elephant context’ in the room (or film) aside, Glawogger’s intelligence and warmth are unmistakable, and we are bound to lament the passing of the filmmaker and, above all, the man.
The palpable poetry of the work may distract us form its documentary credentials. Is this the most authentic documentary ever? Unbesmirched by agenda or narrative form, it offers us a simple, uncompromising eulogy to the world of facts and life, with serendipity its only principle of discovery: start a journey; let the camera roll.
I don’t think Glawogger ever really intended his journey to end. Perhaps there would have been no film, at least not for an awfully long time, but for the intervention of fate and a sympathetic soul – and gifted filmmaker in her own right.
The beauty of Untitled lies in its visual layering, which has to be down to Willi’s masterful assembly of materials. For a film that’s hardly chock-full of events, there is somehow always plenty going on. This reflects repeated use of a kind of pictorial doubling. Captivating vistas of dusty streets and fragile lives are regularly combined with the similarly rich imagery of Glawogger’s words.
We watch human life unfolding on the streets of a hot and distant country as we listen, for example, to his recollection of the sight of a dog resting its paws on a high window-ledge. Its master must have put his faith in the animal and accepted the danger of a fall. The dog has to live, and obsession with safety is the end of life as surely as the impact of an unyielding pavement.
‘The death of freedom,’ says the narrator, on Glawogger’s behalf, ‘Is to foresee every possible disaster and plan accordingly.’ We see at once the dusty streets, the dog at the window in all his serenity, and the filmmaker himself – the tragically disembodied miraculously embodied through the power of his words. We may even shed a tear. Such is the piquant resonance of Untitled, its sadness and its life-affirming joy.
Untitled is a sweet, slow, occasionally fast and thoroughly melancholy experience, best taken in good company in a darkened room. Remind yourself what life is like! The film won’t tell you what it means, but it might just help you remember…