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a long time ago
"Michael Glawogger's documentary Megacities is practically nothing but trouble--starting with the projection itself. When this Austrian-made chronicle of the urban wastelands of the world screened as part of the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival in April, the projectionist showed the reels in the wrong order. Yet it must be said that Glawogger's film almost begs to be jumbled, being a kind of episodic, unguided travelogue through the hells of Bombay, Moscow, Mexico City, and New York. Is one vast and infected field of rubbish, one cramped shantytown different from any other?
This bruising and problematic film is evidence that every infernal slum is, in fact, unique, and it is the accomplishment of Megacities to animate these universes with frighteningly vivid detail. And so in Mexico City we visit with a plump mother of two in her small apartment over breakfast, then follow her into a dim theater where she crawls naked across the stage. There men paw, grab, and suck her without interference (and without leaving money). The event seems to occur in slow motion, excruciating motion, the woman rolling like a punch-drunk boxer at the edge of a battle royal, absorbing the blows with her whole body, then moving into the grasp of the next opponent.

Later (or is that earlier?), we follow a Mexican garbage hauler riding in a horse-drawn wooden box through a dump that stretches endlessly in the distance--a place that makes our own Fresh Kills look like Yosemite. He rumbles down the rutted streets like a Roman charioteer--the Mexican Ben-Hur--collecting pesos for each pickup, and moving higher above his mount as the garbage accumulates beneath his feet.

Meanwhile, in Moscow, a rigid team of policemen strap single, defeated-looking men down to beds in a detox unit. There, the men plead, wheedle, threaten, beg, cajole--anything to avoid a night in the clink. And when that fails--and it apparently always does--they howl as if they were being vivisected without anesthetic.

Survival in these scenes is both a competitive sport and a ceremony of squalor, a theme that carries over into the segments set in Bombay. In one sequence, an assembly line of young butchers in a dirty room cut the heads off squawking chickens, then toss their frantic and fluttering bodies into a metal drum--the spray of blood everywhere, the drum thumping with spurts of life.

Megacities is a nature film, a highly staged and manipulated documentary that has been made to reveal the ghastly beauty of the species' adaptability. There is something complicated and offensive in the relationship between the viewer, the camera, and the subjects--as is the case with many powerful movies.

Yet ultimately, the documentary is not dehumanizing. The filmmaker repeatedly finds the ravaged metropolitans looking for fraternity, for sport, for art. The sanitation charioteer plays soccer in a stiff rain with his jersey-clad coworkers. An older Mexican couple leaves their tortilla stand and dances close together to the urgent merriment of trumpets and an accordion. And in a somewhat eerie reverie, an Indian busker shows children ten-second film loops through the aperture of a battered machine he totes on his back from slum to slum. It's a gleeful moment of Bollywood magic: The traveling projectionist thrilling the kids with snippets of our world, Glawogger's camera drawing us ineluctably into theirs."

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