The night I see this movie there is a death, but not in the movie. The only death in the movie happens to goats and cows.
Emails announcing thinly attended arthouse films arrive all the time, and I seldom go. When this one came a week ago it grabbed me the way a sunset would, or a random woman baring her breasts: it was stark and unadorned and showed without daring. From a paragraph and one picture I knew I needed to see it without knowing why. I looked forward to it in a measured way, like Thursday evening on an easy week. I didn’t want to overdwell and make it bigger than it could be.
My phone chimes on the way up the street, and through drizzle misting the screen a text from a girl I hardly knew in high school asks if I knew anything about Matt B. Facebook is full of posts about his unexpected death that day. I had a fuzzy memory of who he was–big but short, played drums, gentle oddball humor–but hardly knew him beyond that. I apologized, typed out I had no information, and turned the phone off.
The theatre was fullish, a small line of people still waiting for their hand-torn paper ticket pushing the showing back. Seats rose high and narrow like a coliseum, my head at the waist of the person behind me, the screen far closer to the ceiling than the floor. I thought of all the other arthouse or downmarket theatres I’ve been in over the years: the old Ridglea down the street from where the Jackalope was on Fort Worth’s Camp Bowie Boulevard, a beat-up but well-loved Bostom theatre near Harvard where I saw big-screen Koyaanisqatsi for the first time, and the little hole-in-the-wall in Victoria, BC where I saw Spike and Mike animation shows and Eastwood’s masterly Unforgiven. All those places seemed lonely at their heart, and remembering I could not tell what was my own emotional projection and what was the essence of the place: dark rows, beaten-down seats, tickets bought from the candy counter from someone who seemed in the grip of a profound disappointment. This place was different: lively, the walls draped in pleasant colors, the preview loop an interesting and well-done PowerPoint of upcoming shows and class announcements. People chatted: older Freud lookalikes in George Burns glasses, stocky lesbians in knit caps, thin Euro couples carved from toothpicks, and many knots of post-college types with their nose rings and ear discs. The place felt warm and awake, comfortable but for my neck craning too much.
A bright blond woman on the older side of young comes before us. We are thanked for coming, told of some upcoming shows, reminded the director is here and will answer questions after. The lights dim and the movie comes on.
The first time I saw David Lynch’s Eraserhead I was nineteen years old, in a strange city, alone in the dark. The theatre was a deep square box with a looming screen, and the scratched and wrinkled print shone down on me in dim silver. The surreal images, the strangled emotion, my own young turmoil made a horrible beauty. I sat frozen between laughing and screaming the whole movie in its glass orbit: held but always falling.
Workingman’s Death is the same. The print bumps on, the first few titles unreadable from the scratches and dents, but it smooths out, and you can see. Illegal coal miners squeeze into an abandoned Ukrainian coal mine, maybe a foot of space to writhe through–no respirator, no goggles, just banging out glistening black coal with hammers and metal spikes. Cut to Indonesia where wiry men scale the sides of an active volcano and crawl around great powder tongues of sulfur, breaking them up and putting them in baskets, carrying down the mountainside in wicker baskets, the only sound other than the mountain’s grumble is the wicker squeaking. Cut to a halal slaughterhouse in Nigeria: a vast, open space, the ground layered in slimy black putrescence, hordes of filthy shouting men pulling incurious cows and goats to spots here, spots there where they haggle with a man who will slice their throats in Allah’s name, as is proper. Heironymous Bosch is an amateur compared to this mundane horror of squealing animals, men scaling garbage pits for filthy water, roasting pits fired with hunks of burning tire, everywhere smoke, blood, oily carbon grime. Then (gratefully) men breaking ships on Pakistan’s beaches: twelve hours a day with cutting torches burning metal, slicing ships open like loaves of hollow bread, work so dangerous a man dies nearly every day. Then, briefly, Chinese blast furnace workers thrusting poles into the open roaring mouths of the furnaces. Then, briefer, some pre-teens scaling the pipes and stacks of an abandoned smelter, the whole place turned into a park, the whole thing a brightly lit metal maze.
Each image is relentless, alone and joined to the ones before and after. They are overwhelming, too big in the way O’Keefe made her flowers too big: so people would see them.
The lights come up. Michael Glawogger is a tall, shaggy guy with a kind, ingrown-sort-of face. He looks a little like Jeff Bridges as the Dude, but speaks softly and with gears turning in his head. The Freud-look-alike asks an intelligent question I can’t remember and to which Glawogger provides a thoughtful near-silent answer. The twentysomethings ask eager, earnest questions as only that age can, that age that still believes there is some secret that, once learned, will break it all open. Glawogger is kind but insistently baffled at the girl next to me who persists with how the cows fell being like how the cut-up pieces of ship fell: what does this mean, what was he going for? No, it was just there and we shot it, is more or less what he said. He does not pretend he and a crew do not change what is being observed: he will ask people to repeat things, to get another angle. This is not cheating: they do the thing on their own first. He does not direct or expect anything.
The woman next to me won’t have the fiftysomething’s shrug of an answer. It is impossible at that age to believe things can simply be, that you can just relax and let things fall into place. Weren’t you looking for this sequence, shaping these images, creating the story for us? Glawogger doesn’t lose his cool but puts his frumpy foot gently down. No, it was just there. I shoot it, I turn it into my editor, and I leave. They spar a little more on truth and perception–the woman wants a right answer. He says: anyone who says they’re showing you a truth, or the truth, is a fucking liar.
We are in the second row, the young woman and I. He stares at her like an old wizard. I laugh. So does the balance of the room. The woman is peeved and says something else, but the other guy on stage takes it away from her: okay, let’s get another question, another question, yes, you?
On the way out, the director stands like a bemused but world-worn tree by the candy counter. We briefly look at one another, but a woman speaks to him, thanks him. The brief look is enough. We both know there is really nothing to talk about, that the thing is done and whole and seen, that there is no going back, there is really nothing to talk about and the film is its own thanks. I know this now. Out in the Wednesday night it is drizzy up the street from the city’s heart.
The other death is real at home. Messages through Facebook, in email. They are sorry to have to tell me, but want me to know. Heart attack. He was my age. I thank them in short replies. I didn’t know him that well. Thank you for letting me know.
I was not close to Matt B. He was in middle school and high school band, a talented and driven drummer who would keep on drumming and support himself as a professional musician. He was in one of the many throwaway bands people started in high school, pounding away with verve, purpose and skill more polished than those he played with then. He wore burned-out t-shirts too small for him and loose camouflage pants with untied drawstring waists, filling them like a meat fire hydrant. He tended toward quiet, in that he did not speak, but had significant presence. The closest thing to a conversation with him I can remember is helping him load a van with his drum kit. The gig sucked, but that was okay. Better than being famous, he said.
He had an uncanny Scooby Doo imitation. In high school he had a brown Chevette that was T-boned into a U-shape. He was one of the guys who worked overnights at the little town newspaper, wrecking walls and machines, staying up all night and somehow getting through school the next day. He was my age. He will now always be my age now.
After the ships are broken, the men cut the metal into small plates, all irregular shapes. Vast hills of brown plates rise up behind the beaches, built by one or two or three men taking a plate, walking it up the rusting sides slippery with dust, and dropping them. A big guy with a walkie-talkie walks with them but never carries, and points.
Why that piece, then? Why there, in that spot, instead of somewhere else? The pile is all heavy shards, all different but essentially alike, all in the same haphazard mess together. Why this plate, that place, this pile? Why is there a pile at all?
Fat little men with walkie-talkies like piles, like to tell others how to make them. Why is there a pile? Because things stack, because a man is pointing for it to go here, because there are piles, and this a plate. Down, bang.
Earnest young people want answers. In science, innocent but distracting non sequiturs are described as not even wrong: they cannot be wrong because the frame of right and wrong is meaningless. She wants to know why. The old wizard can only shrug because that is the best answer.
People post kind things on Facebook. He was a great person, kind, giving, open, funny. People are shocked, sad, both. They offer their best memories of him. Matt B’s wall is now an artifact, the posts directed from and to our shared subconscious which doesn’t understand time, that things can be gone. There is nothing wrong with this. It’s an old solution, but the best answer.