Timo Novotny and the anti-film

Who wouldn’t envy Timo Novotny?  He has lived the VJ wetdream.  He gets access to all the footage from Michael Glawogger’s Megacities and grooves it into a film he calls his own.  And Megacities RMX, Life-in-Loops is indeed his film – a project that will be distributed in cinemas quite independently of the other film that is its source.  And he takes me with him, away from Glawogger’s big budget sanctimoniousness, into the glee of pure montage, into an experience of hard-core documentary footage towards which he bears not a shred of responsibility.  Glawogger has an earnest anthopological intention that he borrows from Sebastiano Salgado, an obsession with workers, but not Novotny. Novotny simply plays.


And then, after winning the documentary prize in Karlovy Vary, Novotny both has his cake and eats it too.  He has both the film, the pseudo anthropological ‘documentary’ that it might appear to be, and the anti-film, the throbbing, unbearable spectacle that it is, the pure prostitution of subject matter that derides any notion of reality, of representation, of responsibility towards the documentary subject.


So what, finally, are we watching here?  As his starting point Novotny hijacks the end of Glawogger’s film, a series of abusive telephone conversations between pimps, whores and DJs in an American megacity and after establishing this - the trade in someone else’s body - as both his leading theme and his method, he proceeds, remixing the body of the earlier material.  Remixing stands for pimping the material, for ‘sexing up’ and reselling the images.  It is an ironic process.  If Glawogger relates to the images as representations of people, Novotny relates to them as pure commodity, superficially attractive and fundamentally empty.


There is a bizarre sense of compulsion behind this project, an intensity of work, an obsessive layering of images that is absent in Glawogger.  Similarly compulsive is the junkie pimp that we meet shivering and desperate for heroin, who shoots up and then travels in a trance, a fantasy limosine, around the neon of the American megacity centre.  This is all Glawogger’s material but it represents the anti-body that he suppressed within his own project.  Novotny jumps in with glee, expands the sequence, and seizes it as the heart of the remix.  This character embodies the film.  He actually enacts everything that the film does, proceeding from incoherence and infantile dependence via the on-screen fix to a hyper-active street salesman whose identity is continuously changing, and whose appetite for heroin is financed by selling the promise to sex to the public.  Go on, he says, taste fuck!


And it’s a con.  The fact of deception threatens Glawogger’s film because, compelled to show that this is deception, he employs an actor.  We see the stupid white men that believe the pimp pay up and we see them encounter the door with no fantasy behind it, the wrong door.  The deception is revealed, but just like those who fall for the commodity, the transaction has been made and it is too late to do anything about it.  But the fact that the scene has been staged causes no such anxiety for Novotny.  His film is radically cynical, and relishes the fact of permanent deception.  Because, just as it is too late for the stupid white man, it is also too late for the spectator. 


And the transaction itself…?  The money is transformed into a trippy image-stream that slides both junkie and filmmaker into the same person and the same trip, the experience of reality as pure hallucination, a schizophrenic reflex both to believe and not believe in things that are not really there, that manifests itself as a kind of syrupy uber-montage buoyed up by the feeling of safety and amazement that is heroin, and that is cinema. 


In the sequences that Novotny himself shot for the film, he fakes the Glawogger method and secretly plays his own cards.  He even shot with Glawogger’s own cameraman.  Novotny does duplicity, and he does it big time.  In the Tokyo scenes there is none of Glawogger’s aggrandisement of the global proletariat, but the pursuit of dismal fantasists, child-adults for whom relationship is reduced to Manga sex-games with two dimensional cartoons.  The alienation expressed in these scenes is nearly unbearable, whether it be the blank indifference of commuters in the underground, the autism of the computer freak or the dressing up of real women as girly cartoon characters.  Glawogger’s subjects are people, but Novotny’s are barely people at all: either deadened consumers or people that are actually imitating commodities, being them, turning themselves into them.  And nothing more.


And at this point the experience of the film becomes radical.  It is consistent.  It has a thesis, it has self-awareness, and it constitutes a critique that is not about human societies, like Glawogger’s, but about images, and how we live by them.  Even though both films have been made from the same images, one is enclosed narcissistically within it own admiration of itself, and the other, mocking the pretension of the enterprise, undermines our security as spectators. 


And my disgust turns to outright glee.  This film is totally ambiguous, and Novotny is walking a tightrope, playing on that ambiguity.  He may declare that this is new wave documentary for a younger generation, but the whole idea that this film is documentary is a screen, a false veneer of respectability, and a way to fool judges, distributors and spectators.  This film belongs to the tradition that stretches back to Debord’s ‘Society of the Spectacle’: it is a wrecker and it is contemptuous of the realities of documentary realism.  Détournement – the hijacking of someone else’s material - was the aesthetic strategy that Debord evolved to deal with consumer culture.  The tactics are to rip the source from its previous context and turn it to your own end.  It is a way to speak whose very language embodies contempt for the commodification of language, that does away with the illusion of authenticity in the source material, and that simply sets out to wreck someone else’s property. 


Novotny is less explicit than Debord, and he maintains his subterfuge.  I guess that he must.  He uses Glawogger as the cover for a project that is totally opposed to Glawogger.  Glawogger is naive.  He believes in the truth of his representation of reality.  Novotny, reprocessing that obsessive documentation of workers, makes a sustained demonstration of disgust for images, for the content of images and the organisation of pleasure into this great illusion, the spectacle.  The spectacle, said Debord, is ‘capital accumulated to the point where it becomes image’.  Novotny picks up on the massive amount of waste in that process and, by making his film, literally, out of rubbish he poisons the medium, he makes a spectacle to unmask the false promise of the spectacle itself.  And he is smart.  He uses tools unavailable to Debord in the 60s, the insider tools of his generation.  Techno tools.  As Debord predicted, he belongs to a generation that has been raised entirely within the laws of the spectacle, but even while he twists and turns within those rules, even while he makes something that appears to be a film, he is fairly screaming the emptiness of the great documentary swindle. 


So – a different criteria of interpretation must be applied to the phenomenon of this film.  It is an anti-film posing as a film.  It is deeply ambiguous, and the battle, apparently won, is to persuade distributors to tolerate that ambiguity.  In fact, not to notice it.  To assume that this is a harmlessly funky film and a conduit to profit, rather than a weapon in cultural warfare.

Angus Reid / released on: 29th of Oct. 2006 at the Jihlava International Filmfestival  / DOWNLOAD (1.8MB)