Joaquim Pinto's What Now? Remind Me
Ronan Doyle is a member of the second annual Locarno Critics Academy. You can follow him on Twitter at @baronronan.
Two films that played in competition at the 66th Locarno Film Festival, Our Sunhi and When Evening Fall on Bucharest or Metabolism, center on filmmakers and the hubristic humour that emerges from the self-obsession that drives them and their work. It’s the kind of shared subject that, particularly when tackled with styles as distinct as those of Hong Sang-soo and Corneliu Porumboiu, invites plentiful comparison.
A more interesting similarity, and one far less explored, emerges between another two Locarno movies: in competition, Joaquim Pinto’s profoundly personal living-with-HIV documentary What Now? Remind Me and, in the Filmmakers of the Present sidebar (for first- or second-time directors) Matthew Johnson’s meta-referential, found footage school shooting comedy The Dirties. Stylistically and tonally, these are films that could scarcely be any more different, yet their respective focus on the act of being filmed foregrounds a shared concern—how corrosive is the egoism of stardom, of being captured and blown up for all the world to see?
In Pinto’s case, his “stardom” stands as a reminder of life. Formerly involved in the movie business as a sound engineer, his career fell prey to a major setback in the 1980s when he was diagnosed with HIV; living with the disease has become, for him, a sort of walking death, his every moment overshadowed by the cruel finality of his prognosis. His film chronicles a year-long trial of an experimental new treatment in Spain, whose side effects leave him pinned to his bed in agony, the camera—and by extension the viewer—his only confidante. To be filmed is a reminder, perhaps even an extension, of life: Pinto abates the terror of awaiting death by chronicling every moment of life.
Matthew Johnson's The Dirties
In The Dirties, meanwhile, being before the camera is a conflation of ego. Johnson’s lead characters, played by himself and Owen Williams, are bullied high school kids assigned to make a movie for a multimedia class. The humorous riffs on everything from Pulp Fiction to Irreversible that permeate this film-within-the-film belie a budding sense of immersion in an all-too-unreal world. The act of stardom, for Matthew and Owen, is an escape from the difficulties that define their real existence; they become lost in the fiction they create, and the shooting to which the film builds is a direct consequence of being unable to separate this fiction from reality.
That’s the crux of both films, in essence: the blurring of lines between the real world and the reel world. In each, the two converge in radically different ways with radically different repercussions, yet they share the essence of immortality that their characters crave. Cinema is the means to an eternal end; by capturing their every moment, both Johnson and Pinto can extend their lives beyond their respective restrictions and attain a more perpetual presence in the world.
If the movies agree on the immortal potentiality of stardom, it’s in their distinct impressions of its consequences that they differ. Johnson may see his characters’ filmmaking as a conduit to some sort of sense of self, but the implications of his end are clear: to allow one’s life to be overrun by movies is to be subjected to an inescapable separation from reality. Pinto, by contrast, is brought closer to reality by way of his film. For him, cinema is a language that allows him to comprehend come to terms with his mortality. His ego is swollen in the best possible manner, defining his existence not by the death toward which it heads, but the life left between now and then.
There’s a moment early in What Now? Remind Me where Pinto states that his partner Nuno has declined to be involved in the film. Yet by its conclusion, he is as much its focus as is Pinto, seen just as regularly. As the credits roll, it’s clear that Pinto’s movie is less a clinical trial diary than a simple romance—his greatest discovery in turning the camera on himself is that his life is defined by his love. In The Dirties, Owen’s gradual departure from the sort of madness that overtakes Matthew arrives from his involvement with a girl. In very different ways, both films come, largely, to a similar conclusion: cinema may provide a sense of escape from the tough realities of life, but there’s danger in diverging too far; the eternity the movies provides is the greatest fiction of all.