ROTTERDAM '14 (1): JOAQUIM PINTO'S E AGORA? LEMBRA-ME

The World Has Seen Us Pass By

by Boris Nelepo

 

It is sad to go through life as if
returning and to enter humbly into death by mistake
It is very sad to walk among God and be absent

(translated from the Portuguese by Richard Zenith)

These lines by Catholic poet Ruy Belo are just one building block of the labyrinthine E Agora? Lembra-me (Joaquim Pinto, 2013), one of the many quotes Joaquim Pinto, in voiceover, invokes over the film's almost three-hour running time. Pinto's CV can easily double as a film history textbook: he was in charge of sound on about a hundred productions, directed, among others, by Manoel de Oliveira, Werner Schroeter, Paulo Rocha, and Raúl Ruiz; he also produced João César Monteiro’s masterpieces. The three features he made as a director in late 80s-early 90s are, unfortunately, not available outside of Portugal.

At a farewell dinner in 1997, Pinto announced his retirement. Diagnosed with HIV and hepatitis C, which had in turn led to cirrhosis, he no longer had the energy to take on producing duties. "My name is Joaquim, and I'd like to begin my film with a smile," he quips as we stare at a picture of toothless gums, his body's reaction to the highly toxic, experimental medication he agreed to start taking after all the previous forms of treatment had failed. E Agora? Lembra-me is a personal chronicle of the filmmaker's suffering during the year-long clinical trial. The ostensible lack of structure in the film can also be attributed to another side effect––loss of concentration.

Yet, the impression of chaos is deceptive, since the architecture of the film is, in reality, complex and rigid, almost like that of a sonnet sequence. An eclectic mix of random chapters and fleeting observations it is not. His concentration impaired by the drugs, Pinto still clings to the old habits of logic: he is a collector of facts, obsessively filing images and experiences. E Agora? Lembra-me is all the more meticulous a catalogue as it is compiled by a man afraid of losing his ability to comprehend the world. A declaration that a man consists of DNA and memories is immediately followed by a flash-forward, which disrupts the linearity a diary mandates.

In a brief historical overview, every large-scale event is mirrored in the details of the author's personal life. Pinto breaks history down into neat progressions. His first memory of The Carnation Revolution––and a female neighbor, deeply worried, reading a magazine. The military coup revolutionizes the local movie scheduling, too, opening the gates for Deep Throat and Eisenstein, Emmanuelle and Godard. American scientists, with great pomp and ceremony, announce that the age of epidemics is behind us; Pinto graduates film school. An actor is elected US President; rumor has it there's a new disease in NYC that only affects homosexuals. Rock Hudson, Douglas Sirk's favorite actor, is already diagnosed; Michel Foucault dies of AIDS. The first attempt to cure hepatitis fails; a dog named Rufus is welcomed into the family. The race is tight as Pinto's filmography grows, and so does the tally of his departed friends.

While sorting out his personal archives, Pinto produces memories from old boxes. The worn-out 8mm stock of his debut auditions. From these recesses of time everything is procured: faces, gestures, smells, even sounds. Joaquim's close friend––Rita Azevedo Gomes, herself a filmmaker––is editing a trailer for her A Vingança de Uma Mulher (2012). Pinto couldn't finish the sound on that movie due to health reasons, yet he is still «present» in the film. Student pictures from Germany, where he once met a young political activist named Angela Merkel. Upon turning 90, his father suggests Joaquim go searching for the house he was born in. Footage and pictures, houses and bodies, these are all physical receptacles of the intangible––of memory, first and foremost; all are susceptible to the destruction of time. Therefore, memory wears out with them. As a young man, Joaquim used to dream of a career in medicine, but he got accepted to the school of economics instead. Is there that much difference between the two? E Agora? Lembra-me is a movie about money and economic relations, since recession is also a sickness. Economic hardship throws a wrench into healthcare, too, as anti-viral treatment becomes more expensive and fewer patients have the money to pay for it. On the other hand, there appears an increased demand for the meds of the impecunious era––antidepressants. The famous towers of Madrid, previously associated with Almodovar's films, now symbolize recession, since no association can survive historical change. The world is forgetful: who, for instance, remembers that the German "economic miracle" was brought about by their debts written off in 1953? Embroiled in a fight with his own mind, Pinto can't afford to forget, despite the medication. So he scribbles little notes to himself (Remind Me).

«How do we measure present time since it has no extension? It is measured while it passes, but when it has passed it is not measured; for then there is nothing that could be measured. But whence, and how, and whither does it pass while it is being measured? Whence, but from the future? Which way, save through the present? Whither, but into the past? Therefore, from what is not yet, through what has no length, it passes into what is now no longer». This quote from Saint Augustine's Confessions is not just another building block––it is the film's scaffolding. E Agora? Lembra-me is an attempt to fathom time, visualize it. Pinto knows that neither man nor his sickness come from nowhere; neither vanish into thin air. That's why the film has to send him all the way back, to a time before The Carnation Revolution––before he was even born.

E Agora? Lembra-me opens with a series of images from a magical book about time and humanity––De Aetatibus Mundi Imagines. An illustrated history of the world that took Francisco de Holanda, 16th-century painter and philosopher, 30 years to complete. Behold the heavenly illustrations of that ineffable, unfathomable event that was the Creation of the world. I'm lost for words to describe these images; no words, luckily, are needed since the images can be accessed through this link and website of the National Library of Spain, where the book is now kept. "How can one imagine a prehistoric man?" ponders Pinto. He once read about a kid's skeleton whose age was estimated at dozens of thousands years. One cannot help but think of Rossellini's Voyage to Italy (1954), in which we see a couple mummified in volcanic ashes for centuries. There is a cavern with some cave art close to Pinto's house, but he's too weak to take the trip so his husband Nuno brings home pictures.

One of Monteiro's shorts, also produced by Pinto, was named after Apollinaire's poem cycle Le Bestiaire, or Cortège d'Orphée. His own cortege in E Agora? Lembra-me is quite impressive: a snail, a frog, a dragonfly, a bumblebee, a caterpillar, a butterfly, and a spider. Each of them is honored with a solo bit, while the bee––an insect allegedly on the verge of extinction ––even does a little dance. Nuno and Joaquim's family members, four dogs, ought to be mentioned here by name: Rufus, Cookie, Bambi, and Zorra. These are all delegates from the living world; a couple of minutes in, Pinto tells us that Nuno, mistrustful of words and unwilling to appear on screen, is busy taking care of life, saving life in general––as he tends to Joaquim, talks to the animals, and plants trees around their house. One of the very first shots of him, hugging a pillow in his sleep, is clandestine, furtive. Rarely do we get to witness true love on film, or in life, for that matter. How do you even film love? It can't be performed, nor acted out. In this movie, the images themselves assert love's existence, and conclusively prove it. You can't trick the camera.

E Agora? Lembra-me is a record of an ongoing battle between the living and the dead. Over seven acres of land around their house are now cultivated. Nuno's plants require special care; will they survive? Every director captures the passage of time––in other words, some sort of decline: it is, after all, the essence of the medium. As a sound engineer, Pinto recorded Magdalena Montezuma's faltering heartbeat in Schroeter's Der Rosenkönig (1986)––the German auteur's farewell gift to the terminally ill actress who died soon after the shooting wrapped up. Death is present in many shapes and forms: a bird embedded in asphalt, its wing still fluttering; a grasshopper among the ashes on a burnt patch of ground; some creature's remains which look like a rabbit. A newspaper statistic on land erosion. Fires spreading from tree to tree. And finally, mankind destroying their own planet. Taken out of the polyphonic context of the narrative, which is, all in all, driven by the will to live, the last statement would seem like commonplace eco-activist rhetoric. Some viruses are not lethal, though; some have no immediate impact. Untraceable and benign, they are passed down through generations.

Joaquim Pinto is a filmmaker. Therefore, his vocation is to show. His camera chases HIV, but the colorless virus can't even be detected under the microscope. Later on, Pinto and Nuno find themselves in the midst of a forest fire. By no means a metaphor, the fire serves as a visual rhyme to the image of the evanescent virus, still unfilmed and unfilmable. Death permeates the living organism of the forest while Nuno tries to put out the fire with an extinguisher. Thanks to this clever internal rhyme and unique techniques of immersion, we, too, enter the infected zone––the epicenter of the disease. This is just one example of how inventive and intricate Pinto's visuals are despite budgetary constraints.

Overlaying images showcase the filmmaker's feelings, and even dreams, rather than his vision only. When the pain becomes too much to bear, Joaquim imagines a body capable of traveling at the speed of light; a body whose wounds heal right away, by themselves. Fast forward, a banal ploy in any other movie, is justified, perhaps, for the first time in history. Then again, temporal shifts are one of his motives, since objective time––twelve months between two Christmases––would be too limiting. Every now and then, Joaquim slows down, plunging the viewer into his routine seemingly in real time: for him, everyday repetition amounts to harmony. The beauty of the routine is underscored by recurring images (for example, a frog in the pond) shot at different moments, and thus rendered new each time. Finally, at the very end he focuses on the full moon, as if in an attempt to recreate the contours and perspective of Francisco de Holanda's paintings; then we see a montage of those paintings and Pinto's own images, as though put in dialogue.

E Agora? Lembra-me is a 165-minute mosaic in which no image is arbitrary or redundant or out of place: all are interwoven in a web of mutual connections. Over the course of the film, we become so deeply immersed in the author's musings that the camera now seems to capture the intellectual processes themselves––that is to say, we are made privy to the emergence of thoughts and ideas. Another throwback, another table of cross references: the year is 1957; Pinto is born; interferons are discovered––proteins issued by host cells in response to pathogens; the most massive flu epidemic since the times of Spanish influenza; the Sputnik is launched into space. The star-studded sky, soon to appear, is no longer a mere bridge between two chapters: now, as we gaze into it, we see all the film's motives interconnected. Somewhere among these stars are Joaquim's dogs (think Laika); and his father's grandmother who years ago succumbed to the Spanish influenza; and his favorite paintings, too. A simpler example: at the beginning we see a mundane image of a washing machine in full spin––two hours later, Pinto suddenly compares ideas spinning in a man's brain to a washer's centrifuge. We are thus made accidental witnesses to how metaphorical expressions are forged out of everyday life.

«I'm also sorry if my voice doesn't come out right. Now I have dentures, but I'm not used to them yet».
The word – as a guide – escorts us through the film much like Nuno drives Joaquim in his car. The formula of E Agora? Lembra-me is impeccable: St. Augustine + Francisco de Holanda = word + image. Every language contains the whole universe, says Pinto, which is corroborated by the film's title: Lembra-me translates as "remind me," but also as "remember me." Each disease has its own language: the names of viruses and medications to fight it; the filmmaker is compiling a dictionary of those. Peginterferon, Telaprevir, Tramadol, Boceprevir, Ribavirin––scary words, each one promising its own side effects or pain. The concept of naming was of great interest to Spanish mystical poet Luis de León (see Els noms de Crist [2010], adaptation of his work by Albert Serra), who interpreted "that mountain flowing with milk" from St. Augustine's Confessions, Book 9, as cheese––therefore, paradoxically enough, Jesus was cheese as well (read more about it here
and here). When I stop to think about it, my first thought is that man has invented so many kinds of cheese and named each and every one of them. Isn't there rivalry, or at least dialogue, in this physiological arena between God and man, if the former creates phenomena (milk, viruses) while the latter creates their consequences (cheeses, medications)?

What's fascinating about this movie, led by the narrator's voice rather than the word as such, is that it's anything but a soliloquy. It is a dialogue, to be exact. Hence the organic mutability of this film, its fluidity, the dependence of its pre-established rules on the reactions of people around Pinto. Nuno's presence, for example, is gradually intensified, despite his initial reluctance to be filmed. When Joaquim passes the camera on to Nuno, it marks a sudden break in the narrative: the perspective changes as we no longer see the world through Joaquim's eyes––instead, he is now observed. Nuno's gaze is filled with love––again, the camera won't lie. From an American anthropology book Pinto learns that maternal instincts, most likely, are not innate. Survival in the course of evolution is a direct result of collective mutual help. Joacquim's survival, in particular, is a result of Nuno's care.

Francisco de Holanda's most famous book is called Four Dialogues with Michelangelo. The majority of historians presume these dialogues to be fictitious, but does it really matter? Pinto's entire movie is a real, lively conversation with the writers and filmmakers he quotes. St. Augustine wrote about it, too: «Thou dost call us, then, to understand the Word--the God who is God with thee--which is spoken eternally and by which all things are spoken eternally. For what was first spoken was not finished, and then something else spoken until the whole series was spoken; but all things, at the same time and forever». The soundtrack, too, weaves musical voices of Beethoven, Dvořák, and Schubert into a narrative of its own; then, out of the blue, it's interrupted by Magdalena Montezuma's voice from Der Rosenkönig: «For me, fire comes from inside the Earth, it runs in the hidden paths of the Earth, always ready to become free. I'm afraid that it might catch me». The film directors Pinto has befriended and collaborated with are made here legitimate characters.

He shows us footage from the shooting of Raúl Ruiz's surrealistic horror film Territory (1981), their first collaborative effort. A series of anecdotes unravels: legendary DP Henri Alekan, after Cocteau's La Belle et la Bête (1946), writes down the miles he has walked on sets; assistant director and cinematographer François Ede fools around in front of the camera and falls on the ground; Raúl Ruiz bursts Pinto's bubble as to the possibility of democracy in cinema. No, the director is in charge like a general is of his army. I didn't get a chance to see Ruiz while he was still alive, but now I see him smiling slyly in that footage... Joaquim, thank you for this generous gift.

People come and go like shots in a projector, leaving us forever, but neither films nor people are ever really gone. Joaquim Pinto's movie grants both of them immortality. The filmmaker's primary companion is João César Monteiro, a pre-eminent director from Portugal, whose friendship inspired Pinto to pursue a career in film. His constant presence is felt even in the puns Pinto makes––at some point he, for instance, says vai~e~vem (come and go), which is the title of Monteiro's last film he completed at the terminal stage of cancer and didn't live to see premiere. Similar wordplay punctuates his brief encounters with French critic Serge Daney, which Pinto calls "moments written in the wind," alluding, of course, to Douglas Sirk's iconic melodrama. He's also reading Lana Turner's autobiography about her experiences on the set of Imitation of Life (1959). E Agora? Lembra-me is a full-bodied film history in its own right. What these puns demonstrate is how the sum of everything we have read, seen, and experienced bears on our lives and stays with us forever, returning even in our slips of the tongue.

Joaquim Pinto has an adventurous heart. A mysterious map bequeathed by Raúl Ruiz, who dreamt of the city of pirates and adapted Stevenson for the screen, lends E Agora? Lembra-me an air of adventure: it is, after all, a film of incessant movement and relocation. Long presumed to be lost, the aforementioned magical book by Francisco de Holanda was found, at last, in the middle of the 20th century in Spain, as if it had resurfaced from the eternity. Pinto is talking about it from the very beginning––and yes, the treasure will be retrieved at the end: he will see the original. In the Latin inscriptions, he'll make out two words: Nuno and love. It's a quote from Virgil: NUNC SCIO QUID SIT AMOR, "Now I know what love is."

Not just another coincidence, the quote proves, one last time, that these words––and these people, too––were brought together for a reason. Joaquim's father used to tell him about his grandfather who had taught him Bible without ever going to church. Nuno finds himself in a similar situation midway in the movie when he, with his faultless knowledge of the Bible, gets annoyed by the priests' repeated blunders. The ashes of Rock Hudson, another bodiless ghost of E Agora? Lembra-me, were scattered over the sea; years later, Pinto and his closest friends scattered Robert Kramer's ashes. After the revolution, Lisbon's oldest theatre starts screening Teorema (Pier-Paolo Pasolini, 1968), so God himself descends upon to visit the former lair of non-stop porn. God is the name of Monteiro's most famous character he played in the João de Deus trilogy. In the everyday chaos, Pinto is capable of discerning the beauty and perfection of some divine pattern, one he tries to follow in his own film: even the grasshopper from the titular page of De Aetatibus Mundi Imagines finds a visual tie-in with grasshoppers by his house. E Agora? Lembra-me is a treatise on the absence of the arbitrary, as well as on the interconnectedness and unity of all things, be it a virus or a person, economics or medicine, film or life, environmental science or technology, fact or proof. What's written here is the very same glorious text human life adds up to, in the richness of all its experiences, impressions, loves, and sensations.

How can one talk about cinema? Cinemateca Portuguesa invites Pinto to introduce his debut feature. «I don't know how to talk about films. We talk about lives, about experiences». The end credits of E Agora? Lembra-me are rolling, followed by continuing scene––the film, therefore, goes on. It is extremely apt, since this movie never quite ends, instead engaging us in a dialogue, roping us all into its text and letting us continue. My first visit to Cinemateca in Lisbon took place six months after the screening featured in E Agora? Lembra-me. Serendipitously, we watched Schroeter's Der Rosenkönig, with Rita Azevedo Gomes and Pierre Léon, who means to me what Monteiro must have meant to Pinto. Then we met again, this time around in Moscow, at the screening of A Vingança de Uma Mulher. It feels like I couldn't have avoided a chance meeting with E Agora? Lembra-me. How am I going to remember the year 2013, which started out on a tragic note with Paulo Rocha's death? I'll probably remember it as the year Joaquim Pinto's movie and I first saw each other.

Dedicated to Cíntia Gil, Pedro Fernandes Duarte and Cinta Pelejà Benet

Translated by Anton Svynarenko