Cinematic Thoughts for Cinematic Minds
Director: Matt Johnson
Starring: Matt Johnson, Owen Williams
The Dirties is the feature debut of Canadian director, Matthew Johnson, in which he also plays an exaggerated version of himself. The film centres on Matthew and his friend, Owen, who decide to make a film about their ordeal of being bullied at school by a gang they term, ‘The Dirties’. However, for Matthew the boundaries between film and reality become increasingly blurred, prompting him to begin plotting his revenge against his tormentors.
Johnson’s film is yet another contemporary film which utilises the ever so popular ‘found footage’ format. I find this format inherently problematic as it purports to be real footage in order to impart a sense of verisimilitude, but it is obviously a construction. Using this format is also, in some ways, extremely limiting as the camera must look like it is in the hands of an amateur, handheld and shaky. There can be no beautiful crane shots or smooth pans, the camera cannot be omnipresent, cutting from one character to another and, apart from the character holding the camera, it cannot convey any other character’s point of view. Found footage is, therefore, the antithesis of the cinematic, a style of filmmaking which eschews aesthetics in favour of a visceral approach where the viewer feels the image, as opposed to seeing and admiring said image. This is why the found footage style works so well with horror and thriller films as these genres are already centred on the visceral. The erratic, handheld camerawork of found footage helps create a greater sense of tension and fear, as it places the viewer within a disorienting world where they are in close proximity to the on-screen danger. This has been put to marvellous effect in films such as Rec (2007), Cloverfield (2008), and Troll Hunter (2010). However, I would still argue that these films do not seem any more realistic than if they were filmed in the conventional classical Hollywood style. You would have to be incredibly foolish to believe that any of the events depicted in these films were captured on camera in the real world.
There is another, more obvious reason why filmmakers are making these found footage films; budgetary considerations. It is a cheap way to make a film as you do not need a lot of expensive cameras or lighting equipment. It is clear that The Dirties has been made with this in mind with its concept of a school film project. The students would not have a myriad of expensive, cutting edge equipment so neither does the actual film crew. The students use one camera and clip-on microphones, which means that the film can be made on a modest budget, as the whole point is that it should not look like a professional production. Perhaps the most compelling reason why Johnson makes use of the found footage style is that The Dirties is a film about film and the filmmaking process. What better way to highlight the filmmaking process than presenting the making of a fictional film? It is in this way that the film shows a post-modern impulse as it is extremely reflexive and self-referential. It knows that it is a film and it wants you to know that too. For a start, the director plays a version of himself who is directing a fictional film with the same name as the film we are watching. He is also shown editing his film with scenes which we have already seen edited together earlier in the film. This is taken even further later in the film when Matthew begins to lose his grip on reality and Owen is arguing with him that he does not know what is real and what is not. Matthew bluntly states that “this is a movie!”. Of course, he is right, this is a movie. However, within the context of the filmic world he is wrong, it is not a movie, it is reality. The film explores the problem of the filmic image and its relation to reality in a critical yet entertaining manner. It is fun to see all the in-jokes and references to other films but, at the same time, it is distressing to witness Matthew lose the distinction between film and reality.
Aside from its self-referential aspects, The Dirties still works well as a compelling and engaging narrative film. It is funny, sad, shocking, and well-paced. The film benefits most of all, however, from its complex, believable characters. Matthew and Owen are likable film geeks. You know the type; a bit weird, a bit quirky, obsessed with films, shaggy hair, listens to indie bands with absurd names who all sound like they are ripping off My Bloody Valentine. The bullies, by way of contrast, are suitably villainous and devoid of personality. Their attacks are shown to be unprovoked and unjust acts of hate such as hitting Owen on the head with a rock. However, as the film progresses, the status quo which has been established is called into question. Matthew is shown to be getting increasingly more annoying, arrogant, and strange as he becomes more and more obsessed with films and revenge. It makes you feel that he has brought this bullying on himself as he seems to have completely segregated himself from the real world. His behaviour becomes more and more erratic as he acts like a child, pretending a stage light is a gun and making shooting sounds as he aims it at people. With this in mind, the bullying seems more justified than it first appeared. Owen, on the other hand, becomes more popular as his friendship with Matthew breaks down, actually befriending a popular girl he likes, along with some of the people who once bullied him. As I have already mentioned, the characters are complex as they change throughout the film, the different sides of their personalities being unearthed scene by scene. Matthew changes the most as he goes from likable and funny to strange and unsociable, and then something far worse. It is quite troubling for the viewer as it is difficult to know how to take the character. There is obviously something wrong with him mentally, possibly a consequence of the trauma of bullying, but this still does not excuse his final, unforgivable act. We like him, hate him, fear him, and feel sorry for him all at the same time. One of the most fascinating elements of the film, for me, is the character holding the camera. He films all that we see but we never see him. None of the characters talk to him, nobody says his name, and Owen even says to Matthew that “I’m your only friend”. It is like he does not exist but he must do as he is filming the whole thing. He is simultaneously there and not there. Who is he? That is one of the great mysteries of the film, one which lends The Dirties a strange atmosphere and an air of mystique.
The Dirties is, then, a fascinating look at the seemingly disparate elements of bullying, school, films, reality, and mental illness. The film brings all these elements together into a cohesive whole, under the guise of a comedy which then transforms into a harrowing drama, with a truly shocking, ambiguous ending. For a debut feature using the found footage format, this film exceeds my expectations. It is a solid film which is well worth a watch.