Review by Stephen Snart
Posted on 14 October 2008
Source 35mm Print
Categories The 46th New York Film Festival
Afterschool features a minor character named Mr. Wiseman, a teacher at a prestigious prep school who works in the media department. If it isn’t already obvious enough, then the film’s institutional setting, excruciating long takes, obtuse framing and resistance to make any declarative judgments will make it abundantly clear that Antonio Campos’ new fiction film is heavily indebted to the work of legendary documentarian Frederick Wiseman. During a Q + A following the New York Film Festival screening of Afterschool, Campos acknowledged Wiseman’s influence and revealed that, also in Wiseman fashion, his original cut of the film clocked in at around four hours. Having sat through a one-hour-and-forty-six minute cut of Afterschool, all I can say is thank goodness he didn’t follow his mentor’s example to the tee.
Afterschool takes place at Bryton prep school, a fictional boarding school somewhere in the suburbs populated mostly by the progeny of wealthy and talented Manhattanites. The students are high school level and their amenities are bountiful—an apple computer in every room, high-speed internet, big-screen TVs, edible cafeteria food. The institution is grand and historic, particularly the chapel in which they attend morning meeting with the bowtie clad headmaster addressing the students in front of stained glass windows, stone walls, and marble statues. But the kids are completely up to date with technology, most carrying cell phones with video recording capability and expedient uploading abilities, particularly the film’s protagonist Rob (Ezra Miller), a shy student who spends most of his time streaming video clips from the internet. In the film’s pivotal scene, he inadvertently records a fatal drug overdose by two of the school’s most popular girls. Afterschool isn’t a mystery or a thriller (as one might expect based on such a plot development) and as such the video isn’t a secret commodity that holds the key to proving Rob’s innocence or guilt regarding the matter. Instead it is a widely viewed asset used by the administration and the police and eventually uploaded onto the internet.
Afterschool is interested in the immediacy of digital video and the role it plays in contemporary expressions of grief. On the whole, Campos’ view seems to be critical of the proliferation of online video content, specifically its prominent use in transmitting fights, idiotic injuries and pornography. While Afterschool is concerned with online content, it is not shot to resemble the internet’s amateur aesthetic. Rather it is shot in stark contrast by using careful framing, static cameras, and dilatory pacing. On the one hand, I appreciate seeing a young American filmmaker (Campos is a mere 25) who isn’t obsessed with fast cuts and handheld cameras but on the other hand, his approach is damn near maddening. If part of his intent is to simply rebel against the frantic and frenetic filmmaking technique (or lack thereof) propagated by the internet and deride the short attention span that it appeals to, then he has succeeded only in showing that the reverse end of the spectrum can be equally uninteresting. Personally, I’ve never considered myself an avid streamer and like to think I have a suitable enough attention span for most feature length films, but I must admit I certainly didn’t have the patience for this one. And can I really be faulted for growing restless during interminable shots of students’ legs congregating in hallways or lengthy takes where the only object in frame is the lead character’s hair? If I were watching this film in a less regimented setting than the Ziegfeld Theater I’d have been likely to suspect a projectionist foul-up.
Surely Campos’ filmmaking is designed to cause a reaction in the viewer, but what is it? And is the accompanying frustration justified? By frequently keeping faces out of frame and characters out of focus, Campos might be commenting on the limitations of scope in online videos; i.e. while these kinds of videos are enjoyed for being “real,” they are only able to show a tiny square of such ersatz “reality.” But then, there isn’t much impression that anything particularly interesting is occurring outside of the frame in Afterschool. The primary reason we grow restless during the film’s constant obscuration is due to the expectation of convention, not the possibility of missing an important detail. It’s true that the ending kind of inverts this by revealing a tiny but important detail previously obscured, but it’s not an unexpected revelation borne out of an otherwise insignificant event, it comes from a moment that was rather suspect to begin with. As such, Campos’ filmmaking choices seem more arbitrary than functional. Very occasionally, his method does achieve a palpable sense of tension by holding the shot so long that the viewer grows uneasy with the expectation that something is about to happen (one such startle is the great scene in which Rob’s roommate erupts in a middle-of-the-night release of aggression).
Afterschool is a very hard film to appreciate, although it does possess some strong qualities. One of Campos’ most effective decisions was to cast actors who really look like they are fourteen or fifteen years old. This lends the film an equal air of credibility and unease that is complemented by the wonderfully natural performance of stage actor Michael Stuhlbarg (The Pillowman) as the headmaster. Also well utilized is the location shooting at a real preparatory institute, the Pomfret School in Connecticut (gaining access to shoot there must have been an immense triumph in itself, as this is by no means a glamorous depiction). One of the film’s major hurdles (besides keeping viewers awake, something unaided by the choice of Brahms’ Lullaby over the end credits) is going to be distancing itself from comparisons to Gus Van Sant’s Elephant. Campos is aware of this feat and during the Q + A said that he tried to avoid any similarity to Elephant during shooting because he knew that the films would inevitably draw comparisons, even before people had seen Afterschool. Despite such effort, the film still plays out like a Van Sant film without the interesting music choices. As it happens, in trying so hard to avoid Elephant, he may have inadvertently caused it to sharply resemble Van Sant’s latest – Paranoid Park – a far superior film about a similarly vapid, vacant-eyed teen and his coming to terms with his culpability in witnessing (or perhaps causing) an accidental death.
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