Sunday, September 27, 2009


What are the consequences of our culture’s increasing obsession with the video image, specifically the You Tube-style novelty clip and the more violent strands of pornography? Well, according to Antonio Campos’ thematically intriguing but fatally simplistic Afterschool, we have the perpetuation of bad behaviors learned from the video world, the blurring of the real and the virtual, a certain degree of moral numbness and, finally, a subversion of video (or film’s) truth-telling function by lying manipulations.

All of which may or may not be pretty heady stuff, but in Campos’ presentation, it breaks down into easy-to-digest thesis segments. Rob (Ezra Miller), a 10th grader at an elite prep school some miles outside of Manhattan, spends his time online watching porno or vid clips, while experiencing difficulty interacting with other students. His pent-up frustration comes out in occasional hot outbursts and frequent masturbatory sessions, but mostly he just walks around in silent passivity – a state mirrored by Campos’ awkwardly off-kilter framings which often leave the shot’s main subjects chopped-off by the screen’s edge. Since Rob can seemingly act only according to learned behaviors, when he finds himself in an intimate encounter with a young woman (while videotaping the whole thing, natch) he begins choking her - just like in! And when he’s faced with the film’s central tragedy, two girls dying in front of his eyes via coke overdose – also captured by the young man on video – he’s unable to react properly. Frozen at first in immobility, he only moves forward to helplessly observe, an extension of the camera’s passive function.

After the deaths, the film turns its attentions to the prep school’s official response, its misguided attempts to come to terms with the overdose. As put forth by an officious dean who verges on the parodic, this response consists of increased repression rather than any kind of emotional healing. (We also learn that the dean had repeatedly ignored warnings of the girl’s troubled behavior.) So, random room searches are instituted, the students are doped up on anti-depressants (an officially acceptable form of narcotic) and a memorial video is commissioned. Campos introduces this last development as a means of interrogating the role of video (and, by extension, film) as a device for recording truth – either on its simplest terms as a documentary function, or more importantly, as emotional truth. This second form of truth is brought into play when Rob concocts a memorial video that pays tribute to the young girls’ lives, but also gets at deeper ambiguities in the underlying set of circumstances. (This emotional truth is also, in theory, the type communicated by Campos’ film.) Naturally, the AV-advisor balks at his efforts – “it didn’t even have music,” he shouts in disbelief – and an uncontroversial, highly sentimentalized offering, which selectively edits out specific content from clips that we’ve already seen in their entirety, is substituted in its stead. In moments like these, it’s difficult to argue with the truth of what Campos is telling us, but it’s all too easy to object to the simplistic manner of its telling.

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