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NYFF08: Keeping an eye on the kids ("Afterschool")

Since we have already talked about films in the New York Film Festival in terms of space and in terms of digital aesthetics, perhaps we should combine the two in Antonio Campos boarding school alienation film, Afterschool. The crux of the film, its Twin Peaks moment if you will, is when introverted young Robert (Ezra Miller) is working on establishing shots for his A/V club project at school. He records take after take of a pan across a classroom hallway, working on his framing and zoom level, until suddenly out of a doorway down the hall stumbles one of the school’s beloved, blond senior beauty queens, dragging her unconscious twin sister with her until the two collapse in squeals of pain. This is all shown solely from the point of view of Robert’s video camera, culminating, after a stunned pause, with Robert in a stupor approaching the bleeding girls at the far end of the shot and, instead of calling for help or assisting them, him cradling one girl in his arms as she dies.
This is the event, like the death of Laura Palmer nearly twenty years ago in David Lynch and Mark Frost’s seminal television series Twin Peaks, which brings boiling to the surface of Robert’s life all the displeasure, vulnerability, alienation, and melodrama that always existed in life at boarding school under its surface veneer of idealized, affluent, and controlled isolation. But perhaps that’s not really the point; or at least, it is nearing the point of Campos’ film, but it is not Afterschool’s point of interest. Treating the alienation of a friendless adolescent at school with the conventional distance of clinical long-take sequence shots isn’t exactly telling us anything we couldn’t already assume about Robert’s life as a student at boarding school or the society of the school in general. But Campos’ somewhat trite use of Robert’s interest in video—starting the film with YouTube-like clips showing an assortment of humor and violence, before moving on to pornography—does inch Afterschool in new directions.
So back again we come to space and to the digital. Robert’s mini-experimental film, panning back and forth with patient determination to get his functional establishing shot right, before abandoning aesthetic perfection for the stasis of an essentially uncomposed (or at least unperfected) glimpse of real life jolts Afterschool in an unexpected way. Previously, in another scene told through Robert’s camera, he kisses, questions, and then almost strangles the girl he likes as he is filming, in a bland simulation of the porn he was watching earlier and in an attempt to record little bits of video that “feel real.” But while Campos can’t move beyond convention to get at the disquieting appeal of “real” for Robert dramatically, what seems more “real” in the disturbing sense is when the film expands spatially. This happens at the climatic scene described above: Robert is shocked to find out that someone else recorded him on their camera phone cradling the dying girl before he was discovered and a crowd showed up. The revelation of this extra video is not of nefarious plot consequences, that some one saw him doing something wrong, but rather that after viewing that pivotal hallway so many times from the same point of view, seeing the same elevator doors, the same stairway going down, the same stairway going up, and the same hallway with two doors—in other words, after spending so much time seeing this space from Robert’s camera—suddenly we see an entirely different side to the scene. Again, this is not a new dramatic side: the new video imparts no new plot content, failing to fill in information as to what Robert was doing or feeling way off in the distance with the girl. Instead, we simply get a new spatial perspective, a new view, mobile, on video, purposeless and anonymous—and that sense is implacably creepy.
Indeed, if there is one thing that overwhelmingly comes out of Campos’ picture of boarding school life in Afterschool, it is how precarious a young student’s sense of security really is. If Robert was already set up as a friendless loner, a virgin not cool enough to do sports or deal drugs like his roommate, the story then takes him through the ringer proving that he really cannot count on any of the things a young kid should be able to count on inside even this pitiful existence: his fickle mother (deaf to his worry and sadness); his girlfriend (run off immediately after the two sleep together); his only school friend (guess who the girlfriend runs off with); the principal (given a nice, subdued man-child performance by Michael Stahlbarg reminiscent of a realistic version of Gene Wilder’s Willie Wonka); and even the guidance counselor explicitly breaks his confidentiality with Robert.
These continuous failures of trust are all well and good, but they’re purely screenplay constructions applied to Campos’ determined but erratic and often distracting formal expressions of Robert’s uneasiness and distress. What’s far more unsettling, all the way through the thematically and dramatically absurd but conceptually tingling final scene, is the translation of Robert’s sense of his vulnerability in the boarding school world around him literally into cinematic terms: the opening up of space and points of view by cameras, anonymous and pervasive. They don’t do anything, but their implication—that the cushy pillow that is living a life in serene security and trust about the people and places around you can be ripped down in a second by something as simple as video footage—is dark and depressing indeed. Though the motif of video not as interactive voyeur but simply as observational surveillance is only one thread of Afterschool, it proves to be the most ambitious and most lasting, taking the film out of its high school clichés and into the implications of the outside world.

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