Roger Bohbot, Michael Collins, Aude Py, and Erick Zonca, 2008
#9, 2009 Skandies

So whenever I go through a Skandie list I watch the top five movies and then whichever others in the top 20 catch my eye. I thought about stopping with The Hurt Locker, but I saw that Tilda Swinton had won the Best Actress category overwhelmingly for the next one up, Julia, and also dimly remembered that Mike D'Angelo had named it his #2 of the year, so I figured I'd give it a shot. And it's very good! Right up there with Summer Hours. And in fact it made me wonder whether I should reconsider my preferred practice where these movies are concerned, i.e., knowing as little as possible about them, because after fifteen minutes I was ready to give up: it looked like it was going to be all about this trainwreck of a human being spending two and a half hours gradually cleaning up her act and I didn't want to watch that. So I put the movie on pause and read the first few lines of Roger Ebert's review, which called the movie "a nerve-wracking thriller with a twisty plot." What? So I started the movie back up and, sure enough, almost immediately that twisty plot started kicking in. What followed was a series of increasingly gonzo turns, including the greatest ending to a car chase I've ever seen and a humdinger of a final scene. I'd recommend it both to people with arthouse tastes and those who prefer mainstream fare. (It also features the best deployment for symbolic/thematic (rather than aesthetic/erotic) purposes of breasts that I can recall, so if you're on the fence then surely that puts it over the top, no?)

Antonio Campos, 2008
#15, 2009 Skandies

Since Julia had turned out to be a winner, I decided to try this, which was D'Angelo's #1 of 2009 and his #3 of the entire decade. He seems to be the only one who's really wild about it, though, and I was not a fan.

Afterschool is set at an elite boarding school, very nearly identical to Deerfield Academy, where I tutored for four years. The protagonist is Rob, a sophomore boy who spends a lot of time watching video clips on the web — a little Keyboard Cat, a little porn — and, required to sign up for an extracurricular activity, decides that video production sounds the best. As he's filming an empty hallway for B-roll footage, one of the popular girls stumbles into the shot dragging her twin sister, at which point both collapse and die right there. Rob leaves the camera and investigates, but doesn't call for help; we watch in real time as students and teachers happen across the scene and either run for help or sit there and record everything with their cell phone cameras. Rob is then assigned the task of making a memorial video for the dead twins.

So, why did D'Angelo like this so much? Let's look at his writeup:

"Campos tackles head-on the key subject of the early 21st century, viz. mediation"

All right then, so what does this mean? A lot of different things fall under the heading of "mediation," and D'Angelo doesn't say whether he has any particular one in mind. So let's look at a few of them.

At the most basic level, a mediated experience would be the opposite of a direct one. Of course, there's really no such thing as a purely direct experience; everything is mediated through the senses. I audited a great class on perception last spring, and the overriding message was that what we think we're seeing and hearing is really just our brains taking guesses, often wild ones, at the input it's receiving. But put that aside. Off the top of my head I can think of three phenomena that might be termed "mediation":

One is the substitution of interaction through technology for interaction with one's surroundings. This is a trend that has been the subject of lamentation for quite a while now, on a couple of levels. On the moment-to-moment level, look at a gathering of people on a subway car or coming out of a lecture hall or what have you, and you'll find that instead of striking up conversations with each other, 98% of them are on the phone with some distant interlocutor or wearing their thumbs to stubs firing off texts. On the big-picture level, the pundits gripe that people are sacrificing deep relationships in favor of legions of shallow ones — no longer physically spending time with other people but simply staring at screens trading Facebook posts. But Afterschool isn't really about either of these types of mediation, so let's move on.

Closer to the mark is the interposition of screens in what would otherwise be direct experiences. Think of fans at a sporting event watching the jumbotron rather than the live action in front of them, or tourists ignoring the scenery right before their eyes in favor of the version on the little screens of their camcorders. This last example does indeed have some overlap with Afterschool, given that it's all about a kid recording stuff and watching things that other people have recorded... but then, filmmakers have insisted for decades that the culture is obsessed with recording things just because they are. Just as TV people argue that we all live our lives through TV and sports people insist that civic pride is a function of the performance of sports teams. But who knows — maybe with the advent of cell phone cameras it's finally true. Ours has long been condemned as a spectator culture — perhaps the most notorious example being the murder of Kitty Genovese — but now it's reached another level as most of us carry around devices that can take the world and inscribe it in a little rectangle for us. And, sure, part of this is voyeurism, and the mundane explanation for why people stand around taking cell phone videos of fights and overdoses instead of helping out is that they want to spread audiovisual gossip. But perhaps more importantly, it's a symptom of an age in which one of the popular slogans is "pics or it didn't happen." I remember being struck by the sight of Tim Duncan, in the immediate aftermath of the Spurs winning the '99 NBA title, whipping out a camcorder and videotaping the celebration — yes, it meant that he could watch it whenever he wished, but there were already plenty of real TV cameras capturing the event, and by playing cameraman he was dooming himself to a lifelong memory of having spent this moment... playing cameraman. My once prodigious memory is now completely shitty, but I think I'd still prefer to have faded half-memories of doing things than have a voluminous record detailing how I spent my life taping stuff. But when fact is fiction and TV reality, people might feel compelled to record things simply to legitimate them.

(Note that I sure seem to be making a lot of 20th-century references for something that's supposedly so uniquely 21st-century in nature.)

The third possibility, and the one that I suspect is the main one D'Angelo was thinking of, is the way that instead of learning about the world from the world, we increasingly learn about it through representations of the world, such as, in Rob's case, Internet video clips. The most remarked-upon thread in Afterschool is that in which Rob watches a clip on an "amateur" porn site (not "homemade" — there's a difference) in which the cameraman asks the performer whether she minds her parents finding out that she gets fucked for money, and then, when she puts on a front of indifference, starts choking her. Later, talking about sex with Amy, a girl with whom he's been getting closer — and taping the encounter all the while just like the porn cameraman — Rob tentatively tries the choking maneuver himself, applying the lessons he's learned from nastycumholes.com to his own life. Mediation would thus be part of an ongoing cycle in which people learn about the world through distorted representations of it, then apply those lessons to the real world and make them part of other people's real experience, which then gets distorted in turn, world without end.

But, again, this is nothing new. Hell, forget the 20th-century references — in the 19th, Mark Twain established his career with a smash bestseller called The Innocents Abroad, which is largely about how his tourist's group attempt to go see exotic parts of the world was mediated by the popular travel literature of the day. The titular "innocents" have all read books like William C. Prime's Tent Life in the Holy Land and are therefore carrying around preconceptions of what they're going to see and how they're supposed to react. Which they then proceed to re-enact even when it's inappriopriate: in one passage, Twain is bewildered when the appearance of a random, rather homely girl prompts several of his fellow passengers to remark upon her "graceful, Madonna-like beauty," an odd phrase that turns out to be Prime's. Twain went on to write a novel that would become the most studied book in American schools, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which takes up the same theme: much of the plot is driven by Tom Sawyer's insistence on viewing the world through the lens of the adventure books he's imprinted on. So when in Afterschool we see Rob using web clips as his model for how to interact with the world, it's just a new skin on something very old. I mean, the reason I only went back as far as the 19th century is that I'm an Americanist. Someone better versed in comp lit might prefer to jump back to 1605 and Don Quixote. So while D'Angelo calls this "the first movie I've seen that seems to recognize how drastically the (developed) world has changed in just the last several years," I'm inclined to interpose a "hundred" before the last word there.

D'Angelo goes on:

"we're now both starved for authenticity and dedicated to pretense"

"Now"? Um, there was this guy named Holden Caulfield who was kind of a big deal a while back. Another boarding-school kid, in fact. He was all about rejecting anything that seemed remotely "phony" (while putting on one performance after another) and became a patron saint to legions of Baby Boomers. This is not new. Not even the specifics are new. To continue the plot summary: Rob puts together a memorial video for the dead twins that tries to capture some sort of truth about the tragedy, splicing together footage of the parents losing their composure, of random students offering epitaphs that could fairly be described as ambivalent, of school authorities transparently manufacturing what they think are appropriate remarks, of the hallway where he saw a girl die with her head in his lap. The administration is aghast — "you didn't even have music!" — and hastily recuts the video into something suitably sentimental and completely empty, scored with Brahms's Lullaby and peppered with quotes like, "They always had a smile on their face!" and "They'll be missed!" with no indication at all that the reason these girls had a video made in their honor is that they had fatal seizures after snorting coke cut with rat poison. D'Angelo notes that Campos was "all of 23 years old" when he put forward this tale of a young filmmaker's attempt to convey something real getting turned by the powers that be into something utterly fake. Coincidentally, Helen Childress was also 23 when she did the exact same thing in Reality Bites a decade and a half earlier. Note that I'm not dinging Campos here — art certainly doesn't have to be completely original and sui generis in order to be good. I'm just saying that the contention that Afterschool is a "unique," generationally specific masterpiece is, shall we say, overstated.

D'Angelo also describes Rob's video as "something so horrifying it can barely be processed," which would have been cool had it been true. Instead, Rob's video is about what you'd expect from a fifteen-year-old uncertainly trying to cobble together poorly-shot footage in an "artistic" way. Which is fine — that's exactly what he is! Less fine is that Campos's film is pretty much exactly the same thing, which leads me to suspect that Campos actually does think that Rob's video is great art. D'Angelo calls the out-of-focus backgrounds "magnificently blurred" "expressionist miracles" and the deliberately poor compositions "brilliantly artless" — when he correctly states that the camera is "forever trained on the wrong spot or cutting someone in half at the edge of the frame," it's actually meant as praise — but I have a whole pattern (34) that's basically about how I hate that shit. And the fact that I already have a pattern about it suggests that this also isn't new: in fact, both in its depiction of a kid in a daze over his role in someone's death and in its heavy use of filmmaking gimmicks in that depiction, Afterschool is almost a carbon copy of Paranoid Park. But, again, lack of originality is not a very damning charge where art is concerned. What I found more troubling was that Afterschool's gimmicks were disingenuous.

See, as Rob explains to the guidance counselor, what he seeks out online are "clips that seem real." This means both that they're not scripted the way movies are and that they're not censored. He explains that he likes that you can see "something violent" — not gory special effects, but real violence, the sort of thing you rarely see in real life and can't usually see on TV. Same thing with the porn clips — though attractive people pleasuring each other would be fun to watch even if it were standard fare, much of the thrill comes from the fact that you can't see real sex acts in the mainstream media. The sorts of clips Rob watches often have crappy camera work, because you don't always have the optimal angle on that fight that unexpectedly breaks out at the other end of the hallway and because it's hard to hold a camera steady while you're in the middle of fucking someone. And so the crappy camera work becomes a badge of authenticity. Afterschool also has crappy camera work. For instance, here's Rob losing his virginity:

Why is 3/4 of the screen filled with leaves and twigs? Why are we only seeing the girl's left knee and part of her left hand? The disingenuous implication is that it's because this is as real as a clip off someone's cell phone. The reality is that it's because if you film a 15-year-old's penis entering a 14-year-old's vagina you can go to jail for a very long time. Afterschool is set in the same artificial, censored world that Rob flees to the world of clips to get away from, while hinting through camera tricks that it too is from the world of clips. D'Angelo calls Afterschool "utterly true"; I call it a big lie. More of a lie than your usual film, because it keeps signaling, "Hey, honest, I'm not lying."

D'Angelo also describes Rob and Amy's similarly filmed first kiss as "amazingly credible," which brings me to the last thing I want to say. Namely: the kiss is artificial. Why? Because all kisses are artificial. It is not a natural thing to express affection by putting your mouth on someone else's mouth. It's learned behavior. In a different culture, Rob and Amy would be rubbing noses. In this one, we spend our childhoods seeing romantic kisses modeled for us, both in real life and in the media, and then there comes a day when we find the occasion to mimic what we've seen. I remember my first kiss, and what I was thinking during it was, "Hmm, there's a smaller area of contact than I imagined." Actually, since I don't think in language unless I'm rehearsing how I'm going to articulate something, I was mentally comparing tactile Venn diagrams and noting that the reality had a smaller area of intersection than the preconception. The point, aside from the fact that I can be really fuckin' Aspie sometimes, is that I was consciously attempting to replicate a performance I had seen: I went for the kiss because the cultural script said I should. So, yes, we see Rob watch a porn clip, and later see him try out one of the moves on Amy. We also hear him repurpose a line from that clip in his conversation with the guidance counselor. So? How is this new? Why does it matter that he picked up his tough talk from a recording of some thug in North Hollywood rather than from the oaf a couple of lockers over after gym class? I mean, it's really just the same process that was once at work with every word I use: I heard or read it somewhere, and at some point took it upon myself to parrot it back. Eventually it became natural to me, much like this Earth thing you call kissing. But it started out as completely artificial, so adding a computer to the process couldn't have made it more so.

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