Few moviegoing experiences are as exciting as the immediate, unmistakable recognition that a first-time director knows precisely what he or she’s doing. In part, that’s because it’s so damn rare—most debut features are clumsy, hit-and-miss affairs that at best show great promise. Celebrated American indies, in particular, tend to be visually pedestrian and script-driven, as if the filmmaker decided at the outset that a meager budget justifies purely functional compositions. So my first encounter with Antonio Campos’ little-seen 2008 film Afterschool—which, significantly, premièred at Cannes, not Sundance or Toronto—just about knocked me out of my seat. Not only did it seem more aware than any other recent movie of the exponential changes taking place in our increasingly wired world, but Campos, who was just 24 at the time of shooting, somehow emerged with a fully formed aesthetic, albeit one heavily influenced by the likes of chilly auteurs like Michael Haneke and Stanley Kubrick.
The film’s story, to the extent that it has one, involves an alienated prep-school kid (exceptionally well played by Ezra Miller, soon to be seen in the title role of We Need To Talk About Kevin) who accidentally films the death of two popular girls and winds up being assigned, as a form of creative therapy, to fashion a video presentation for the school’s memorial service. But the brief scene I’m going to talk about has nothing whatsoever to do with that narrative—or with anything else, really. It’s completely self-contained, significant only in that it demonstrates how a gifted filmmaker can use the camera to place us inside a character’s head. (Some juvenile leering in the comments is probably unavoidable, but I’ve made my peace with that prospect in advance.) At this point, very early in the film, we’ve seen Miller in his dorm room, jerking off to amateur, pseudo-violent porn; interacting with friends; and at a morning assembly, but this is our first view of him in the classroom.
It may strike you as odd that I’d single this scene out for special attention, as Campos isn’t doing anything particularly subtle here. The kid’s got sex on his mind, and/or isn’t all that interested in Hamlet. Big deal. But consider all the different ways a scene like this could have been shot, then look at how it actually was shot. One key element is contextual: This teacher (played by Rosemarie DeWitt, who got to spend some time in focus later that same year as the title character in Rachel Getting Married) plays no further part in the movie. If she appears again after this scene, I didn’t notice her, and it would have to be in the background, more or less as an extra. There’s no indication that Miller has any particular crush on her—she isn’t the object of his obsession, and the film never even suggests later on that he’s thinking about her, or any other female instructor. In other words, this scene isn’t setting anything up. Its sole purpose is to give us a quick sense of how Miller experiences the world.
Which is not the same way that, say, Jeff Spicoli from Fast Times At Ridgemont High experiences the world. After all, this could have been a scene in Fast Times, or in any other conventional high-school movie. (Not that Fast Times is wholly conventional, but you know what I mean.) It’s easy to imagine Spicoli ignoring a lecture and focusing instead on the teacher’s tits and ass—totally in character. But that scene would be played for laughs. “Heh heh, what a horndog.” Campos’ approach is far more clinical, to the point where Miller’s attention to various erogenous zones doesn’t seem exclusively sexual. It’s as if he’s incapable of focusing on more than one thing at a time. DeWitt’s bare thighs grab him (as they will), and everything else just gets tuned out—not because Miller has sex on the brain, but because those thighs happen to be the most alluring object in his field of the vision at that moment, and he’s lost all interest in processing multiple stimuli. A single nugget of unmediated reality will do.
Okay, so I’m cheating a bit. That analysis is heavily informed by the rest of the movie, which speaks volumes about how YouTube and other forms of social media are altering our perception. Still, I think you get a sense of it from this scene alone, thanks to a couple of specific decisions Campos makes. For one thing, he keeps DeWitt out of focus whenever her entire body is shown, in order to emphasize Miller’s inability or reluctance to process the whole. (Credit here is also likely due to rising young cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes; I’ve now seen four films he’s shot, every one a stunner visually.) More significantly, he shoots Miller entirely from behind, never once giving us a look at his face, which we’ve seen plenty of in previous scenes. In addition to more effectively forcing our identification with Miller’s point of view, this approach ensures that we have no opportunity to read anything into a facial expression, which makes it impossible for us to manufacture the jokey what-a-horndog response Campos clearly wants to avoid. We see only what Miller sees; we don’t need to see Miller.
Additionally, the shots of DeWitt’s body parts are strangely beautiful in their own right, above and beyond any prurient interest—beautiful in the way that Renaissance nudes are beautiful. (That’s part of what I mean when I suggest that Miller’s attention isn’t exclusively sexual.) I love the way her legs shift to profile as she slides off the bench, and the way her ass jiggles in precise sync with the sound of her chalk on the blackboard. That’s basic physics—it’s the movement of her arm that’s causing the jiggling—but it still seems more attentive to detail than you’d expect from the hypothetical horndog version of this scene. I wonder how much time Campos expended working out just how much DeWitt’s blouse needed to be open, and just which mark he needed her to hit when she leans over in order to capture the slight curve from her armpit to the initial swell of her right breast—just a hint of the womanly, but no more. It’s all thrillingly precise, and truly remarkable coming from a young, first-time American director in a context where thrilling precision is almost unheard of.