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New York Film Festival 2008: Gomorrah & Afterschool

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New York Film Festival 2008: <em>Gomorrah</em> & <em>Afterschool</em>

There’s not much to say about Gomorrah that hasn’t already been said (the price of engaging with Cannes’ Grand Prix winner months later, based on a hot-topic book no less), so let’s be brief. David Simon has apparently ruined life for everyone because this is the second film in NYFF’s line-up (though the complaints date back to Cannes) to be compared, unfavorably, to The Wire. The complaint is roughly of the same nature in both cases (the other being Laurent Cantet’s The Class): too much ground to cover, not enough time to cover it, better explored on the show. Gomorrah has two shots that almost inevitably jerk you back towards the series if you’ve seen it—drug distribution on the stairwells, albeit different terrace layout; and a sequence on the docks, multi-colored crates piled high in near avant-garde formations—so I understand where this is coming from. Is this the first time a TV show has ruined so many otherwise sure-fire critical successes?

Nonetheless: the problem with Gomorrah isn’t that it feels incomplete or underdeveloped. Or, alternately, that’s not precisely the problem, insofar as the comparison implies that if director Matteo Garrone had 13 hours to work himself out, the overall effect would be more satisfying. I’m not so sure: Gomorrah is a straightforward indictment of the Camorra mafia in Naples, and by touching on many things at once and never really resolving any of them, Garrone suggests the unfathomable scope of the problem far more effectively than by exploring every nook and cranny. Both Garrone and Simon are aiming for something similar yet different; Simon is fascinated by the ultimate futility of the war on drugs, while Garrone is dealing with a problem so large it seems equally ineradicable. Both are digging deep into fields that have been somewhat well-documented, yet not nearly as well as they should be. Digging stuff up to the light of day is the first step. Ultimately, though, Garrone’s vision is more despairing: humor is rare, despair the order of the day.

The problem with Gomorrah is that it could start and end anywhere. The Wire runs full arcs, tying social problems to well-developed characters; the war never ends, but the characters move on. Gomorrah is representative types running through a loop: today’s Scarface-emulating young sociopaths are tomorrow’s dead meat, but there’ll always be someone to replace them. All five stories in Gomorrah’s hydra-headed monster have rough conclusions, but anyone expecting a movie about mob life to end in any kind of upbeat fashion a) needs to watch more movies b) needs, indeed, to read up a bit more. Gomorrah is exactly what I thought it would be, which means there’s no surprises. It’s superbly made: director Matteo Garrone has a fantastic eye, frequently establishing power relations by whoever’s in foreground focus, the entire rest of the world often reduced to a shadowy background blur. He has a feel for huge architectural spaces, giving admirable and equal depth to a limestone quarry as to the huge bulk of the buildings where much of the violence goes down. There’s little grace notes all along the way—check out e.g. the little victory salute a man gives after two killings have been pulled off towards the end—and the whole thing suggests the tip of an iceberg. What’s not to love? Just the feeling that what’s here is, simultaneously, too much of one thing and not enough of the other. Still well worth seeing—when it comes out, at a reduced expense.

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Good morning, my generation! How’re we feeling today, the monolithic little bundle that we are? Is Generation Y still a leading name for my fellow young twentysomethings? Will Douglas Coupland come back to save us with another accidentally coined label (or misnomer)? The “Post-Echo Generation,” perhaps? Will we all have to settle, finally, for being the “YouTube Generation”? I ask because Antonio Campos’ Afterschool is clearly the opening volley of a campaign that’s sure to play out for at least the next ten years: people roughly my age (Campos is 24) trying to sum up the zeitgeist in two hours or less. With the self-conscious limitations imposed by those of the “mumblecore” gang, up to now little more has been suggested beyond the presence of a lot of nice, shy people with communication problems, free-floating in a moneyed, apolitical climate.

According to Afterschool, we all live on YouTube. An opening montage juxtaposes the web’s greatest hits: a cat ostensibly playing piano and Saddam Hussein being hung sit snugly next to each other, in a different window from young Rob’s (Ezra Miller) porn window. All of these things, Campos bluntly suggests, can be processed the same way: the Internet creates its own realities, where something’s moral weight and reality doesn’t mean as much as the perception of reality (in stupid teen vernacular, the kind that claims you like people who “aren’t fake”). I was lost from this very opening: no matter how image-junkied out we’re supposed to be, I have trouble believing that someone’s stupid homemade gimmick and the execution of an international figure have exactly the same kind of presence online.

Rob’s the target of every overgrown, entitled, rich young jock at his upstate campus, which brings up the theme of class. At least it does for me: either the film is incredibly specific (in which case I’m not sure why the heavy insistence on viral video as the zeitgeist), or the boarding school is a generic location which doesn’t change much. Neither seems true. I’m sure there’s jocks all over America who taunt their smaller and more poorly-endowed classmates with gibes about the relative wetness of their sister’s pussy in unbelievably crude cafeteria-lunch monologues that go unanswered. I’m equally willing to believe in feckless headmasters who value their image and the school’s wealth over the actual education and safety of the students. As far as my public-school alumni self can tell, Campos is probably right on the money.

But these things matter, for two reasons:

1) It’s personally a big turn-off for me to watch the extremely naturalistic adventures of a bunch of more-or-less worthless kids—callow, privileged without being aware of it, beginning to grasp the connection between sex and power and exploiting the hell out of it. It’s especially problematic because Campos arrives, in his first feature, as a major visual talent: Afterschool is a showpiece of widescreen frames that veer from the immaculately symmetrical to the purposefully skewed (e.g., a kiss taking place with two heads at the bottom right of the screen, their mouths invisible, suggesting all that’s needed). Campos combats the blurry cellphone anarchy of the Internet with rigor. Comparisons to Elephant are, in this respect, accurate: the clash between Campos’ extreme formalism and the kids’ unstudied naturalism is invigorating. (Comparisons to Larry Clark are less so; Campos purposefully restages the infamous Bijou Phillips crotch shot from Bully not once but twice, but without the blatant vagina.) An A/V club teacher is named Mr. Wiseman, in homage to Frederick, and Campos clearly wants the fruit of Wiseman’s incredible ability to seemingly circumvent the Heisenberg principal, but to tack some eloquence on top of it. He gets what he wants, even though it’s unpleasant.

2) Class matters. It really does; it affects your leisure time, your ability to dick around on the Internet, your ability to spend outrageous amounts of cash without blinking on high-grade narcotics. All of these things play into Campos’ vision, but he seems completely unaware of them. There’s a normative assumption about the environment that strikes me as dead-wrong, and even mildly offensive.

There’s another reason for my discontent; if the above seems incoherent, let’s be honest. YouTube is great when you’re trying to find Muppet Show episodes and commercial ephemera; as a pop cultural index, it’s invaluable. But there’s this whole other side of it—the stupid pet videos, the viral celebrities et al.—that I’ve never been interested in and have no knowledge of. With the odd blip, it really doesn’t affect my life in the slightest. So either I’m out of the zeitgeist, an unintentional Luddite, or Campos’ diagnosis—never stated in so many words, but his ambition suffuses every scene—is, in its own way, as half-assed as the utopian visions of liberal politics resurgent through TEH INTERWEBZ in Diary Of The Dead. Whatever it is, I’m not convinced. I neither learned from nor recognized anything in this movie. How it resonates with others remains to be seen.

Vadim Rizov is a New York-based freelance writer. His work has appeared in The Village Voice, The Onion A.V. Club and Paste Magazine, among others.