Posted: 06/06/2009


After Last Season


by Jason Coffman

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Well folks, After Last Season is here and now we have to deal with it.

After causing a small splash on the internet due to its incredibly bizarre trailer, After Last Season has become hotly debated— is it a real movie? Is it a viral marketing campaign? Is it performance art? I’ll be completely honest here: I drove an hour to see the movie in the suburbs of a large city and I can’t conclusively tell you. What I can tell you is this: there is an actual motion picture called After Last Season, it is playing this week in four theaters, and regardless of what the director’s artistic intent is, this is a film that is completely unlike any you’ve ever seen before.

The film’s plot, such as it is, involves interns at the Prorolis Corporation, a medical research company. The opening scenes show some of them being introduced to an MRI scanner, then chatting with each other. In another building, a young man is murdered. Sarah Austin (Peggy McClellan) is taking part in an experiment with a new technology that allows one person to send mental images to another using small microchips, and unwittingly shares a vision of the young man’s murder with her fellow intern Matthew Andrews (Jason Kulas). Sarah explains that she began having these visions before the murder, and Matthew, intrigued, suggests they use the device to see if Sarah has another vision so they can stop another murder from happening.

Now, if that sounds like a standard sci-fi thriller, I assure you it’s not. The MRI scanner is a huge cardboard box made to roughly approximate the appearance of an MRI scanner. The Prorolis Corporation appears to be located inside a crowded storage room or warehouse with cardboard walls. The apartment building where the young man is killed seems to be a series of photographs against which at least one actor is green-screened. The images sent by Sarah to Matthew are displayed as crudely-drawn digital animations that look like they predate the founding of Pixar by at least five years, and the scene goes on for what seems like half the film’s 93-minute running time. The film’s sparse “score” is mostly limited to occasional chords that hint at “menace” or “uncertainty.” Weird, unidentifiable sounds run throughout the film, sometimes obscuring bits of dialogue. All this would seem to indicate that After Last Season is a joke, but there’s clearly something more going on here— the film is nothing less than a complete deconstruction of fiction films.

Yes, seriously.

Whenever we watch a film, we should ideally be in a state of suspension of disbelief. The actors, we know, are not actually doctors, scientists, or murderers. The technology we see in films is often fake, just props, but we accept that they are the things they symbolize. What director Mark Region does in After Last Season is a bit like what Hal Hartley does in his “genre” films such as Amateur and No Such Thing, only taken to its logical extreme. In Amateur, for example, there’s a scene where a character staggers on while another shoots him repeatedly, well past the point of absurdity (how many bullets are in that gun, and how many can this guy take and keep walking?). In No Such Thing, Robert Burke plays a monster, but other than his monster makeup Hartley seems content to let cheap props stand in for “science stuff” in the lab scenes.

After Last Season goes much further than that: there aren’t props so much as there are the suggestion of props. Sheets of paper stand in for various things, including chalkboards, dry erase boards, and other printed materials. Region also constantly calls attention to the patently false nature of the film’s sets. For example, in the MRI scene, he cuts in shots of the window with the blinds drawn and the ceiling fan in the room between the intern’s dialogue. These are things that obviously would not be in an actual hospital MRI scanner room. The strange, unnatural performances are also reminiscent of Hal Hartley’s signature theatrical style of acting, only (again) a crude approximation of it. Almost all of the dialogue is completely banal, people discussing places they’ve been or lived and avoiding specifics. Additionally, many scenes clearly have extra time left in them from before or after the take, further calling attention to the fact that these are actors and you are watching a movie.

Whether Mark Region meant for it to or not, After Last Season raises some serious questions about film. If that suspension of disbelief is what makes a film work, he seems to ask, where is the line drawn at which we don’t— or can’t— follow a film’s lead? Is it the acting? The props? The special effects? The writing? Region goes so far in the opposite direction of any other film that it becomes something completely new. And he seems to know it: the thought transfer machine only transfers “simple geometric objects,” making the crude CG animation a stand-in for what Sarah really sees in her mind’s eye in the same way that the film’s cardboard sets and paper props stand in for standard “movie” reality. After Last Season is what I imagine an autistic person might see when watching a film: stripped down to its absolute basics, there’s a lot of talking and some special effects, then more talking and some credits, and that’s it.

After Last Season is the sort of film that will immediately repel about 90% of film viewers in the first five minutes or so— either you’re with the cardboard MRI scanner or you’re not. Viewers who are amused by “bad” or “incompetent” films are likely to think this is the funniest thing they’ve seen since Doris Wishman’s A Night to Dismember. But if you let the film past that defense mechanism of irony that modern audiences have to erect in between themselves and something this foreign, there’s something going on here that is as exciting as it is unnerving. What exactly that is will be up to the individual viewer, but there’s no question that once you’ve seen it, you will never forget After Last Season.

Jason Coffman is a film critic living in the city.

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