Saturday, February 5, 2011

The Afterman (1985)

The Afterman (1985) is a Belgian film, directed by Rob Van Eyck, about a man (Jacques Verbist) who emerges from his destroyed bunker into a new post-apocalyptic world. The film, first made available on DVD after twenty-five years, is perhaps singularly notable, even in its obscurity, for its complete lack of dialogue. The Afterman also mixes arthouse cinema aesthetics with its accompanying intellectual themes and good, old-fashioned sensational cinema (e.g. sex and violence). The usual end result of a film mixing the two styles is that it finds no real audience and polarizes fans and/or critics in either camp. However, this mixing of styles makes it a perfect film for review here. Rob Van Eyck is clearly a director out to steal my heart. Here is his introduction for the film:

"Hello, I am Rob Van Eyck the director of this masterpiece. This is by far the most successful Belgian movie ever and I dare you to see it!"
Finally, here is some biographical information about Van Eyck included with the DVD:

Rob Van Eyck was born on the 26th of March 1939 in Zichem (Belgium). He claims that he inherited his mild anarchism from his roots. After all, Zichem was one of the few cities to be completely destroyed by the Spanish during the Eighty Years' War because of its defiance.

Rob Van Eyck does not accept authority and therefore always comes into conflict with the established order. He was expelled from various schools, became a nightmare for his commanding officers in the army, unleashed a social revolution at the bank where he worked and burned the movie print of his first feature length movie--Ontbijt voor Twee--in 1972. On top of it all, he even burned it in the movie capital Cannes, after a falling out with his distributor during the festival.

Rob Van Eyck, a rebel with a cause!
The Afterman's first six minutes of its approximately eighty-minute runtime are really all that are devoted to exposition. Immediately I started to think about how trained I was cinematically and had become dependent on dialogue to either deliver or buttress the exposition of a film. Expository dialogue often removes ambiguity for any set-up in a film, and I suppose this is to create comfort in its viewer. What I found in the dialogue's absence, at least for me, was ambiguity. Verbist's character is first shown at a desk littered with computer terminals while a nearby television displays footage of an atomic explosion. He doesn't seem to be paying attention to either and is more than likely daydreaming. He does have Polaroid photos, and one of them, shown in close-up, depicts an adult female and a young child. He kisses this photo. In a large warehouse, he nonchalantly loots its contents and takes a can of whipping cream to consume. He grooms his beard in a mirror with scissors. In the exposition's most provocative scene, it is shown that Verbist's character houses a corpse in a freezer. As he is sitting in front of the computer terminals, they begin to beep and become animated, and before he knows it, the bunker is set for destruction. He survives and now must venture into the outside world with whatever civilization it holds. It is difficult to determine, from these initial scenes what kind of person Verbist's character is. His photo and his affectionate kissing of it imply that he does have a past and memories of someone whom he loves. His grooming of his beard implies that he does either care about his appearance, as if he is keeping some semblance of conformity, or implies that he has some sort of medical knowledge, keeping his beard short to stave off lice and the like. However, these scenes are juxtaposed with his scenes at the computer terminals, which one can infer that they run the operations of the bunker. In these scenes it appears as if Verbist's character has no idea what they do nor is he aware that they reveal, prior to the bunker's destruction, that there are mechanical problems within. He either cannot read or no longer cares what they depict; yet this begs the question, why sit in front of them? Finally, that corpse he houses in the freezer--let's just say, there is a strong inference that Verbist's character is committing a very strong cultural taboo. Despite the ambiguity in the film's initial scenes, they do present Van Eyck's themes for The Afterman for its subsequent run time. Verbist's character becomes a corrupted version of the Monster from Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. He is going to learn what is civilization, while Van Eyck questions his viewer as to what is civilization. Many cultural taboos (or behavior once considered taboo) are presented while Verbist's unnamed character has numerous encounters with those outside the bunker. Unlike the Monster of Shelley's tale, Verbist's character does find a bride. Prospective viewers can only wonder what kind of world exists in a post-apocalyptic society. Anyway, enough of that shit. Van Eyck has a true artistic sensibility as The Afterman is quite compelling visually. Not only did Van Eyck direct the film but he wrote, edited, and shot The Afterman. There is an overall loving sense radiating from the entire picture, as if what Van Eyck is capturing with his camera is bringing him blissful delight. Characters are presented as desperate and tragic or as totally decayed and corrupted. One of the most brilliant and provocative scenes involves Verbist's character encountering another bunker and sneaking inside. Inside, the interior of the bunker looks like a wealthy villa, complete with an indoor swimming pool. Two extremely attractive females emerge as its inhabitants, and Verbist's character quite enjoys watching the two fuck in the swimming pool. Van Eyck is having quite a bit of fun, too. The two women perform quite the erotic scene, but it shockingly concludes and leaves Verbist's character running from the bunker.The Afterman's arthouse style and episodic narrative really make the violence all the more disturbing and the sex within all the more erotic. Each sequence gets the viewer excited almost in a tabloid sense--what kind of weird, kinky shit is going to happen next? However, each sequence is amazingly rich in reflection--I've watched it three times since I've received the DVD; and each time, I've taken away more. There's a spiritual quality to the film and an inquiry into human interaction that is well-worth listening to. Unique voices, like Van Eyck, often revel in pissing his viewer off considerably while at the same time challenging his/her intellectual ideas. The Belgian DVD is the 25th Anniversary Edition of the film, and its packaging promises a 16:9 (1.78:1) picture, yet my disc is not anamorphic. Extras included are filmography of Van Eyck, "info and message from director," but I believe I quoted above in total Van Eyck's "message" and biographical information (which is taken from the interior flap of the DVD). The actual disc has no menu but does have chapter stops. As to its technical qualities, regarding the disc's video and sound, I would refer you to another site that covers such material. I really cannot complain, as the film's obscurity makes it well worth seeking out. I purchased a copy (from a favorite) here.

1 comment:

Erich Kuersten said...

Scrounging around for Dark Angel grabs I found this read it, took your word and quickly bought Modern Vampires for $7 bucks on Amazon, got it, watched it, loved it. It made my night! Matthew - you're why I read film sites!