The Afterlight

July 31st 2022 at The Genesis Cinema


"Ask yourself if you are happy, and then you'll cease to be"

Jack White, A Tip from You to Me


On my brother's recommendation my lady and I saw The Afterlight last Sunday, at what was feasibly its last screening in London. A major reason for both is that the film exists exclusively on one 35mm print, which director/editor Charlie Shackleton is chumming around the world for anyone interested in such a rare screening.

The cast of the film are all now dead (the credits list their birth-death dates rather than character names) and the clips are all black&white and shot before about 1960. They're organised into one broad story - people walk, then they arrive at a bar where they drink/smoke/talk/stare/behave, then there's a storm, some people go home, somehow we end up back at the bar, I can't remember.

Shackleton found trends in the films and it's useful having a line to follow. What happens is interesting, and without this loose thread, the film might be too abstract and interest fewer people.

Everything I've read on the film, and the Q&A for it, is distant and intellectual, with not enough feeling. Lots of 'it suggests these ideas' and words like 'protagonist' and 'interiority' *, little about what the speaker/writer makes of this, what it means to them, how things feel. I love that kind of talk, but a little goes a long way when it's not anchored to conversation about the gut/stomach/heart/soul response. (And vice versa - it's equally frustrating when you want to talk hifalutinly with someone who won't say anything besides "I just love/hate it").

To rectify that, I'll start with what I can remember The Afterlight made me feel and what it made me think.

  • The world is so quiet. In the opening scene, people are just quietly walking. Some probably daydreaming, some very deliberately thinking. Their minds have plenty to do, plenty to think about.

  • I spend far more time with noise than in quiet. To the point where the idea of 'doing nothing' (not watching something, not listening to something, not even reading) is deeper than boring - it's terrifying, it provokes dread. This isn't healthy. It's as if my own thoughts and feelings are a horror which needs avoiding. These people don't have headphones or podcasts or YouTube or Instagram.

  • What are they figuring out? What do they aspire to? What feels possible to them? They have only their own thoughts, and time passing at time's speed. Fewer means of avoiding thoughts and time. Faced with that, maybe that's why...

  • Everybody drinks, and everybody smokes. Some of these people have seen and been in one or two World Wars. They've grown up in poverty I can't imagine, and which was normal in a way that it now isn't. The world smells different. Some of these people are younger than my grandparents. My parents were children in the same world as some of these films. They heard these people talking. They learned language from them, attitudes, principles from them. It feels uncanny, but not unsettling. It's more like relief, or comforting. For a few seconds I feel more connected to these people.

  • Stories, plots and twists can all be great, but so can simply looking at someone else. Not all looking in films, and at them, should be tarred with the term 'voyeurism'. It's not all depravity. It's a privilege, it's generous. Films and performers are to be looked at freely.

  • I liked when the film took more obvious or radical liberties with the footage. Towards the end, some shots slow down and freezeframe, and reaction shots of other characters are used to imply they notice these people freezing. It's funny, and reminded me of Marilyn Times Five. It made me wonder if these still shots are the last frames ever shot of these actors - the last public record of them. The last shot of the film is a freezeframe of a bartender. I feel like there's something to make of that but I don't know what. Perhaps the fact that he's the bartender, not the patron - he's the supporter, not the star. As if he stands for the countless un-remembered.

  • I liked the scene in the middle when the piano score rose up, and we saw a series of faces in quick succession. This was so great. All of these lively faces, of now-dead people. The faces were bookended by shots which broke down or melted, really pushing me to see these alive/dead people in a living/dying medium. Alive and dead rubbing together more urgently and movingly than anywhere else in the film.

The Q&A with the director was better than most, because he's quite articulate and I liked the film. He pointed out things I didn't notice - most interesting, that all the sound (atmos included) are, if not from the scene shown, taken from another part of the film shown. I liked his directness about why the pool of films was limited to pre-1960 and B&W - still too big a pool if he wants to finish his film in one lifetime, but that's fine: compromises need to be made to offer anything at all. It's a perfectly fine way to prompt some ideas. The Afterlight isn't a pristine argument for or against something, and doesn't need to be. It's a concept film, it's not trying to make a point or impart a message.

I don't like the attitude being applied across the board that films should be rigorously coherent. It's an attitude influenced by screenwriting how-tos, based on classical Hollywood. Not every film needs to be made that way. Often the idea of a film is the star it steers by, and straying from the most direct path is too tempting and interesting and doesn't need fitting to whatever order the rest of the film's set up. Sometimes the wandering doesn't pay off, but good on filmmakers for taking a punt.

On the podcast he co-hosts with my brother, Jose Arroyo is unconvinced there isn't a digital copy of the film. How could an artist spend years working on something and accept, or even encourage its disappearance? Michael is less skeptical. I'm somewhere between them, which is a position in itself. I like the idea that The Afterlight is about how people, memories and being changes, distorts and disappears - the print, the memories, the effects of the memories, etc etc. But in practice, that's hard to accept.

Maybe The Afterlight is an opportunity to practice embracing that - being momentarily present, then falling out of being present and thinking back on it, then accepting that you can't replicate that. Sure, 'all you have' is a memory of a feeling, but maybe that's plenty, and we're out of practice. And that's a hard idea to absorb in a world offering plenty of ways to document and save, to chase the dragon and avoid facing the truth. Things pass, and that hurts, but they once were. We can remember that, at least.


* This is great: