Henry, A Portrait of Disinterest

The House of Usher The House of Usher

The House of Usher

But far more dangerous are these, who began when you were children, and took possession of your minds with their falsehoods, telling of one Socrates, a wise man, who speculated about the heaven above, and searched into the earth beneath, and made the worse appear the better cause. These are the accusers whom I dread; for they are the circulators of this rumor, and their hearers are too apt to fancy that speculators of this sort do not believe in the gods. And they are many, and their charges against me are of ancient date, and they made them in days when you were impressible – in childhood, or perhaps in youth – and the cause when heard went by default, for there was none to answer.  (Socrates in Plato’s “Apology”)

Tony Kaye’s film, Detachment, is so raw that nearly every moment of it feels just like a wound that is exposed to air or water without the the hope of the covering comfort of a bandage.  I highly recommend this film and offer all praise to every performance, especially Brody, but also that of James Caan and the director’s daughter, Betty Kaye.  I found it deeply moving and deeply troubling.

It is presented as a kind of documentary with the protagonist, Henry Barthes (Adrien Brody), an itinerant “long-term” sub, often providing commentary in a kind of after-the-fact interview lamenting the total loss of guidance and hope in schools and communities.  This loss is a reflection of home.  All things are hollow (yes, you’re right to make the association with Eliot’s poem).

The film begins with some words from Camus, “and never have I felt so deeply at one and the same time so detached from myself and so present in the world,” being written as a kind of animation on a chalkboard within the image of a book’s pages.

Henry is a walking wound who is not a representative of the film’s title; he is not detached though he has tried to build a life with no attachments.  But a lack of attachment does not make one humanly detached from the world of pain that swirls around him.  It is human detachment generally that is being diagnosed and described here.  Henry is figured, as the Camus indicates, as the man who knows (maybe “feels” is better) that self must be insignificant in order for true human feeling to be communicated, in order to become a signified thing–in order to be present in the world–the world of others–we must be “un-selved” in order to be open to it.    We find “self” within community, within the presence of others, within the human, by dignifying all that is human.

Henry is a walker in the city at night; Henry rides the bus; Henry lives alone in a studio apartment.

In truth the movie has depth enough as a character study of Henry (portrait of a serial killer–that phrase just popped into my head), but it is the relentless accrual of movie cliches, played straight, that oddly create a more universal and modern lament.  A movie about and inspirational teacher is the first cliche, though Henry is no Joe Clark and this is no Dead Poet’s Society.  The second cliche is that of the pixie street waif prostitute (“kid” or “Erica”), maybe 14, whom Henry saves by allowing her into his life.  They become together a thing they cannot be apart.

The cliches are as real as they are expected content for a school movie–that is they are played as real.  But they are all here and you will know they are cliches without seeing that as a weakness.  But it is the weakness of the MOVIE presentations of these cliches that allow the world to disbelieve in their actual weight and burden.  That’s so “Sixteen Candles” or “Breakfast Club”–but it’s NOT the easy candy that those types of movies offer high school as being.  High school IS pain for so many and the cliche of the dork who is pranked by jocks, or the fat girl who is teased relentlessly by the “Mean Girls,” become types deserving of abuse–so much so that the very folks who are abused and who lived through this pain can watch the kinds of movies that characterize themselves and yet not recognize their past in them.  We become our abusers.

The “fat girl” cliche is a student named Meredith (Betty Kaye).  Henry treats her with respect and concern and she naturally sees him as a protector.  In one scene she has made a photo for him (and representative of him) and in the exchange that ensues she reaches out to him with all her pain and neediness.  She desperately needs a friend and she needs the human feeling of care conveyed by physical contact.  Just a hug, it’s all we need sometimes to give you a sense of belonging.  Henry is very uneasy as he is alone in the classroom with her and touching is an “impropriety” in schools.  Another teachers comes in while they are in an awkward “not yet hug” and Meredith runs out.  The interloper, another teacher who is interested in Henry played by Christina Hendricks of Mad Men, infers the worst and chastises the behavior as inappropriate.  Henry nearly becomes enraged.  This is a nutshell scene.  Need is clear; human contact and caring is required.  The social institution will not allow it and degrades it by suggesting it is an untoward act.  Beauty is profaned and the school keeps her cycle of rejection in tact.

The school is simply a scene of instruction in this sense.  The “reform” that is corporate and business-focused pushes us to a single relationship: that of consumers–bought and sold in all aspects of self.  There is the truth of corporate take-over in the schools that was prepared by the testing regime which ushered mindless, detached measurement into our schools under No Child Left Behind (NCLB).  A parent calls to claim his child deserves special care under NCLB as the parent has looked up a diagnosis of his anger on the Internet and so his child should get a laptop as a consequence to “meet his needs.”  We see the child beating up another child as the phone conversation is taking place.  A man comes to speak to the teachers about test prep materials in order to raise scores to aid in real estate sales which will, of course, raise real estate rates and then raise funding for education…He is obviously pig, but he is politically connected and his is the worldview ascendant.

A child is shown stabbing a cat he has captured in his backpack again and again–he is taken to the guidance counselor and the scene is ridiculous on its face–it’s simply another scene of our modern sickness–but it is part of the gathering weight of truth.  We are making, manufacturing, our monsters.

Each and every one of these characters and scenes are indicative of the pain that lives behind all of our lives, all of our institutional experiences.  It is in the institution that the strongest sense of detachment attains.  We must stop feeling in order to get through it, make do with it, get along within it.  We go along with the harassment and bigotry and conformity so that we are not destroyed by it–and yet we are swallowed hole there.

The film is heavily literary:

Eliot’s “The Hollow Men”(1925) is alluded to at least twice in the film.

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow

Orwell’s 1984 comes into a class lesson on Doublethink: “This is a marketing holocaust…assimilating a dullness as thought processes.”  Just before this scene a teacher is showing a Hitler speech and rally.  These may be “heavy handed” but they are the images of our lives.  And that is the real subject here.  We have no mind of our own; we cannot cultivate thinking in the maelstrom of relentless images.

According to one critic the imagery at the end of the film alludes to Truffaut’s film of Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.  I don’t know the film, but Bradbury’s book is about burning books and how those who believe in the culture that is found there keep this alive by memorizing parts of texts in order to escape the “firemen.”

The film is not about the loss of a great place that at one point was an institution of “goodness,” though the film allows the teachers to be nostalgic over the loss of community interest and the lack of attendance in Parent Night.  The school, as said above, is simply a useful and fulsome scene of social life.  It’s where much of the human world begins its fall.

Henry offers only one suggestion…reading and writing.  He explicitly tells his class that reading is where we can escape the relentless marketing imagery and personally he is a dedicated diarist.  The film believes we are lost as a whole.  But the film does hold out hope that you and I, perhaps just as Henry and Erica do, can read and write and care about each other and save the world against the horrors of our detached age by the virtue of disinterested care.

The movie ends with Henry reading to his students (also intercut with Henry reading to an empty class that has been upturned and made ramshackle) and offering an exegesis on Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher.”

DURING the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country; and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher. I know not how it was — but, with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit. I say insufferable; for the feeling was unrelieved by any of that half-pleasurable, because poetic, sentiment, with which the mind usually receives even the sternest natural images of the desolate or terrible. I looked upon the scene before me — upon the mere house, and the simple landscape features of the domain — upon the bleak walls — upon the vacant eye-like windows — upon a few rank sedges — and upon a few white trunks of decayed trees — with an utter depression of soul which I can compare to no earthly sensation more properly than to the after-dream of the reveller upon opium — the bitter lapse into everyday life — the hideous dropping off of the veil. There was an iciness, a sinking, a sickening of the heart — an unredeemed dreariness of thought which no goading of the imagination could torture into aught of the sublime.

This is the school–but moreover, this is ourselves as pushed through cultural institutions.

We will not test our way out of it; rather we will only deepen the malaise and melancholy until, in order to feel simply anything at all, we will explode in violence.

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Douglas Storm is a host and producer for Interchange on Bloomington, Indiana's community radio station WFHB. "Why then do you try to 'enlarge' your mind? Subtilize it..."

11 Responses to “Henry, A Portrait of Disinterest” Subscribe

  1. focus March 19, 2012 at 7:11 pm #

    sounds like one to see. I doubt it will ever come anywhere close to us. Coriolanus did not. I will have to put it on the list too look for when it comes out on dvd. There are so many of these high school/coming of age movies. Many, as you say, capture just the surface or the stereotype of the misery and hatefulness that can exist. There is usually a happy ending or a tidy Deus ex machina moment when all turns out ok–although that it not the reality.
    There is another movie out now– “Bully”– that is getting some commentary. I have not read or seen anything about it, although I know the mental health clinic in town is trying to get it to come to a local theater.

  2. Bobby V March 20, 2012 at 10:53 am #

    Great review; I will avoid the film. I will avoid it not because it doesn’t sound interesting, but because I don’t really need more exploration of how depressing teaching is, or of how schools are a just a crucible for the American culture of fear and desire. Is there anything transcendent in the film? I’m not looking for a happy ending, but even in Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil,” Sam eventually escapes his dystopia by retreating into his own insanity. Maybe in this film literature is the potential “escape,” as you suggest towards the end of your review. I love literature, but it hasn’t provided an escape for me in decades – probably why I pretty much stopped reading fiction. In reading your review, I started thinking about Alex Cox’s “Sid and Nancy.” I saw that film once – on opening night in Seattle – and I never saw it again. Great film; literally made me sick to my stomach. I really think I need my cinematic skirk tempered with comedy, fantasy, or farce.

    • Douglas Storm March 20, 2012 at 11:38 am #

      Well, here’s the way I think of it sometimes, Bobby V. Some movies are instructive. They are not just “reality” or an image of reality that in some measure just reflects pain and says pain is what is real, though likely pain is more “real” to our minds than anything else. (As you mention horror and Sid & Nancy, you understand the aesthetics of this–it is after all Burke’s “sublime”–terror.)

      What this movie does, I think, is usefully inspect movie stereotypes and let them to “true” and then it responds to them NOT as a movie would normally, but as a person would normally who “is like” our hero–but also all the stereotypes are “true” too–in that they are filmed in a more “documentary” matter-of-factness.

      So, the “fat” artist tells the truth about the teacher, and he feels her truth and tries to respond but another “social” truth intrudes by the power of institutional expectations and destroys a true moment and coerces the next event.

      And yes, I do think the movie wants to be MORE than painful. And the brody character is reflective and honest and trying to be true to his own reality by addressing what he understands to be true around him.

      He doesn’t want to tell as “story”–he wants to reveal a truth.

      Now, we gain these perspectives ONLY if we stop simply receiving and projecting the institutional beings we are shown on tv and film and online and in advertising and sports and so on.

      We all know this. Advertising is the only thing we believe–we believe in our lying selves.

      This movie stands out strong AGAINST that and so I would urge you to see it for that reason.

      And yes, literature is a place of human shared mind.

      I think I am becoming that “anti-enlightenment” person that may have once been called conservative. The Enlightenment begins by teaching by entertainment. And the image is quickly put to service–electricity and “false light” attends “enlightenment progress.”

      I thought today too, that anyone justifying a dominance is a liar. Philosophy in service to the state (any state–religious or political or economic) or a system of living is undermining human dignity and individual mind.

      • Bobby V March 20, 2012 at 12:28 pm #

        Interesting. I’ve always thought that a product of the Enlightenment was a belief that despots, secular or ecclesiastical, can’t monopolize truth. I reckon that Enlightenment values reached their peak sometime towards the end of the last century and that globally we’re on a quick path back to a pre-Enlightenment conception of the individual as nothing more than a token for the social role they play.

        The king is dead. God save the king.

        • Douglas Storm March 20, 2012 at 12:52 pm #

          Bobby V, you and I have here the kind of “living” that Mill proclaimed the best part of humanity–the act of thinking in dialogue with other open minds.

          The problem with unseating a “monopolized” truth is that it releases us all into the abyss. Now, I’m not siding with the monarchy or the deity on this but I am saying that the enlightenment idea of “truth” becomes “scientism” in the face of the fact that there can be no ultimate truth.

          Truth is very quickly then monopolized once more by power and money–it may be more diffuse, but it is nothing more than a “diminished thing” when in the hands of the oligarchs.

          Will the maths convince you of their utility?

          • Bobby V March 20, 2012 at 1:03 pm #

            Pre-Enlightenment, truth was created and enforced by an alliance of Church and State – I’m just talking Europe, here. I’m thinking that wasn’t coincidental but required. Neither body by itself could exercise sufficient authority over the larger and more cohesive groups of people they sought to control – or to organize, to be less condemning. Enlightenment in both spheres included a divestment of power to the individual. I’m thinking that this is nothing more than a natural expression of human social development; the Enlightenment was built into human “nature” like the design of a honeycomb is built into bee nature.

            As I’ve mentioned to you before, I think we’re now retracing that path of Enlightenment back the other way. Today, the proper Church(s) and State are not allied (I recognize that many would like to change this), and there is insufficient authority to “reorganize” the population.

            Here is my thought: “Business” is now the defacto Church, and our faith and salvation is consumption. THAT is the power that allies itself with the State and together they will reorganize us and eventually put us all back where we belong.

            Fear and desire: be saved, or be damned.

  3. Douglas Storm March 20, 2012 at 1:09 pm #

    I’m not so well-versed on the “becoming mind”–I think that the mind released from the fetters of church dogma as regards “material” phenomena began “enlightenment” but I don’t think it changed the human basics. What it changed was the human belief that mastery was in reach. It is nothing more than another fetter.

    If we imagine the inclination to protection–to stability, to safety–what good has all this uncertainty done for us?

    Mill says we need stability to be “free” to talk and think and speculate. Utilitarianism allows the enlightened state to make the best “social” decisions it can…or that’s what Mill thought–it must stick to the utilitarian principles but be allowed to change as change must come. The state though, via the unseating of truth, make all things equally true to fit its “idea” of the “right” utility.

    And now we cannot even be free thinkers because we are enclosed in ideology.

    This will allow the church to be dominant again because there is no truth that has made life better for folks and there is no proving the negative of “no god” so we may still believe in him.

    That Jesus is “individual” truth is Socratic as well. The state intends always to dominate. The gadfly socrates or jesus must continually be coming, and second coming and third coming–a virile gadfly!

    There can be no individual mind when we are awash in imagery. This too will lead to a tyranny (has led to) that we are unaware of. We are instruments of the capital despotism of the colonial white military masters–these were once monarchs, these were once popes and churchmen, these are now “businessmen”–they are the same always.

    • Bobby V March 20, 2012 at 1:53 pm #

      Honestly, what I think we’re exploring here are the limitations of European thought and values. Actually, let’s say American thought and values because Europe and America diverged a long time ago.

      Freedom, Mastery, Individuality – these are all constructs that don’t exist independent of the world around us. One can be master of one’s own mind as demonstrated by the East. One can live in harmony with the world as demonstrated by many cultures still in existence around the globe. What one can’t do is master the world – at least not long term.

      The American mind developed in a land of unlimited wealth and resources; all that was required was the genocide of the people who were here before us. The American mind wants it all. The American mind does not want to choose. I listen to Libertarians and “Objectivists” (snicker) talk about “freedom” all the time. In reality, I think they would be decidedly unhappy in a stateless society, given what real examples of that have looked like throughout history. The world has changed, but we haven’t.

      If there is any knowledge out there that will help us predict and come to terms with the future, I don’t think it’s to be found in likely places – unless the world simply regresses, in which case there is plenty of instruction on what being a serf is like and how to do it. I don’t think a new feudal world will be tolerated, actually; too many people have too much at this point to just let it go.

      So what comes next? You got me. Old models will be dusted off first (we’re seeing that now); they won’t work for long. I think the Enlightenment can be credited for that.

  4. Douglas Storm March 20, 2012 at 2:09 pm #

    An important distinction, Northern European humans found the “blank slate” on which a new kind of freedom might be possible. Except all that was written was simply re-written with a megalomaniacal difference.

    All that happened was a kind of Calvinism gone Wild–I think I saw that in the adult section at the video store.

    Fourier came to late for the alternative history of America.

    We don’t live free. It’s a wonder it’s a concept at all. I think this is why Mill uses “liberty,” yes?

    Vico posits continuing cycles of history. We will soon find our way back into the stage of gods. From the Stanford Ency of Phil:

    “Each stage, and thus the history of any nation, is characterized by the manifestation of natural law peculiar to it, and the distinct languages (signs, metaphors, and words), governments (divine, aristocratic commonwealths, and popular commonwealths and monarchies), as well as systems of jurisprudence (mystic theology, heroic jurisprudence, and the natural equity of free commonwealths) that define them.

    In addition to specifying the distinct stages through which social, civil, and political order develops, Vico draws on his earlier writings to trace the origin of nations back to two distinct features of human nature: the ages of gods and heroes result from memory and creative acts of “imagination” (fantasia), while the age of men stems from the faculty of “reflection” (riflessione).”

    We are in that nether place where we disdain memory (because it is a memory of slaughter and evil) and where our lack of actual reflection will lead to a destruction. We will then lather rinse repeat.

  5. Eric M. Sargent March 26, 2012 at 9:47 am #

    The direction of the comment thread reminded me of this poem:

    Homework
    Homage to Kenneth Koch

    If I were doing my Laundry I’d wash my dirty Iran
    I’d throw in my United States, and pour on the Ivory Soap,
    scrub up Africa, put all the birds and elephants back in
    the jungle,
    I’d wash the Amazon river and clean the oily Carib & Gulf of Mexico,
    Rub that smog off the North Pole, wipe up all the pipelines in Alaska,
    Rub a dub dub for Rocky Flats and Los Alamos, Flush that sparkly
    Cesium out of Love Canal
    Rinse down the Acid Rain over the Parthenon & Sphinx, Drain the Sludge
    out of the Mediterranean basin & make it azure again,
    Put some blueing back into the sky over the Rhine, bleach the little
    Clouds so snow return white as snow,
    Cleanse the Hudson Thames & Neckar, Drain the Suds out of Lake Erie
    Then I’d throw big Asia in one giant Load & wash out the blood &
    Agent Orange,
    Dump the whole mess of Russia and China in the wringer, squeeze out
    the tattletail Gray of U.S. Central American police state,
    & put the planet in the drier & let it sit 20 minutes or an
    Aeon till it came out clean

    Allen Ginsberg

  6. Douglas Storm March 26, 2012 at 9:55 am #

    If we wait an aeon there will be no need for the “new and improved” work of the scrubbing clean machine, yes?

    I think part of my own wish for better schools (better as places of opportunity for expanding the human mind) is that I want to use all of history to “start again” in this controlled space.

    To allow the chaos of history free reign in the minds of the student in the safety of the school. The “safety” being the freedom to think and explore outside of received norms and the conformity to power.

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