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
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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.