Sunday, May 13, 2012

Bad schools

As I write this, Tony Kaye’s Detachment is in its second week at the Yonge-Dundas AMC – I hope it makes it to a third (if not, then of course it’ll be on DVD soon). After writing in recent weeks about new films by Terence Davies and Whit Stillman, Kaye provides a hat-trick of veteran directors (he turns 60 this year) who’ve endured long gaps between projects. After making it big in advertising and music videos, he hit the ground running in 1998 with the eye-popping American History X. I recall a few commentators calling it a potentially dangerous film, on the basis that its portrayal of the bad (life as a strutting white supremacist) was so much more vivid and exciting than the presentation of the good (repentance and renewal). You could see what they were getting at – Edward Norton (who received an Oscar nomination) was at the peak of his powers as a man who’s fully articulated and rationalized his beliefs and derives an intense, sexy physicality from them, whereas the movie’s expressions of the case for not being a racist were constantly anemic. Despite the epic ambitions implied by its title, the film barely took the first step at setting out the broader context for what it portrayed; still, it was exceptionally vivid and gripping. Kaye professed himself unhappy with it though, saying it was edited against his wishes; at one point he tried to replace his name in the credits with that of “Humpty Dumpty.”

Tony Kaye

Eight years later, he released the documentary Lake of Fire, a long and unsparing journey through America’s abortion wars, sufficiently even-handed to leave the filmmaker’s own sympathies in some doubt (although it was unmistakable that one side of the argument sounded much more bombastically neurotic, and male-dominated, than the other). The film shows up most high-profile documentaries for the trifles that they are, but given its subject, it didn’t get much exposure. That’s the extent of Kaye’s official cinema career up to now.

That doesn’t mean there’s been nothing to write about though. At various points, Kaye’s eccentricities reportedly included a phase of taking an inflatable E.T. doll everywhere he went, and a breakfast meeting at the Beverly Wilshire, where he ordered a 30-egg omelette and "exactly 2.7 ounces of dried oats." In 2002 he was involved in one of the more fascinating phantom films, a documentary to be called Lying for a Living, covering an acting class taught by Marlon Brando and attended by Sean Penn, Leonardo DiCaprio, Nick Nolte and Michael Jackson. But the relationship between Brando and Kaye broke down, with the actor allegedly leaving death threats on the director’s voice mail; Kaye announced he wouldn’t be stopped from “taking the footage and exploiting (Brando) to hell,” but nothing of the work has ever been seen. In 2008 he made a thriller called Black Water Transit, which remains unreleased and apparently lost in a sea of lawsuits.

It’s been impossible from all that to know whether to expect any more films from Kaye, or what they might possibly look like, but Detachment is something like two parts Lake of Fire to one part nutball (the opening titles denote the movie as a “talkie by Tony Kaye”). Adrien Brody plays Henry Barthes, a substitute teacher taking on a one-month gig at a semi-hellish inner-city school, so disconnected from the community that when they hold a parents’ night, no one shows up. Henry’s an effective teacher, with the knack of connecting even with the roughest kids, but his refusal to commit to a permanent assignment means his impact is perpetually transient, and his inner life is a mess. But then, whose isn’t? - the rest of the staff (played by a diverting cast including Lucy Liu, Marcia Gay Harden, Christina Hendricks and James Caan) are just as marooned in misery, loneliness, or at best in some battle-hardened caricature of themselves. There are moments of connection and enlightenment, but overall little sense of possibility – most of the kids, plainly, will sink into minimum-wage misery, at best.


Detachment obviously belongs in general terms to a long line of hard-edged school movies, but Kaye’s approach is somewhat impressionistic, severely rationing the familiar scenes of classroom interplay. Its title refers to a quote from Albert Camus - “And never have I felt so deeply at one and the same time so detached from myself and so present in the world" – and it returns constantly to Henry’s exploration of that state: he tells the class he doesn’t have any feelings they can hurt, but we see him in tears while riding the late-night bus. Actually, the character talks so often about his and our pain, hollowness, loneliness, failures and so on that it gets distinctly repetitive. Presumably that’s largely deliberate though – stasis and stalled momentum is a large part of the point.

And it’s not just that the educational system is stalled, but that it’s actively corrupted. A visiting speaker talks about the school’s dismal reputation deflating local property values – not an unfair point perhaps, but one that emphasizes how educational achievement is just another input into capitalist machinations. Henry extends the point further, talking to his class about how an active consciousness provides their only defence against the overwhelming doublethink promulgated by the prevailing powers (the implication though is that they can only expect limited assistance from the school in developing this consciousness).

Sanest person in the room

It’s plain from all this that Detachment is one of the more ambitious current movies, but it’s ultimately rather limited: for every moment that connects, there’s another that feels cliched or unfocused. Kaye seems to have titanic ambitions for Henry, whose burden also includes a dying grandfather; a murky family history, evoked in distorted flashbacks throughout the film; and an increasingly fatherly relationship with a teenage hooker, but these aspects of the film are probably its weakest. At times Kaye seems inclined to carry him to some point of no return, but actually the final scene is probably the film’s most conventionally hopeful (albeit in the sense that you might draw hope from seeing a plant growing on a trash heap).

One might imagine Tony Kaye is just too old and weird to achieve much more than he has already, if parts of his films (and pretty much all of Lake of Fire) weren’t so spellbinding and incisive. Maybe it’s all an act, like the time Joaquin Phoenix recently spent pretending to have lost it. I did find an interview where Kaye calls himself “a very normal and orthodox person that goes out of their way to present eccentricity,” adding that he’s now realized that if “you want to make challenging movies, you’ve got to be the sanest person in the room.” But of course, a lot depends on what kind of room you choose to enter.

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