Friday, November 15, 2013

Tony Kaye's DETACHMENT: America's decline viewed through the prism of public education

Boy, oh, boy -- is Tony Kaye one genuinely interesting filmmaker! Finally viewing his DETACHMENT, some 21 months after its VOD and theatrical release here in the USA, on top of his better-known works like American History X and the documentary Lake of Fire, makes me now want to find some way to see his films that did not receive any kind of even limited release in this country: Snowblind (from 2004), Lobby Lobster (2007) and Black Water Transit (2009).

Kaye's work (the filmmaker is shown here) makes you think, all right; and the subjects he tackles -- from skinheads to abortion to education -- are controversial. But Mr. Kaye tends not to force you into seeing only a single view of the situation. You always get a more rounded look at things, even though I am certain that the filmmaker must indeed have his own feelings and attitude about who/what is to blame and why. Yet he withholds this while crafting his films in such a way that we must see more than one side to things.

Detachment may be his best work to date. (I am told that the ending of American History X was taken away from him and changed prior to its release, which may account for my somewhat negative feelings about that film), so I hope that he indeed had the final cut on Detachment because it appears to me to be in its entirety a genuinely thoughtful, painful and moving piece of work.

The screenwriter of Detachment is a former school teacher named Carl Lund, and he certainly understands this venue. It should come as no surprise to anyone paying attention to public education here in the U.S. that we're in big trouble. Blame often is tossed first at our teachers (they are somehow lazy and/or incompetent) then at students (lazy, incompe-tent, angry and frightening). Kaye lets us see some of this, all right, but he digs deeper than these typical, surface reactions. A lot deeper.

Adrien Brody, above, in one of his finest roles (which is saying something) plays Henry Barthes, a substitute teacher in a school into which have recently been thrust a bunch of so-called loser students. The principal (Marcia Gay Hardin) and her crew have not been able to "raise" the test scores of these kids and so she now is about to lose her job. Other teachers cope as best they can, and their coping methods are as diverse as the teachers themselves.

Kaye has assembled a dream cast -- including Blythe Danner, Christina Hendricks (above), Tim Blake Nelson, (below), James Caan (in the penultimate photo) and Lucy Liu -- but oddly enough has given them not so much to do. His movie probably could have been twice its length, but the filmmaker opts for economy over filler, and the result is lean and riveting. Each small scene with every actor resonates.

Kaye uses flashbacks often, for memory, so they move quickly and are of short duration -- as memories usually are. In addition to the school, its staff, students and problems, we have the Brody character's home life, as he befriends a very young prostitute (a lovely and believable job by Sami Gayle, below), whom he tries to help. We also see what's left of his fami-ly: a dying grandfather -- Louis Zorich -- with his own demented agenda.

All this is woven together pretty seamlessly, until we come to care about every last character on screen -- no small achievement in a film with this large a cast, about this hot a topic and with a running time of only 97 minutes. One of Kaye's strangest accomplishments is that he doesn't tell us what has happened to Henry by the film's conclusion. We see scenes that gives us some hints but there is no exposition to tie it up neatly. And we don't care, so well and carefully has Kaye spread the responsibility around among the kids, teachers and especially parents -- and society itself, for its constant obstructions to what is necessary and needed.

There's a scene late in the film between Henry and an unstable student (the fine and moving Betty Kaye, above) in which the girl desperately needs a hug. Henry wants to do this but he (and we) understand that this is a definite no-no in today's insistently politically-correct climate. And yet we feel to our bones that this is the only action that ought to be taken. The scene is brilliant and compelling, capturing as well as any what the filmmakers have achieved. Without uttering a single unnecessary word, Kaye and Lund let us know who is to blame here. It is somehow us and what we have allowed ourselves and our country to become.

Detachment -- a movie that should have stopped the fucking presses and won a bunch of awards for its honesty and insight but instead quickly disappeared onto VOD and a very limited theatrical release -- can now be seen on Netflix streaming, as well as via other venues and on DVD. It is actually one of those rare films that audiences understood and appreciated better than most of our so-called critics, who still seem to need easy answers that point the finger of responsibility, of course, at someone else. Miss it and you will have missed a one-of-a-kind movie.

The filmmakers' nod to Edgar Allan Poe at the movie's conclusion, by the way, is so much better and so much more appropriate than anything that was used in The Following. If one is going to show the work of this master writer as an object lesson, here, friends, is exactly how to do it.

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