Last night I had the pleasure of viewing Tony Kaye’s third and most recent ‘talkie’, Detachment. The film was shot beautifully and acted brilliantly, and for those qualities alone it is worth seeing. But the content is yet more intriguing. Detachment follows a few weeks in the life of a substitute teacher Henry Barthes (Adrien Brody) as he takes up a temporary post at a New York state school in decline. But the film could take place in any school. In the New York Times review of the film from 15 March 2012, the film is ‘about the failing public-education system [in the United States].’ I would agree with this claim in part – yes, prominent in the film is this portrayal of the dysfunctional education system. But it’s so much more than that. I’d argue that the entirety of the film represents a microcosm of society at large.
This isn’t me dropping a shameful reference to my doctoral research, but I think a strong case could be made that Detachment is actually a parable. By this I mean that the film is using the raw material of every day life to tell a bigger, more disturbing yet more hopeful story. Just as Christ told parables the audience in the Gospels, the film is tied together by a loose narration from our Henry Barthes, with close-ups of his unkept face in a dark room (perhaps during a counselling session). We’ve got representatives from various levels of society and various levels of engagement with and detachment from their current situations. At the very heart of this parable is not ‘education’, for education is merely an outflowing of the deeper social illness. The parable takes society back to the most basic social framework, a framework we all encounter by virtue of being born – family.
To quote the oft-quoted Larkin poem, ‘This Be The Verse’, They fuck you up, your mum and dad. Most of the great conflicts in the film are rooted in family and parenting, just to name a few:
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a girl is expelled from the school after she threatened and spat upon Ms Madison (Christian Hendricks) and her similarly-tempered mother storms into the school hurling yet more abuse at the harmless Ms Madison.
Mr Wiatt (Tim Blake Nelson) takes up an odd stance at a school fence every afternoon hoping to be noticed by anyone as a result of being ignored constantly by his family members when he returns home from work every day.
Meredith (Betty Kaye, daughter of the director) is discouraged in her artistic endeavours and told that she ought to lose weight and conform to social norms by her father and ultimately decides to kill herself as a result of her extreme sense of rejection and isolation.
Erica’s (Sami Gayle) lifestyle as a teenage prostitute and her great distress when she is removed from Henry’s care by social workers.
During ‘parents’ night’ at the high school, virtually no parents show up, demonstrating a lack of both the parents’ concern for their children’s education and appreciation of the teachers.
And ultimately, Henry’s sense of detachment from being abandoned by his father as a toddler, losing his mother to a lethal combination of drugs and alcohol when he was a small child and caring for his dementia-stricken grandfather, whose abuse of Henry’s mother led to her substance abuse.
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Like a parable, the characters are universal (as opposed to cliché) in order to open the eyes and ears of the audience to the deeper level of meaning. In addition to his ‘counselling session’ narrative, at different points in the film Henry also tells the audience (by way of telling his students) the root of these social ills, calling on his students to avoid the ‘ubiquitous assimilation’ of oppressive values being shoved down their throats by a constant barrage of bull shit that has not only broken into media and culture, but has also infiltrated the very fabric of their family lives.
During the opening sequence we are given a quotation from Camus’ The Stranger, concluding with ‘And never have I felt so deeply at one and the same time so detached from myself and so present in the world.’ Throughout the film Henry is challenged to break down his wall of ‘compassionate detachment’. The blurb from the official website states, ‘Kaye has molded a contemporary vision of people who become increasingly distant from others while still feeling the need to connect.’ Does that wall ever break down? Well I’m not going to include any more spoilers – you should see it for yourself.
The aforementioned New York Times review concludes with, ‘Is it really this bad? Or is “Detachment” a flashy educational horror movie masquerading as nightmarish reality?’ No, it’s not really this bad – it’s worse. As I mentioned before, I believe that the film is using the façade of the educational system (severely broken as a result of the deeper problem) to tell a bigger, more disturbing yet more hopeful story. In a recent Guardian interview, Kaye states, ‘We live, we go through these realms, we learn, we figure out where we went wrong. That’s what living is.’ Detachment won’t be tearing down the power structures built up in our society to control, but perhaps it can help inspire us to fight harder with all that we have in hopes that we might chip away at the foundations of such oppression.