Dir. Joseph Kahn
Film #8, of Monday 8th October, for Halloween 31 For 31
In yesterday’s review, I felt the disheartened but still optimistic hope that the director would make a film that will improve on the mistakes of the one I covered. Made in the same year, also shown at the same Frightfest in London with it as a midnight screening, was another film that, upon viewing it now, showed a director improving on the mistakes of his first film and throwing his cards on the table impressively for his second. From the first scene of a high school girl talking to the viewer in very reference heavy, but bluntly vapid, dialogue with masses of text and on-screen graphics morphing on the foreground, the film immediately stands out as something very different that manages to be both purposely irrelevant and bouncing off the rubber walls, taking an entire generation of young adult culture, and the one before it, and transforming it into an abrupt, multi-text mirror back at it.
Back in 2004, the year before a point within the film that gets poked with a bloodied cultural feather at one stage in Detention’s narrative, its director Joseph Kahn made a debut film called Torque. A music film director whose work goes from Britney Spears to U2, his debut suffered from being another Hollywood action film with a generic, go-by-numbers dot-to-dot plot and a cast in danger of being remoulded into bland plastic figures, without any sense of self mocking intention, by the film’s presentation. What salvaged the film from the flotsam-and-jetsam of forgotten blockbusters from the early 2000s and makes it worth seeing at least once by anyone was that Kahn stood out as a potentially great director, his playful pop art sensibilities lifting the materials higher than it is. Irrelevant sight gags, bright imaginative use of colour and space, and even uses of screen covering CGI that poked fun at itself for being fake but pushed it to imaginative and ridiculous ways that made the scenes memorable, all of which showing a director who had the talent to go onto great work. Torque’s tedious emptiness against this creativity undermined these qualities sadly, leaving me in hope that if Kahn ever made another film that he would remove all the problems that plagued the first. I don’t know if I knew about Detention before seeing Torque, I may have seen his debut before knowing about the other film, thanks to Armond White’s one man matching band praising the film in his other reviews, but the anticipation for it was high for me regardless. It’s too early to judge Detention fully, but at the moment Greg Araki’s Kaboom (2010), a film in a similar vein despite deeply different mentalities and thoughts to each other, feels far superior as the work of a veteran director at his best with his mischievous narrative and achingly good use of primary colour and images, but regardless of Detention possibly losing some of its magic on a rewatch, it’s a doozy that throws its satirical swipes with force.
Going about with the logic of a game of Exquisite Corpse, only using pop culture of the 2000s and 1990s instead of linking together random words and pieces of drawing for its material, the film centres around the lone, alienated female student Riley Jones (Shanly Caswell) who has nothing to live for to the point her fellow high school students gladly walk over her prone body on the hallway floor without realising her presence. Around her however is every stereotype of high school culture, including herself, from the jock to the nerd, melded with vast areas of filmic culture, from high school dramas to, of all things, Cronenberg body horror, pulled together by Riley’s relationship with failing outsider Clapton Jones (Josh Hutcherson) and a serial killer who has literally jumped out from a slasher film series in the story’s world called Cinderhella. From there, stereotypes are bent plastically into shapes unexpected, and referencing multiple pop items at the same time, bears suddenly learn how to time travel, and through the countless sub-chapters on even minor characters, it becomes apparent that, while there is a clear plot line with an ending, Detention is as much a purposely abstract movie, and gleefully so, whose tangents are meaningful in how out-of-place and silly they can get.
The film will put people off. Immediately it’s clear this is a film with heavy, Family Guy levels of referencing that could possibly date it and cause the film to feel pretentious and obnoxious to others in conjunction with its tone and visual barrages. However unlike Family Guy, which had its great high points but seemed like cheap references with thin bare stories wrapped around them most of the time, Detention still has a core that is both cute with its referential jokes but have a clear, razored tongue in them, the erratic bombardment of music references, film homages and quips reflective of the age we live in and how it is the ordinary lives of the high schoolers depicted. The film has a lot of visual gags, but especially with the many passages of text on screen that may be there just to be another gag or reference; in an age of Wikepedia, Facebook, Twitter, iPhones, fifteen or more (?) years worth of the internet, and countless forms of media on many tiny or large screens, the rapid fire nature of Detention visually is a picture of what all this would look like if it was fully part of our lives as breathing is. Some suggest this may already be the case strengthening the ADD tone as a chameleon-like recreation of this sort of world that kicks it in the nuts repeatedly at the same time.
The fact that I am a Brit does not detract from the issue, as the overriding nature of pop and geek culture both good and bad – hipsterism, retro fads, cult films etc. – has reached almost everywhere in Western society. My year-ago, three years of life as a university student would have made it still relevant in one of the film’s subconscious ideas – the borderline of young adults growing up and enjoying culture of all kinds, to become pretentious and shallow catchphrases that distorts them into stereotypes that have to redeem themselves, like characters in this film, into charming, charismatic people, or fodder for a slasher killer massacre no one will mind being bumped off in a bloody way. And even then the film still allows the paper-thinest of the characters to have more to them, from the sub-chapters that detail some individual’s lives, but its filtered through the idea that pop culture has to be adapted to a person’s personality, not the other way around as the 2000s onward dangerously furthered. The film avoids making itself merely a parade of references by showing how pop culture can fade and become old quickly, even for the next people a few years later, if it doesn’t have a meaning or given one by its admirers to keep it in memory. (Just think of all those long-forgotten nu-metal and mainstream punk bands, who I heard on Kerrang TV over here in Britain growing up, which flood the second hand stores with their albums.) An inspired highlight is a reverse timeline from the film’s main setting to 1992, depicting the music and fads from 50 Cent to Hole along the way, a 360 degree, repeating camera spin, helped by simple optical effects, that depicts the ‘survival of the fittest’ existence of youth culture, as likely to perish, like species in Darwin’s theory of evolution, into the obscurity of ‘Why I Love The 1990s’ countdown shows unless it gains mainstream significance or is held aloft by Rolling Stone or Mojo magazine readers beyond their twenties.
It helps that the film is so amused in its oddness despite being a conventionally made film when stripped of its flourishes.The time travel, cultural references from both decades the film is set in, and the collage created plot threads lead to some bizarre and absurd ideas made more prominent by how they can be casually done with when they could have made whole movies or subplots. (The Cronenberg references, a subplot that includes the strangest use of a television since David’s own Videodrome (1983), never even connects to the main plot). The result did lag in the middle when I feared the film would lose momentum. Then a sequence involving a film-within-a-film-within-a-film-within-the-film-I-watched, work prints-within-work prints downloaded off the internet involved adding to the complete disregard for solid dimensional reality to the film, made me realise the film, despite its plot, should be embraced as a non-narrative blitz on its material references as well, Airplane! (1980), with its amount and frequency of jokes on-screen, pushed to the stage of anti-narrative cinema with its silly walks and bloody pie shots to the viewer’s face. That Kahn’s director credit looks like alphabet spaghetti that is puked out into a urinal bowl by a character in the elaborate opening credit sequence may be a simple self-mocking gag, but unintentionally it fits the mess of two entire decades of mass media being churned up in the narrative’s stomach and vomited up. Hell, I can argue even the 1980s isn’t safe when Patrick Swayze and Steven Seagal have a metaphorical fist fight in a film that has broken so many rules of logic it clearly doesn’t care as long as it entertains and still pokes itself savagely in recognition of the silliness of it all.
As someone who grew up in the early 2000s as a teenager, the dark days of bad rap metal on Kerrang, the seeds of hipsterism and the shiny little monoliths known as the iPods about to invade music culture, all jostling in my mind as I write this and in said mind as countless other memories from the period, this is a film that speaks to my generation as well as the young audience of 2011 it was intended for, tricking them into laughing at their choice of rebellion or the MP3 player they have on all the time. And the less said about the 1990s, which I grew up in as a child, with its pre-Millennial panic and post-modernism Ouroburos eating its own tail, the better until another review one day where it needs the time to surgically dissect it.
Additional Note - I refuse to use the images on the UK DVD front and back covers. They are the worst and blandest examples of advertising design I have seen in a while and are insulting to anyone who picks the DVD up and to the film itself. Its a shame a film this unconventional gets the kind of design it could have mercilessly parodied within its own narrative.