Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Should I Really Be Watching This Right Now? -- Reflections on "Detachment" (2012)

The state of American education...

As I write this I’m waiting for the results of the upcoming election. I’m concerned about who will be our next President, as we all should be, but I’m more concerned with the results of California’s Prop 30. If it is voted down, $6 billion dollars will be cut from education in California’s already super tight, stingy budget. This will take away several million dollars from my school district, which in turn will take away money from my paycheck and those of my friends and colleagues. Ultimately, this will devastate my family, who primarily rely on me to provide for them.

“Concerned” is the wrong word for what I’m feeling. “Terrified” is a much better term. I’m terrified, because even if Prop 30 passes, and some semblance of stability is restored in my profession, it’s evident to me that the writing is on the wall for teachers and education in general. Once a sacred profession, education is now mainly a stomping ground for politicians to make grandiose statements, accusations, and promises in order to get or keep their power. These are dark days for education, and I don’t see them getting brighter. We are on the fast track to privatizing education and turning it over to big business for them to reap even greater profits on the backs of the underprivileged and vulnerable. Prop 30 may pass, but even if it does, other initiatives will come to take its place in the years to come that will continue eroding our public school system.

The image of an eroding, dying system, is at the core of Tony Kaye’s film Detachment. While it is an uneven, sometimes frustrating film, it gives a powerful perspective on the state of our nation’s education through the eyes of those who’re around to watch it die every day. It is not a wholly accurate portrayal, often mistaking excessive despair for reality; yet, it is honest when looked at from the subjective perspective of its characters.

Detachment is set in an unknown inner city and reveals the inner lives of several people working in an underperforming school. Our protagonist is a long term substitute named Henry Barthes (Adrian Brody), who has a good reputation working in such places. The fact that he’s emotionally detached from the goings-on in the school may be his greatest strength. On his first day in class, an angry student throws Henry’s bag across the room, calls him a “motherfucker” and threatens him because Henry didn’t acknowledge the student’s need for a sheet of paper. Henry’s response is effective: “That bag…it doesn’t have any feelings. It’s empty. I don’t have any feelings you can hurt either.”

Other teachers are not quite so detached, and have been torn apart because they seem to care so much. When we first meet Sarah Madison (Christina Hendricks), she’s being verbally assaulted by a parent who is angry her child has been expelled for behavioral issues, but the implication is that mom knows the girl is a problem and since she can’t handle it, the school should. Guidance counselor, Doris Parker (Lucy Liu), slowly finds her sanity being eroded by kids who lack initiative, passion, or self-respect, and seem satisfied with living shitty lives. Prescription anxiety drugs are the only things keeping Mr. Seaboldt (James Caan) from killing himself, and the school’s principal, Mrs. Dearden (Marcia Gay Harden) finds herself a lame duck within the school district as she tries to keep big business out of their classrooms.

The students don’t fare well either, it seems. Many are behavioral problems, or are forgotten entities; and the ones who seem to have promise and talent, like Meredith (Betty Kaye), are bullied both at school and home to the point where life itself appears meaningless.

That the film’s most human, and moving plot involves Henry meeting and taking in a teenage prostitute named Erica (Sami Gayle) makes it clear that director Tony Kaye sees little hope in this world but in the little things we can do to shine a light. Henry’s motivation for helping Erica is often unclear, but her presence forces him to confront the detachment that has come to define him, both personally and professionally. This story draws comparisons to that of the relationship between Travis Bickle and Iris in Taxi Driver (1976), which also revealed a glimmer of hope in the seedy world Scorsese’s film creates.

Detachment is a grim, disturbing film. It offers little comfort or hope for education or society. Perhaps the most telling moment comes during one of Henry’s lectures, in which he teaches his students about the Orwellian concept of “Doublethink.” Henry asks, “How are you able to imagine anything if the images are always provided for you?” After writing the word on the chalkboard, he says, “This is a marketing holocaust. Twenty-four hours a day for the rest of our lives the powers that be are hard at work dumbing us to death. So, to defend ourselves, and to fight against assimilating this dullness into our thought processes, we must learn to read to stimulate our own imaginations, to cultivate our own consciousness, our own belief systems. We all need these skills to defend, to preserve … our own minds.” What’s so telling about this moment is that while the speech is rousing, insightful, and thought provoking for adolescent minds, all it does it create loyalty from students, but doesn’t seem to initiate much change in their behavior. Henry is a pleasant diversion to their dark daily routine, but they are just as detached as he believes he is. He can tell them forever how important it is to read, to avoid being dumbed down, but it appears the damage is already done. He gets the kids for an hour a day, but the powers that be get them for the remaining twenty-three.

This was probably not the best movie for me to watch as I await the results of tonight’s election. Tony Kaye is not looking to console his audience, or offer any pat answers. In his world, the system is broken, ready to be taken over by big business who will take to remodeling it to produce robots that will inevitably only be replaced by computers. At the same time, Detachment may be the best film to watch under these circumstances, if only for the fact that its title may be the only hope it provides.

Now, that’s a terrifying thought.

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