Detention

Joseph Kahn’s Detention (2011) is one of the best new films I have seen in the last several years. I have given a talk on it several times, and I have been meaning to write a polished, academic article or chapter about it. But I am too busy with other things this summer (namely, finishing my book on Speculative Realism and Whitehead). So what follows is basically an infodump of my disconnected and unpolished notes about the film. If this inspires any one else to see it, then I will feel that I have done my job.

[WARNING: MY DISCUSSION UNAVOIDABLY CONTAINS LOADS OF SPOILERS]

Detention mashes together multiple genres, including slasher horror and science fiction, with intimations of softcore porn; but it is mostly comedic, and it remains true to the general format of the teen/highschool comedy. It is hard even to describe the plot of the movie. It is extremely convoluted; and in addition, everything happens at a breakneck pace. The commentary on the DVD notes that (contrary to the usual practice) the filmmakers deliberately did not leave in any empty time for the audience to react to the jokes. There is more to be said — which I haven’t quite worked out yet — about the sheer speed of the film. To me, Detention is the perfect antidote to the current academic fad for “slow cinema” — which to my mind is a reactionary and reactive aesthetic move, wrongly championed as a form of “resistance.”

In the opening sequence of Detention, Taylor (Alison Woods), the most popular girl in Grizzly Lake High School, addresses the camera directly, boasting to the audience about her awesome life; at which point, she is attacked and killed by somebody dressed as “Cinderhella,” the slasher in a horror film series popular with the students.

The second sequence introduces us to our actual hero(ine), Riley (Shanley Caswell). She complains about how pathetic everything in her life is. She is the second most dorky student ever to attend Grizzly Lake High School. Fortunately, there was once someone who was even dorkier: the girl who went down on the school mascot, the enormous statue of a bear, nineteen years earlier. But Riley never seems to get anything right. She’s in love with Clapton Davis (Josh Hutcherson), the most popular boy in the school; but he regards her as just a friend; so she is always the awkward third wheel at any social gatherings. As she walks to school on the morning the film begins, she even gets robbed of her iPod by a lame hipster — that just shows us how low she feels.

The elimination of the bitch/powerful character, which allows for the ascension of the timid or dorky one, is a staple of teen comedy and drama. But here it leads to the turning inside-out of affective regimes; a turn from irony to what the film itself calls “post-irony.” Thus: At the climax of the film, the “Cinderhella” killer reveals who he is, even as he is attacking and trying to kill Riley. The two exchange one-liners. She tells him how lame it is that he dresses up as a movie character. He replies: “Read a book — it’s called post-irony.”

Actually, I find this profound. There was a time when we found slasher films scary (say, the time of Halloween, 1978). Then, we became so familiar with the rules that we could only enjoy a slasher film ironically and self-referentially, “in quotation marks” (this is the moment of Scream, 1996, and all its sequels). This is the same time when postmodern academic theorists were reading Baudrillard, and deploring the alleged “death of the real.”

But today, the situation has changed. For now we know that all those citations and remediations and so on and so forth are themselves altogether real, part of The Real. The exacerbated irony of the “postmodern” 1990s eventually imploded into what we can see today as a multifaceted immanence. We have moved on frrom Baudrillard’s “death of the Real” to Laruelle’s sense of radical immanence, or the Real as One. Irony is dead, not because of some supposed “new sincerity,” but because all the hierarchies of reflection have collapsed. Today, there can be no ontological privileging of referentiality and self-referentiality. There is simply no difference between reality and the mediatic representation of that reality, because the latter is itself entirely real, in exactly the same way that what it ostensibly represents is real. Hyperrealism has been transformed into Bazinian or Laruellian realism. I am taking this formula from John Mullarkey’s recent article, “The Tragedy of the Object.” Mullarkey says: “Neither the observer nor even the film can be taken any more as pictures of reality: they are (in) reality. The film’s frame does not contain the film in isolation from the Real, but diffuses it into the Real.” Detention is one of the first films to express and register this shift. (Arguably Leos Carax’s Holy Motors, which was made at almost the same moment as Detention, is also a film that expresses and registers this shift. In the horror genre, Cabin in the Woods addresses the same situation, but to my mind far less interestingly).

But let’s get back to the plot of the film. Everything in Detention is so ridiculous, and yet so well and carefully articulated, that it almost seems like the movie is a parody of the “Screenwriting 101″ rule that everything has to be motivated, and all the loose ends must be tied up by the end of the movie. If you show a gun in Act One, they say, it has to go off in Act Three. For example: I mentioned how Riley had said, at the beginning, that fortunately she was only the second dorkiest student ever to attend Grizzly Lake. But it turns out, by the end of the film, that Riley was herself that girl. There is a time-travel device hidden inside the bear, which allows Riley to travel from 2011 (the present time of the film) to 1992; but when she tries to return to her own time, the mechanism gets stuck, and she has to tug at the lever to make it work, which places her in that apparent blow-job position.

What’s more, we also learn at this point in the film that the photograph of Riley apparently going down on the bear, which has circulated through the school ever since, was taken by a student named Elliott Fink (Walter Perez), who we met earlier in the film when he was in detention. In fact, Elliott has been in detention every day for nineteen years, ever since he took the photo — and he has not grown any older in those nineteen years. We now learn that it is because he took the picture that he was sent to detention in the first place; the 1992 principal was adamant that he be punished for being a “pornographer.” I should note that, in the course of the film, Riley herself gets accused by the school’s uptight principal (Dane Cook) of being a “porn star,” because, due to a “wardrobe malfunction” at a party, her breast gets momentarily exposed, an event that is of course video-recorded on somebody else’s phone and uploaded to the Internet.

Everything in Detention is like that: the plot of the movie is excessive and hilariously insane, but every last detail is tied together in the manner of a purely classical narrative. Indeed, there are many ways in which the movie combines old with new. Despite all the post-irony and post-post-modernism, we are still very strongly invited to identify with, and root for, the main character, Riley. As in so many teen movies, the dork/misfit character is valorized, and finally triumphs. Despite her many humiliations, Riley eventually succeeds in her passage through and beyond adolescent anguish. Her attempted suicide is averted: she tries to hang herself, but realizes that she wants to live after she is attacked by Cinderhella. Riley doesn’t overcome dorkiness so much as she becomes happy with it; by the end of the film, she has dispatched the slasher, and she even gets Clapton, the guy she was pining for all along.

So the film asks us to identify with Riley, and to enjoy her triumph at the end. To this extent, Detention offers us a traditional sort of subjective identification. (Of course, classical Hollywood had us identify with men much more than with women; but comedy was always a genre where female characters were able to hold their own — just think if Bringing Up Baby, where Katherine Hepburn manages to get the man of her dreams, an extremely silly but wonderful Cary Grant).

But what sort of subjectivity is this that we are being offered in Detention? We cannot really say that the film endorses authenticity, as opposed to cultural stereotypes. For it seems to go out of its way to suggest that everything we think or do is a cultural stereotype. The movie evidently prefers certain stereotypes to others, but it does not suggest that there is any position outside of all these stereotypes, defined as they are by how you dress, who you hang out with, what music you listen to, etc. Authenticity (if that is even the right word any longer) only exists within the stereotypes, within the incessant rhythms of cultural circulation. This is a new way in which subjectivity is embedded in the social, or in culture: in reality television, in pop music, in uploaded viral videos. Detention, embraces this situation, explores it, and tries to think about what it might mean. The movie, therefore, is not a critique in the traditional sense — though this suggests to me, not a failure of the film, but the inadequacy of traditional notions of critique.

Here’s another intuition I have, that needs to be thought out more fully and expanded: There is an equivalence (or an identity in the One, Laruelle would say) between the short-circuiting of reflexivity in what I am inclined to see for various reasons as the “nonphenomenological perception” associated with new media in terms of form, and the extended circuits of networked pop culture in terms of content.

Beyond these general comments, there are three sequences in Detention that I would like to discuss in detail:

The first is when Riley is at a low point. Almost everything that could have gone wrong for her, has. She has failed in love and failed at suicide. The police won’t believe her when she tells them that she has been twice attacked by Cinderhella. Her stint as the actual school mascot (wearing a bear costume) has ended ignominiously with the star of the football team puking all over her, after revealing that he has undergone a transformation reminiscent of Jeff Goldblum’s in Cronenberg’s The Fly. She has lost the school debate, where her ardent plea for vegetarianism was ridiculed by a meat-eating Canadian exchange student. The principal has just chewed her out for being a “porn star.” And so on. Riley sits despondently in the school gymnasium, while behind her wrestling practice is going on: two guys trying out all sorts of holds and flips and falls on one another. Riley sits in a heart-to-heart with a 30-something male teacher, why sympathetically tries to get her to reorient her chakras. “There’s always a new way of looking at each other,” he tells her, quoting the words of a “wise man,” Deepak Chopra. (Not everyone will find this hilarious; but I do).

Caught up in the moment, Riley starts coming on to the teacher. Our identification with Riley is both reinforced by the closeups of her, and disrupted by the wrestling in the background. In the conversation, we go from closeup shot reverse shots to the two of them in the same shot facing each other (with the wrestling precisely positioned in the space between them). Riley and the teacher embrace: we see this from behind him. Yhe camera moves in closer to Riley’s face as she starts to feel for him, then down his back following her hand as she caresses his back. Riley then puts her hand on the teacher’s thigh. He gently removes her hand, then gets up and walks towards the exit door — where his boyfriend is waiting for him; they kiss on the lips, and the boyfriend claps him on the ass as they exit together.

Then we see Riley’s reaction shot, as the camera moves back from the two men kissing to Riley sitting alone, and closes in on her facial expression, which changes from initial startlement to a broad smile. It is indeed the case, quite unexpectedly, that “there’s always a new way of looking at each other.” As Riley comes to this recognition, we follow the process of a movement of self-disidentification. For this is indeed the turning point of the film. Riley moves out of the self-pitying narcissism that has been her problem up to this point, and to a new understanding.and a new ability to do things actively. Something has changed, or broken free, within her.

I’m not sure I can articulate what the wrestling has to do with this moment of illumination, but the scene wouldn’t have worked without it. (Indeed, on the commentary track of the DVD Joseph Kahn says that he first shot the scene without the wrestling, but it just didn’t work until the counterpoint of the wrestlers was added in. Here, at least, absurdism doesn’t destroy emotion, but punctuates it and makes it seem more, well, real).

The second moment that I want to discuss takes place when the students are in detention, in the school library on a Saturday (it’s reminiscent of Breakfast Club, in yet another of Detention‘s many cinematic and pop-cultural allusions). Suddenly all the other students notice somebody sitting in the circle with them who they don’t recognize. It’s Elliott Fink, who I’ve mentioned already: the guy who has been in detention every day for nineteen years, without ever growing a day older. As he tells his story, the camera moves back in time with him, from 2011 back to 1992. It does this by going around in a circle; Elliott is always sitting there, dressed in a hoodie and working out equations on his desk by cutting them into the wood with a knife. The students in detention all sit in the same postures and places — but with different clothing styles, accompanied by changing songs on the soundtrack, as we regress from 2011 back to 1992. Only Ellliot remains the same.

What can we say about this sequence that moves back in time in the course of a (seemingly) single shot? I want to suggest that this scene suggests some important things about cinematic temporality. But that requires a theoretical detour.

Deleuze writes that “it is a mistake to think of the cinematographic image as being by nature in the present” (Cinema 2, 105). And he goes on to describe how, in Orson Welles, depth of field produces a profondeur of time as well as space; where pre-Wellesian flashbacks merely depict past moments when they were present, Welles’ explorations in depth of field present us with the past in its (Bergsonian or Proustian) pastness (105-116). Later directors of the time-image, most notably Alain Resnais, continue with this exploration of the past, in and as depth.

Today, however, we are no longer in the realm of Deleuze’s time-image, or of high modernist pastness and duration. David Rodowick complains that the digital lacks duration; I want to suggest that his intimation is correct, without accepting his nostalgic despair over what he is only able to regard as a loss. We have gone beyond the time image, to something else. Our problem is to determine the nature of this something else; to create a concept that is adequate to the current digital regime of audiovisual images, in the same way that Deleuze’s movement image (with time as the indirect measure of the primary movements of bodies in space, or in narrative) works to describe the form of classical cinema, and his time image (with duration freed into its own autonomy, and presented directly to the spectator) works to describe the form of modernist cinema (the French New Wave, the New Hollywood, etc.).

Several critics have recently made important suggestions along these lines, proposing candidates for a third sort of Deleuzian “image.” Patricia Pisters proposes what she calls the neuro-image, associated both with the multiplication of screens in digital culture, with the Eternal Return as an irruption of the future into the present, and with the increased importance of the nonhuman or the cosmic in cinema and in culture more generally. And Nick Davis proposes what he calls the desiring-image, active in recent queer cinema.

I would like to propose my own candidate for a third, digital regime of audiovisual images, although I don’t have a good name for it yet. I want to suggest that the Elliot Fink sequence in Detention gives us an exemplary figuration of what this third regime, currently still in process of emergence, might be like. Instead of penetrating back into the past through the exploration of depth of field, Kahn gives us a superficial or lateral movement, without deep focus, in the form of a repeated circling, a multiple-360-degree tracking shot. What we have here is a kind of “spatialized” conception of the past: exactly the sort of thing that Bergson and Deleuze disliked. It is like a Moebius strip: there is no depth, and no “other side.” If a modernist literary reference is needed, we might think less of Proustian duration than of Mallarmé’s “Un peu profond ruisseau calomnié la mort” (“a shallow stream, much maligned, death”). There is sort of an infinite superficiality of time. I am still trying to work out the implications of this different approach to time and space; but I want to insist that it is not a mere regression back to the movement image; and that it has its own expressive powers, and shouldn’t been seen in the negative terms that Bergson and Deleuze (and Rodowick) use when they discuss spatialization.

This conceptualization of time seems to have more to do with 21st-century informatics, and beyond that, with 20th-century physics, than it does with psychological interiority. “Selves” are defined by things like clothing styles and musical preferences — these are infinitely swappable, but the same spatial configuration underlies them. This doesn’t mean that the teens don’t have real feelings — but it does have to do with the gap between affects that cannot really be spoken, and the data that nonetheless work to express them. It also suggests the multiple scales of modern physics: from the microscale of quantum mechanic to the macroscale of general relativity — as well as the idea that the universe is ultimately composed of nothing but digital information (as the physicist John Wheeler famously said: “it from bit”).(It is worth noting that, quite hilariously, all the classes in the high school seem to involve graduate-level quantum physics). I myself do not believe that everything is information; but it is certainly the common assumption of our digital age.

I should briefly mention that there are other instances of this new audiovisual “image” throughout the film. For instance, the credit sequence near the beginning involves a tracking shot down the main corridor of the high school. When the various 2011 students go back in time to 1992, we get a formally identical tracking shot, in the same location — though of course with different contents (different students, different fashions, different music, etc). I also haven’t yet worked through my ideas about the time travel body swapping section of the film: a mother and daughter swap bodies, so that the mother becomes a teenager again in 2011, while her daughter goes back to 1992 and becomes her mom back then, at her current age; and possibly even becomes pregnand, so that she will be able to give birth to herself. (To work this out, I think I will need to consult David Wittenberg’s recent book on time travel narratives).

In any case, I wanted to conclude with a brief mention of the third sequence in Detention that I found especially interesting. This is also when the students are in detention. They don’t know who the killer is yet; and in order to figure out his next move, they figure that they need to see the next film in the Cinderhella slasher series. But the new movie hasn’t been released yet. No matter; they are able to use a cell phone in order to access a work print that has been pirated on the Net. They view a scene of young people seated in a circle much like themselves, who try to figure out just how they are in danger by watching a pirated film on the Net. And in that film… well, the same thing happens, down to four levels of self-referentiality.

There is nothing more familiar at this point (as I have already mentioned) than modernist and postmodernist self-reflexivity, or fractal self-similarity at multiple scales. But Detention turns this whole idea into a joke. It proclaims, not infinite meta-levels, but rather the collapse of any meta-level. The reason for this is that the image quality progressively degrades as we move into the past, from one meta-movie into another. People watch on a cell phone a movie of people watching a movie on a desktop computer, in which the people watch a movie on q VHS tape. As we go back in time, the image quality degrades, and the movie productions themselves become cheesier and cheesierRather than self-reproducing, everything ultimately fuzzes out in an analog manner. We regress through the history of slasher horror films, and back to its coincidence with what looks like Italian softcore porn of the 1970s, something like an inadvertent collaboration between Dario Argento and the early John Waters. (I was also reminded of a film made after Detention: Berberian Sound Studio). I think that this sequence, by pushing the mise en abime to the point of its reductio ad absurdam, works as a reproach BOTH to postmodernist pop-culture’s ironic self-referentiality (as in the Scream films), AND to postmodernist highbrow-theory’s valorization of the infinite mise-en-abîme as ultimate expression of the simultaneous necessity and inescapability of self-reflexivity (as in Derrida). Once again, we have a new presentation of time: one that is neither simply past, nor simply present, nor a Deleuzian or deconstructionist “past that never has been present.” How do we conceive this new “image” (really, an audio-visual presentation, rather than just a visual one) of time? I think that this is someplace where the artists really are ahead of the philosophers. We need somebody to do for Joseph Kahn (and other innovative contemporary directors) what Deleuze did for Welles, Resnais, and Antonioni.

This post has already gone on long enough, so I will leave matters hanging there. — Or better, I will end my account with Riley’s decisively non-nihilistic words at the end of the film, after she has come through all this madness: “”The only way to change the past is to change the present… It’s just high school, it’s not the end of the world.”

5 Responses to “Detention”

  1. [...] Steven Shaviro offers what he admits are “disconnected and unpolished notes” about “one of the best new films I’ve seen in the last several years,” Joseph Kahn’s Detention. Heavy on theory here and there, but some intriguing thoughts on what makes the movie unique. [...]

  2. robotsdancingalone says:

    I’d be very interested to see how you place Detention in relation to seemingly similar post-ironic, hyper- or post-postmodern TV shows such as Community, NTSF:SD:SV, and Children’s Hospital. These shows burrow through postmodern self-reflexivity and referentiality into a new space, where these things are as real and as prevalent as more classical elements of the narratives, both of which are so much signs operating in the same semiotic web. They also sensationalise convention in fascinating ways, such that comedy emerges from unreality’s reality.

  3. Johan W says:

    Wonderful! Loved the movie and loved these thoughts.

    What you say about the death of irony also articulates what I have been feeling about the band Die Antwoord. And even if “new sincerity” might be a poor description, at the same time I think this collapse of hierarchies reveal how we can always find a depth of sincerity even in the most distanced meta-references…

  4. Jo Maier says:

    I loved the movie & your related associations. And I do Look very much forward to be reading a polished version. Just one statement left me confused: why do you write that Deleuze disliked the Moebius strip? In my reading the mechanics of ‘Logique du sens’ are build out of a series of Moebius strips?

  5. senile_seinen says:

    It’s probable that Kahn saw one or several of Satoshi Kon’s films. It’s not apparent from your analysis of Detention whether you have or not. I suspect that even if you have, you didn’t make the connection to the visual metaphors used in this film.

    Kon constantly used visual devices like parallel placements, wipes, and, yes, track shots (virtual ones in this case, as it’s animation) to shift between fantasy and reality, between subject and objective and between periods in time.

    There’s a circling track shot in Millennium Actress that moves us from a scene being filmed on a sound stage into the actress’s life, for one obvious example.

    Kon’s last film, Paprika, is constantly shifting back and forth in space, time, and between layers of wakefulness using all sorts of wipes, cuts, and intercuts.

    The essential difference between Detention and Kon’s movies is that Kon’s works all have a very strong internal narrative that is deconstructive in a mis-en-abime/Droste Effect sort of way, but usually at only one or two layers of scene. The lines constantly blur between fantasy and reality or past and present, but there always seems to be a coherent narrative somewhere just beyond the viewer’s perception. Fiction/fantasy/history is generally presented with equal clarity to the real/present. The present always has a past, but what is real or fantasy in present or past is always in doubt.

    I’m not surprised to see live action filmmakers using devices from Kon’s work. My first reaction upon seeing Millennium Actress was that these were the platonic forms of narrative artifices filmmakers had been using sometimes for a century.

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