Guy Maddin, cinema’s contemporary master surrealist, has returned with another feature that unfolds like a dream while exploring Freudian symptoms of psychic malaise. Though still influenced by early silent cinema, Keyhole seems like Maddin’s chattiest film yet. He still works with black and white images, and it suits the film’s scenes well. Keyhole brings to life a haunted house where all the occupants seem to be ghosts. Fittingly, shadows are a great part of the cinematography, and Maddin knows how to make the most of black and white to highlight the relationship between light and darkness. In the right hands, shadows are laden with subtext, and here comes a film far beyond literal interpretation using that and many other aspects of cinema to their utmost potential. Maddin has only made one film in color (Twilight of the Ice Nymphs) and seems most comfortable in black and white.
This is an adventure story. The quest is as fantastical, human and emotional as anyone could conjure from both the unconsciousness of the dream world or waking, traumatic life experiences following the finality of a loved one’s fatal loss. After death, how does one make amends? That’s what the ghosts of Keyhole are illustrating. This is what ghosts do when people are not looking. If they are creepy, it only comes from the mystery of their origin. Keyhole is something far more abstract, complex and deep than a horror film.
The darkest, most mysterious character must be the patriarch of the clan (Louis Negin) and father-in-law of the hero, Ulysses Pick (Jason Patric) searching to reconnect with his wife Hyacinth (Isabella Rossellini) after a life of crime, adultery and neglect. The patriarch, whose craggy wrinkles even cast shadows on his own features, is fittingly credited with two obtuse names: Calypso and Camille. Wearing only white briefs or arbitrarily nothing at all, Calypso / Camille is never seen without a thick chain draped over his body. “I’m a part of the house,” he says early in the film. “It would be misleading to say I live here.” Between his solitary creeping around in some distant chamber of the large home, whispering, “Remember, Ulysses, remember,” Ulysses arrives in search of Hyacinth. The film opens with multiple layers of superimposed scenery and the cacophony of a shootout. The images blur and flash in quick cuts. All the while, images of the old man appear, as he whispers: “Remember, Ulysses, remember.” It makes for an abstract, expressive set-up. After the shootout, Maddin shows his wit and profundity by having a character ask all of those inside the home to line up against a wall. Those who have died in the shootout are told to face the wall. He tells them to go to the morgue, and they walk out of the scene. “They’re the lucky ones,” someone says. For, as the film will show, death is not a solution in this movie at all, and, as the ghostly father notes, “forgiveness [is] much worse than revenge.”
Maddin does more than flashy cinematic tricks to channel the surreal. He creates atmosphere in subtler ways as well. The voices are warped or have a strange flat quality with no echo, like early talkies. Jason Staczek’s orchestral score seems to emerge from another dimension. The instruments vary from horns to piano to vibes. They play dynamic melodies that sometimes warp and stretch and do not always gibe with the images. Sometimes they seem to emit from some distant radio, off-screen.
The setting of a large home with many rooms makes for the ideal setting for Ulysses’ quest to return to his wife and sons. Rooms in dreams are symbolic of the unconscious, and distances covered by Ulysses inside the home seem extended beyond earthbound physics. He arrives carrying a drowned woman over his shoulder, Denny (Brooke Palsson). It takes a long time for him to cover the ground between the front door into the dining area where a host of gangsters and hostages await him. Though Denny is blind, she provides a psychic guide for him through the home. The home feels labyrinthine, as the quest continues from room to room and encounter to encounter. Ulysses also carries his son Manners (David Wontner), who spends most of the film gagged and bound to a chair. There is even a swampy garden secluded among the interior’s twists and turns, where more traumas lurk buried under a pond of murky water.
Though it plums some dark depths of the psyche, Keyhole still has room for humor. At one point in his quest, Ulysses is weighed down by carrying a stuffed wolverine named Crispy. Maddin glazes over the de rigueur phallic symbol in a witty moment as Denny leads Ulysses down a hall. They approach a small erect penis protruding out of a wall. “Cyclops ahead,” deadpans the girl.
“That penis is getting dusty,” notes Ulysses matter-of-factly, as he passes it by.
The actors serve the film well. Their faces are filled with mystery and sometimes a subtle befuddlement. Maybe they are trying to make sense of the dialogue, which still works for this film that explores the dream world even better and more honestly than Inception. Sure, the film seems incongruous, as its logic, like the best dreams, never allows the viewer any insight toward where it is headed. Maddin constantly changes the rules of the narrative. By doing so, he heightens and maintains the mystery throughout the film as marvelous sequences parade by. No one should expect any concrete, definitive answers in a film by Guy Maddin, just a bold and confident expression of the complexity of human relationships. Keyhole captures the Maddin tradition well and exploits the potency of cinema as the physical, temporal manifestation of dreams.
Keyhole is Rated R and runs 94 min. Opens Friday, May 25, at 7 p.m., at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, which hosted a preview screening for the purposes of this review. It opens at the same time in the Miami area at the University of Miami’s Cosford Cinema. It is also currently showing at select theaters across the US.
(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)
May 18, 2012
It’s a marvel what one learns about filmmaking while watching the anti-film This is Not a Film. In 2010, acclaimed Iranian director Jafar Panahi was confined to his condo in Tehran under house arrest as part of his punishment for intending to make a film deemed subversive by the state. During his house arrest, he decided to turn on a camera and just record, all the while trying to deny he was even making a film. He reportedly had This Is Not a Film smuggled out of the country on a flash drive hidden inside a cake delivered to the 2011 Cannes Film Festival where it had its world premiere in 2011. The result offers a raw, insightful glimpse inside the mind of a creative genius.
This is Not a Film is so enlightening into the craft of filmmaking, it feels tragic that the government of Iran has denied this man the right to express himself. The film is set up with Panahi calling up a friend who turns out to be fellow filmmaker, Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, about a “problem.” Panahi cannot specify details over the phone, so he asks Mirtahmasb to come over. It will soon be revealed that Panahi needs a camera operator. Setting up his own HD camera in a corner, recording his movements as he wanders or sits in a room, it seems, leaves much to be desired for this visionary.
His friend soon picks up the camera to shoot Panahi. After all, his 20-year ban from filmmaking does not stipulate anything about acting or reading from a script, Panahi reasons. There are also discussions over his iPhone with a lawyer who is working to appeal his sentence, which also includes six years in jail, as well as conversations with concerned relatives. But Panahi seems to delight in turning that iPhone into a camera. He transforms into another man during sequences when he explores his craft. He shares a clip from his 1995 film the Mirror with Mirtahmasb and how he feels like the little girl who wants to throw off the fake cast and quit acting, when she comes to realize the bus she is riding is headed the opposite way of her home. It offers witty insight into the subversive quality of his films.
Thinking about the resonance in his own work clearly shakes up Panahi, and he orders Mirtahmasb to cut, but the documentary director continues filming. “You are not directing. This is an offence,” he tells Panahi. But, just as this film has emerged commercially with US distribution, you cannot keep a good director down. Panahi breaks out a screenplay to read from and soon begins rearranging furniture in his home to help describe what would have been his next film in more visual detail, blocking off the set in his living room with tape. He describes each instance of intended action, from what happens outside a window when a door bell rings to where another character steps into the theoretical camera’s view. The need to direct is in this man’s blood. It’s an energy that simply cannot be repressed, no matter the threat of jail. During this extended sequence the viewer truly sees that filmmaking is what keeps Panahi alive.
This becomes a catalyst for more thoughts on filmmaking by Panahi, as he shares clips from The Circle and Crimson Gold as well as his own doubts and eureka moments, which brings him back to the “set” inside his home.
No fancy plot is necessary to rivet fans of cinema to This is Not a Film. Here is a true genius of film baring his creativity, thoughts in a pure search for truth in the medium. In the end, his defense of this work appears in his own honesty. Even as he tries to create a film via this non-film, he cannot help but feel he is telling lies by filming within the confines of his home.
As the “film” unfolds, the soundtrack beyond his home’s walls is worth noticing: the sound of fireworks and sirens in the street. Mysterious at first, as if there might just be a war going on outside, it is later revealed via a news report, that it is Fireworks Wednesday. Following protests of the recent reelection of the country’s unpopular president, a reporter on the television notes, the country’s leader has found no religious reasons for Fireworks Wednesday and has had it denounced as unreligious. What is actually happening outside are people shooting off fireworks in protest and police zipping about to arrest them.
As much as Panahi would argue this is not a film, the narrative within This is Not a Film plays out with more skill than many in Hollywood can muster. There are many witty set ups, as the film continues to unfold in surprising ways, from the introduction of his daughter’s pet iguana, Igi, to the resonance of the revolutionaries living it up on Fireworks Wednesday just outside Panahi’s confines. There is a moment early in the film when Panahi looks into the lens. “The city is real busy today,” he comments. And so is this movie. At a brisk 75 minutes, it is something not to be missed.
As of this post, after the appeals court upheld the original sentence of a 20-year ban from filmmaking and six years in prison, the director has made his intentions known that he seeks to appeal to the country’s supreme court. Though he remains out of jail, he could be sent there at any time. Amnesty International continues to collect signatures in reverse Panahi’s sentence. You can add your voice here.
This is Not a Film is not rated, runs 75 minutes and is Persian with English subtitles. It opens in South Florida on Friday, May 18, at 7 p.m., at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, which provided a DVD screener for the purposes of this review. For more screening dates across the US, see the film’s official website.
May 17, 2012
Chilean director Cristián Jiménez mixes a heartfelt appreciation for literature and young love in the ingeniously crafted Bonsai, capturing how tightly life and art entangle themselves, both reflecting and defining one another. The film feels as if it unfolds in rapid, brief, arbitrary scenes. At first, the array of quick vignettes seem too shallow and cute for the film’s own good. However, as the film barrels towards its last scene, it explodes in an exuberant instant of all-things-are-connected with a masterful subtlety I have not seen since the best films of Eric Rohmer. Those with an appreciation for both living-life-in-the-moment and subtle art films should find Bonsai a delight.
The film Follows Julio (Diego Noguera) as he transitions from lackadaisical literature major to novelist. In an effort to weed out the “delinquents” from the “students,” a professor asks his class, who among them have read Proust. As his classmates raise their hands in gestures loaded with varying degrees of knowledge and bullshit, Julio looks about and joins in with hesitation. It makes for a slight but brilliant set-up of character. Bonsai continues to unfold in similar dense but brief scenes filled with meaning and characterization. The film flip-flops between Julio’s life as a student to his older self as a writer until the moment arrives when he learns that Proust does matter … on a wholly personal level.
Fittingly to his character, Julio practically comes into writing his book by accident. He takes a job transcribing long-hand notebooks for a well-known local novelist, only identified as Gazmuri (Alejandro Zambra). However, the writer bails on him, complaining Julio had been over-charging him. In order to impress his neighbor/lover Blanca (Trinidad González), who expresses an interest in Gazmuri, Julio pretends to continue the job. He goes as far as purchasing the same blue notebooks and blue ink Gazmuri had used to pull off his ruse. When Julio tells Blanca that Gazmuri keeps postponing things as they work, she rationalizes that Gazmuri must have a fear of failing. “I think failure is underestimated,” Julio replies, defensively. Indeed, here is a work (be it the film or Julio’s book) whose inspiration seems to be failure. Julio’s story is about a failed relationship and its possibilities. He is the product of a failed eduction, which grants him the audacity to take on the writing of a novel. Soon enough, an original story forms based on Blanca’s criticisms of the text and Julio’s memories of eight years back to his relationship with a classmate in his literature class.
The director does an ingenious narrative trick in Bonsai. He starts the film when Julio meets Emilia (Nathalia Galgani), the person who would become the muse of his book. The film then jumps ahead eight years to the meeting between Gazmuri and Julio. After Julio decides to continue writing the book in order to fool Blanca, the director explores further flashbacks. As the names in Gazmuri/Julio’s book are interchangeable with his past life, it loads these flashbacks with the implication that these are now more than memories. They carry a sort of nostalgia that may well exist in another dimension, one of memory mixed with fiction. As only the magic of cinema can conjure, the arrangement of the splices of the film breathe a depth into the story regarding memory and experience.
In one of the earlier flashbacks, Julio helps Emilia move into the home of a friend, Bárbara (Gabriela Arancibia). The flashbacks occur only a few times but last long enough so that when Bonsai moves ahead or back, it feels a bit discombobulating, as the viewer is granted enough time to grow attached to the characters during each turn forward or back. During these few trips back in time, the director takes his time exploring Julio and Emilia’s relationship, offering many beautiful shots out in nature as well as the bedroom.There is one resonant shot of a muddy, shallow brook under a bridge loaded with symbolism. The waves rush over the small lumps of rocks just below the surface of the cloudy, brown water: the passage of time rushes over the solid but obscured and therefore amorphous memories of the past.
Just as Jiménez knows how to capture resonant, little details, he knows how to maximize the slightest of scenes. During one brief vignette, Julio searches for a book at the top shelf in a book store. He stands at the top of a rolling ladder as someone at the bottom moves the ladder a little too fast. He tells him to stop after he overshoots the book he was seeking and then asks the man at the bottom to move the ladder back again. Once again he overshoots. The scene only lasts a moment and seems to come out of nowhere. It offers a slight, little moment of slapstick in a mostly serious film but also captures the random quality of memory. In the scene that follows, Emilia tries to talk to Julio as he reads a book. She asks him why he bothers to study Latin. “There are things that have value because they serve no purpose,” he responds. The same can be said about these slight moments in the past that define a life and bring value to memories, his source for his future book.
By the same token, Jiménez also leaves out certain details. During the first flashback, it just “feels” as if Julio has moved in with Emilia and Bárbara. Maybe he has or he has not physically moved in. Such a detail would only bring out the banal and pander to the superficial need to explain the action. None of the moments on-screen in Bonsai are banal; they are resonant, like memories worth remembering. The trio eat at home together and share the bathroom, much to Bárbara’s annoyance. The lovers catch up on Proust by reading the aptly named In Search of Lost Time aloud before going to bed. As Julio reads lines by Proust describing how, in sleep, his own work seems to entwine with his unconscious, Emilia protests that the “heavy” words make her feel tired.
When Julio finishes his book, eight years later, he has an epiphany during the maintenance of a Bonsai tree. Only after he finishes his book does he realize that “the point of [Bonsai] is imitating nature,” similar to his approach to his novel. Around this time Julio bumps into Bárbara on the street. She will soon reveal just how grimly prophetic his book is. When he goes back to read the lines from In Search of Lost Time that Emilia had complained put her to sleep, they finally move him. In the end, the director not only illustrates how life and art entangle, but also how both bring meaning to one another. Art is personal, and there lies its beauty.
Bonsai is not rated, runs 95 minutes and is Spanish with English subtitles. It opens in South Florida on Friday, May 18, at 4:15 p.m. at the Tower Theater in Miami and at 8:40 p.m., at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, which provided a screener for the purposes of this review.
Too often, lately, I have heard lush, layered records only to feel dizzy and nauseous by the end. So-called chill wave has often been a culprit. The redundancies and piercing electronics of bands like Washed Out and Neon Indian annoy more than sooth these ears. Then you have cutesy retro bands like Cults: more high-pitched convolutedness. I found myself hard-pressed to find a decent record last year due to all the self-indulgent, shallow noise hyped by the taste-makers.
Then, this year, a brilliant, refreshing aural experience came along in the form of Bloom by Baltimore-based Beach House. The band has long been recognized for its do-no-wrong dream pop, a genre of music that emerged in the late eighties thanks to bands as divergent as the ethereal Cocteau Twins to the noisy My Bloody Valentine. But even those pioneering bands’ records often felt difficult to endure all the way through. Beach House’s fourth album further proves it has the know-how to balance layered, driving sounds with stark, spare musical moments with a delicate touch.
Over two months ago, the band released “Myth” as a free stream and download on the Internet as a teaser to the new album. Singer/keyboardist Victoria Legrand called it a “gateway,” as it also opens the new album. A scratchy beat and the flat ding of a bell offers a deceptively simple opening for a few seconds until the trill of high-ranged keys on an organ, accompanied by Alex Scally’s equally athletic vibrato harmony on a steady-handed electric guitar, somersaults in to overtake the lead. Legrand’s voice joins in as the steady thud of Daniel Franz’ drums grow restless, pounding on in double time. With a booming, patient voice Legrand sings, “Drifting in and out/You see the road you’re on.” The second she sings the first note, a deep hum from the other end of an organ rumbles in accompaniment. Halfway through the song, Scally heralds a change in tone with the lethargic, resonant strum of his instrument like a wave blowing apart on the rocks of a craggy shore. Legrand sings strong and large with a slight echo effect decorating her voice turning the words only slightly unintelligible. Certain words are not completely clear, especially during the chorus. But that is the abstract charm of this record, begging the listener to fill in the gaps with his or her own hearing and interpretation. A few strums later, and the song returns to its driving form for a moment before closing out on ecstatic tremolo guitar work.
“Wild” seems to have a similar construct, but the distinctions are in the details. It opens with a mysterious hiss and hum that could be the processed howl of an organ or the wind across the surface of the ocean. A stuffy, tinny beat appears before a swell of cymbals heralds Scally’s guitar, driving along in cascading licks that chime with a brilliance many might have heard in a song by the Cure. Legrand’s singing is more obscured, which rolls along like the shimmer of pulsing, undulating waves on the surface of the sea. It ends once again with Scally’s tremolo on the higher-end of the fret board. Legrand’s organ offers more of an ambient, drone effect— humming and shimmering chords below the ecstatic work of Scally and the pounding, deep, relentless beat by Franz.
The third track, which already saw release as a 7-inch single for Record Store Day 2012, also arrives with a distinct, spare intro only to be coated in layers of luscious sounds. As a processed electronic pulse and melody is overtaken by swelling organ chords and the boom of Franz’ drum kit, Legrand’s voice finally does not even pretend to sing in English, just pulsing, soft sighs of “huhs.” It makes for another luscious moment, but this time missing Scally’s guitar for the first half of the song. However, his licks return as the song strips back its wall of organs, to bring back the canned electro opening, providing Scally space to offer a beautiful, if subdued gem of a moment on rolling, sliding guitar. “Like no other, you can’t be replaced,” Legrand sings repeatedly, as the song calmly heads towards its fade out.
Three songs in, and the album has only offered a dynamism and familiarity that brings comfort instead of inducing nausea. Beach House crafts songs with a patience and deliberation that highlights and celebrates the players’ talents without sacrificing the entirety of the experience. Bloom never seems to falter, offering one aural treat after another. “The Hours” features a standout hook: a duel between Legrand’s pulsing organ and Scally’s patient slide guitar. Thrown in here and there throughout the album are subtle field recordings. The distant sound of kids on the beach and whispers of “something” or nothing at all open “the Hours.” The sound of cicadas often heard in exterior scenes of Japanese movies appears to cap off “Troublemaker” before disappearing with an odd whistle to make way for the chiming guitar and sighing voices of “New Year.” These are genius little moments that break up the coldness of the interior of a studio or, worse, the zeros and ones of a computer file. Bloom is the sound of nature and the musicians clearly understand their humble roles as channels to the sublime power of music.
The crowning achievement arrives during the trio (or quartet?) of tracks that cap off the album. “Wishes” opens on a soft, spare beat, like many of Bloom’s tracks. The band layers on the melodies with patience: the swell of a high-pitched organ chord, the patter of a canned rhythm track, the noodle of keys, the loop of a guitar line. Chords from sighing organs build as the voices pile up and overlap. Even a masculine voice appears to harmonize for a bit. Scally’s guitar detours into a driving, Gothic hook, pauses a moment to allow Legrand space to sing the chorus and returns with a high-pitched tremolo. The song turns back to its driving layers of melody, and there is a distinct pause for silence after the fade out.
“On the Sea” takes the album into a maintained, spare melody unheard of in quality until now. It fades in like a light gradually illuminating the darkness. Only a ringing guitar and sprightly piano melody bound along as Legrand sings, “Out on the sea we’d be forgiven…” Franz offers a persistent thump on the bass drum like the click of a metronome. The only intricate rhythm is the persistent melody of piano and guitar. A minute in and Scally’s tremolo work breaks it down and another shimmering hum emerges subtly from the depths. The song becomes steadily ecstatic as the twirls of minimal, airy organs build like the persistent repetition of the music of Philip Glass. Legrand’s voice is almost operatic as the music swells and then eases back to the same, spare opening. It fades to give way to the rumble of what again sounds like the wind slicing across the surface of the sea.
The hiss continues as “Irene” starts forming on the swelling hum of what sounds like the deep rumble of a Farfisa or Harmonium organ. An old, canned scratchy beat appears as the minimalist pulse of a guitar persists in a dynamic pull and tug, as if waiting to explode only to recede again. There is a little climb to bright melody before a detour back to the minor-key tug-of-war of dynamics. “Irene” seems to expand and reduce in dynamics until the layers of melodies pause, allowing Scally to explore every stroke of his electric guitar. He repeats and repeats and repeats each stroke. Every lash is a growing mark of anticipation toward the edge of climax. “It’s a strange paradise,” sighs Legrand, as other layers of equally repetitive melodies emerge and coat each other, unfolding in a patient, droney jam session of swelling organs, intricate guitar lines and splashing crashes of cymbals. As the sound expands on each refrain with Scally’s vicious tremolo, Legrand slowly and rhythmically repeats: “It’s a strange paradise.” The band seems to delight in exploring a simple groove that grows more entrancing with each refrain. It grows over the final two-and-a-half minutes of the six-and-a-half minute song to peter off suddenly in one last quiver of tremolo that echoes away into a fade out.
The finale of “Irene” is so ecstatic that the band grants the listener seven minutes of silence before a little tape hiss arrives to apply the bandage after the aural gutting from such a din of ecstasy. A steady tap of a drum beat fades in, and the quiet quaver of guitar accompanied by the high-pitched pulse of an organ emerge. Legrand’s voice bounces rapidly from speaker to speaker in an enhanced stereophonic effect distinctive from the other songs on Bloom. This hidden track is spare but seems to come from another dimension. It offers a quiet moment of relief at the end of one of Beach House’s grandest accomplishments. It has been a couple of years since this listener has heard an album that offered as complete a listening experience as Bloom.
Finally, on the vinyl format of this album, I have yet to hear it, but Legrand mentioned recording a lot of the album to tape, and of course, the band did enter a proper studio (Sonic Ranch in Tornillo, Texas) to spend seven weeks recording Bloom. Audiophiles agree analog tape is the best source for analog vinyl. Sub Pop have promised to send a copy of the double vinyl soon, so expect this post to see an up-date after a spin on the home hi-fi. Edit: the up-date has been posted: Vinyl review: Beach House – ‘Bloom’
Miami area tie-in: Local Miami-based indie record shop Sweat Records will host “The Bloom Happy Hour Release Party,” on the album’s official release date, this Tuesday, May 15, from 5 to 7 p.m. They will offer complimentary drinks for those 21 and over whilst playing the CD in its entirety. Attendees can also expect special prizes from Sub Pop Records. (Note: Sub Pop supplied an advance copy of Bloom in early April for the purpose of this review and the linked interviews with Legrand).
After bursting on the indie film scene in 1998 with American History X, director Tony Kaye has worked sporadically, to say the least. His next film would arrive more than 10 years later and was even better received, though very different in form. Released in 2006, some declared the two-and-a-half-hour documentary Lake of Fire the definitive film on the abortion debate. The man has a mind for social consciousness and it continues to show in his ambitious return to feature film making: Detachment. With an expansive cast that includes James Caan, Blythe Danner, Marcia Gay Harden, Christina Hendricks, Lucy Liu and starring Adrien Brody— all giving powerful performances— it seems such a shame the director does not explore them more than superficially.
The film explores an array of perspectives— too many perspectives, slipping into ungainly narrative overkill. It opens with a confusing setup from the get go: black and white footage of talking heads who talk about how they stumbled into teaching at public schools and grown to love it. Brody’s character joins the monologues, but his image is in color. He talks about educators with his own admiration. It almost comes across as a documentary on school teachers. But, no, this is a film about a substitute teacher named Henry Barthes (Brody) with a load of baggage, which appears in flashbacks on what looks to be 8 mm home movie footage, intercut a few seconds at a time into the film’s action. These flashbacks follow him at school, at home caring for a teenage prostitute (Sami Gayle) he took in from off the street and while he tends to his ailing grandfather (Louis Zorich) at a nursing home.
As the film plays out, Henry’s memory will be revealed. Though it offers a doozy of a dark trauma, it illuminates the character too late for the sake of the action that plays out during the majority of this meandering movie.
That action unfolds in quick snippets with shaky, handheld camera that sometimes slips out of focus trying to keep up with it all. It’s an artistic embellishment but also highlights the film’s issues. The narrative moves around so much it allows little room for believable, dynamic interaction between the characters, much less honest character development. As the educators act out in extreme ways: crying, yelling, popping pills, throwing desks, curling up on the floor in the fetal position to make announcements over the school’s PA, none of these people seem to genuinely connect.
The gulf between teachers and students is even more ungainly, as it should be in the dramatic frame of the school-based drama. However, when the connections do occur they seem contrived and clichéd. Barthes arrives at a failing school to sub in an English class for a month. He immediately sacrifices a child who talks back to the hallway as an example. Next, a foul-mouthed black kid in a do-rag gets up in his face demanding a sheet of paper and pen. Henry stands his ground and gives the kid what he wants, along with a little speech about understanding his anger. He also shows a gentle touch to Meredith (Betty Kaye), a chubby girl sitting in the back of the class. It is soon revealed she has an artistic talent that portends a troubled psyche, but no one seems to pay attention to it. Her father tells her she is wasting her time and Henry calls her talented. But the connections do not go deeper than superficially.
Henry is only in the classroom a few times in the movie. Reading from George Orwell’s 1984, he lectures his students on doublethink and ubiquitous assimilation, a great term for the hypocrisy of popular culture nowadays. The lecture offers a revealing moment, illuminating not only the character’s frustration with getting through to kids today but also probably the director’s well-intended motivations behind the film. However, one cannot throw in a dramatic speech in the middle of a film about dysfunction and put a bow on it. It is too easy to make this moment alone the connecting bond with the students and teacher. The film needs more than an array of hysterical, revolving door characters and one tidy moment of connection that seems to contradict the problems at the heart of film. While offering a grim look at the generational divide of today’s youth and the teachers trying to reach them through out-dated curriculum, the connection between Henry and his students seems a clichéd moment. Reading from a book long part of the high school curriculum is too easy and hypocritical a solution.
Brody gives a focused and powerful performance, as do many of his co-stars, but the camera should have stayed more focused on him and his need to come to terms with a traumatic past. Everyone has issues in Detachment, but a few minutes of the intimate, extreme problems of the other characters who never seem to connect with the main character only feels superfluous. Detachment might have been a better film with a longer runtime, allowing for more character development for the main characters. In the end, the film just feels like a lumpy, melodramatic mess that leaves the viewer feeling too little for too much.
Detachment is not rated and runs 97 min. It is currently playing in limited engagement at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, which hosted a preview screening for the purposes of this review. Detachment is also playing in the Miami area at the University of Miami’s Cosford Cinema and at the Tower Theater. It is also available on demand and at select theaters across the US.
Sami Gayle talks about her debut film appearance in ‘Detachment’ alongside Adrien Brody (an Indie Ethos exclusive)
May 11, 2012
For now, most have only seen 16-year-old Sami Gayle co-starring as Tom Selleck’s precocious but sensitive granddaughter in CBS’ acclaimed drama “Blue Bloods.” However, the Weston-raised actress is on the cusp of a major breakout in films. Next year will see her sharing the screen in a sci-fi thriller with Paul Giamatti (The Congress) and an actioner with Nicolas Cage (Medallion), but her introduction on the big screen arrives in a much-anticipated independent film: Detachment.
The film’s director Tony Kaye burst on to the indie scene in 1998 as the director of American History X, a film about a Neo-Nazi skinhead that helped make Edward Norton a star, and Kaye had not made a feature since. Kaye found Gayle working on Broadway and cast her as a teenage prostitute in his long overdue follow-up, Detachment.
Starring and co-produced by Oscar-winning actor Adrien Brody, the film offers a grim look at the generational divide between today’s youth and the teachers trying to reach them. Speaking over the phone ahead of her visit to the Miami Beach Cinematheque, where Gayle will introduce the film and participate in a Q&A, Gayle says, “We’re really trying to promote the film and promote the message of the film, which we think is very strong and socially relevant in today’s society.”
As can be expected from Kaye, Detachment features some heavy subject matter. Dealing with issues of sexuality, bullying and abuse, the MPAA has not rated the movie. However, Gayle thinks a more mature young audience can handle the film. “I think that, ultimately, that’s up to the parents,” she notes, “but I think that the message the film gives of parental guidance and about the effect that a teacher can have on a student’s life, as well as the flaws in the public education system and the good things about the public education system, I think it’s good for kids to see it.”
Detachment marks Gayle’s first experience in a feature film. Shot two years ago, she still relies on many lessons she learned working with Brody. “Every single day, Adrien said to me, going into a scene, ‘It has to be you and me against the world in this scene,’ and what he taught me is the importance of intimacy between the actors in a scene … I think Adrien is such a present actor that it was easy to portray the feelings that I had to portray in the film.”
Detachment is not rated and runs 97 min. It opened in Miami Beach Thursday, May 10, at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, which hosted a preview screening for the purposes of this story. Co-star Sami Gayle will appear tonight at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, Friday, at 8:45 p.m., to introduce the film and for a Q&A with the audience after the screening. Detachment also opens in the Miami area at the University of Miami’s Cosford Cinema, Friday, May 11, at 9 p.m. and at the Tower Theater at 9:15 p.m.