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Tribeca 2011: “Detachment,” Reviewed

Tribeca 2011: “Detachment,” Reviewed (photo)

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Tony Kaye didn’t disappoint. In front of a packed house at the BMCC Performing Arts Center during the Tribeca Film Festival, the British director that once wanted his name replaced with “Humpty Dumpty” on “American History X” came out onstage with the greying beard of a hermit, the glasses of Sigmund Freud, a black guitar and a Whole Foods shopping bag to mumble an introduction of his film “Detachment” before breaking out into a full-blown song that ended with the audience chanting, “I don’t care.” (A sample lyric: “Brainwash my confidence away…begging for peace of mind may seem selfish and unfair…I don’t care.) Adrien Brody was there, too, saying some heartfelt words about how his father was a public school teacher, but all eyes were on Kaye, who implored the audience to look for the color red in the film by placing a piece of paper drenched in red ink in front of his face and demanding “Watch it. Watch it – the color red…look for it! Listen to it.”

I found myself unable to do that last part, but was also unable to look away from “Detachment,” which has its title derived from Albert Camus and introduces itself as “A Tony Kaye Talkie.” Soon, a chalkboard is filled with the credits of each of the actors, spliced between black-and-white clips of real-life teachers talking about their frustration until we see Brody’s substitute teacher Henry Barthes ruminating on the state of education and the psyche of educators. (Or perhaps it was Brody himself, since he sports a goatee he doesn’t in the classroom and said something very similar before the film about the complexities facing teachers today in his own introduction.)

Despite quick cuts and dutch angles to the contrary, the story is actually relatively simple: Barthes shows up to a high school for a month where the principal (Marcia Gay Harden) is clinging to power while she’s under siege from higher-ups interested in test scores, nearly all the teachers feel powerless and the kids are well beyond rescue, angry at a system they can only intuit has let them down and show it by wearing wildly inappropriate clothing and killing cats with hammers for sport during recess. An answering machine is shown frequently taking calls from pissed-off parents and resigning teachers and all the while, Barthes has concerns outside the classroom between caring for his father (Louis Zorich) and taking in a teen prostitute (Sami Gayle) he sees abused on a bus ride home.

Kaye’s worldview remains unpleasant and decidedly un-P.C., but all with the sole intention to provoke. African-Americans are portrayed as animals that need to be tamed, Christina Hendricks appears in the film mostly to be spat on (by a black student, of course, who is “going to get my n***ers to gang-rape you”) and serve as female company for Brody, and nearly every situation is taken to its extreme (and mostly predictable) end. However, Kaye’s lack of subtlety is made up for by his facility with images, which even as they include Nazi propaganda and gonorrhea-infected vaginas (in the film’s funniest scene, no less), somehow work in that indescribable harmony that’s the mark of a true artist.

There’s no doubt that’s what attracted such a strong cast to “Detachment,” which has far too many great actors than know what to do with, much like Lars von Trier’s “Dogville,” and it’s no surprise a survivor of that film, James Caan, comes away with the most winning turn here as a teacher whose wicked sense of humor gets him through the day. Likewise, Blythe Danner has enough clout to command the screen in her few scenes as a rebellious veteran. Less successful are the fully committed performances from Tim Blake Nelson and Lucy Liu, who both are marked for punishment early and receive it throughout as long-suffering educators in the midst of psychological breakdowns. Other members of the faculty include William Petersen and Doug E. Doug, who have about the same amount of dialogue, which is to say nearly zilch, while Bryan Cranston comes in as Harden’s husband to suck her toes and leave.

“Detachment” is very much hit-and-run that way, though it’s got a solid anchor in Brody, who can consider himself redeemed for that Stella Artois commercial if it meant taking on something dangerous like this. Due to Kaye’s unusual shooting methods – closeups where an actor’s face is dead center of the frame, shooting upward from the ground, etc. — Brody is occasionally left high and dry as an actor since when an unusual angle is employed, it becomes apparent that he’s acting, but with the film flipping back and forth between Barthes in the classroom and sitting by himself analyzing what he and other teachers go through, it suggests that the performance is necessary to communicate and deflect with students whose attention spans have been winnowed in this day and age.

In many ways, it’s that ADD generation that Kaye may connect with the most since it works far more at a subconscious level and practically, the director appears to be far less interested in answers than throwing grenades. Many of them are the same that have been brought out in previous battles — the downfall of public education is the fault of absent parents, teachers who can’t properly connect with their students, an emphasis on test scores and the dehumanization that takes place of both pupils and educators within the walls of the schools – only here, they have the ability to sear.

Hours after seeing “Detachment,” I’m not entirely sure if I learned anything from it or even if I felt its moments of self-indulgence (of which there are many, from scorched classrooms to Barthes’ constantly rhetorical questions such as “Haven’t you ever had enough?” to Kaye featuring his daughter Betty in the role of a suicidal artist who sees salvation in Barthes) outweighed what felt right about it as satire or hell-raising or somewhere in between. But what I do know is it shook up an all-too-polite debate on education, not to mention a film festival known for programming safe choices, and the result is something that, unlike the characters in “Detachment” who struggle with retaining their humanity, you cannot disconnect from.

“Detachment” currently does not have U.S. distribution, but will play the Tribeca Film Festival on April 27th, 29th and 30th.

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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.

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Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…

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IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.

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IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).

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IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.

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IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.

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IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.

Jenn: I LOVE ISSA RAE!

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IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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