Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Post-irony and DETENTION (2011)

Detention (2011)
Director: Joseph Kahn
Seen via: Sony Pictures DVD (R1)
Rating: 4/10

I'm continuing to work through some newer horror, and Detention is definitely one the films that's provoked the most thought (and words)...

One of the primary deficiencies of modern pop culture is its tendency to treat being genuine as a failure of some kind. Somewhere along the line (I'd peg it in the late-nineties) it became cooler to feign interest with a smirk then express honest enthusiasm for the quirks and flaws tied up in a given genre. It's always easier to mock something than to improve upon it, but mocking ultimately brings nothing new to the table. In the last few years it seems like a watershed moment has occurred, when irony increased too much and it was simply impossible to attain higher levels of smugness. Tongues were poked straight through cheeks, smirks morphed into genuine smiles. If you can't beat 'em, join 'em.

This is the realm of post-irony, where things that might have been previously mocked are embraced wholeheartedly, throwing the consumer into a state of uncertainty. Can they really be serious? Can you tell the difference? In music, the oft-cited example is Die Antwoord, a South-African rap duo soaked in bad fashion, shock-theatrics, and midi synthesizers drudged up from decades past. In the past, this might have been played for laughs, but Die Antwoord fucking dare you to call them out. There are no cracks in the facade - this group is by all reasonable measure wholly serious about their (non-)schtick and carry on without a hint of self-awareness, seemingly oblivious to any outside criticism.
These individuals are not joking.
The world of horror also seems to be ripe with irony at this point. The debut of Craven's Scream perhaps marked the mainstream debut of this trend, and it's since appeared in countless other films in degrees ranging from subtlety to blatant attempts at being "so bad it's good" (a bullshit phrase, and one that's logically impossible in my opinion). It's not necessarily all bad though. Shaun of the Dead wouldn't be half as entertaining without the winks and nods. Who doesn't like a sly acknowledgment that you and the director are on the same page and love the same stuff? In small doses, there's nothing wrong with poking fun at a genre whose side you're ultimately on. The culmination of this trend seems to have happened this past year in The Cabin in the Woods, which lovingly tears down the slasher film with the aim (one hopes) of provoking others to build it up again. This is a film that literally cannot exist without its self-awareness of genre tropes. So where do we go from here? Can we expect a post-ironic horror film to make its debut?

I can't remember how I initially heard about Detention. It's one of those films that snuck onto my watchlist and sat there while I promptly forgot about whichever favorable review convinced me to write its name down. One thing is clear in retrospect: whoever wrote that now-forgotten review has pretty different tastes than I. It's not that Detention is a bad movie. I'm just not sure that it IS a movie.

Detention aims to take the slasher film and update it for modern sensibilities - i.e. the "Twitter" generation, if such a thing exists. Its means of attack is to throw so much at you so fast that you'll never have a chance to absorb it all. If I'm not bored, I must be entertained; Q.E.D. Steep this all in the trash culture of the 90's and you'll have a satisfying movie experience. Right? This ostensible slasher takes place in the same sort of ironically day-glo high school you might find in Heathers, or more recently, Kaboom. It's the only setting possible, really, given the target audience. We're introduced to the main characters thorugh a set of flashily edited fourth-wall-breaking monologues in which two girls named Taylor and Riley describe the opposite poles of the life-in-high-school spectrum. One's the loser, the other popular. Nerd vs. cheerleader. You've seen this before. The rapid-fire editing isn't a bad start. The only thing is... it never stops. We never get a break from camera tricks, flashbacks, flash-forwards, arbitrary chapter titles, digressions, and distractions. This movie is flat out terrified of being boring.

Do we look self-aware enough?
Onto the plot though. I took a while to start talking about the story, and that's also what you can expect from the film. If you wade through the flashy exterior, is there even a story? Sort of. The students of Grizzly Lake High are being murdered by a killer who's straight out of a current in-film slasher franchise ("Cinderhella"). Put that idea on hold though, because in between the pop culture references, and editing gimmicks, you'll barely notice until the last act. There are hints that this could have turned out to be a clever film, and at the risk of spoiling the last act or so, I'll say that there's at least a good reason for the pop-culture references. But the last thing this film needs is to mash up two genres when it barely gives one the time to develop properly.

Most of the clutter comes from an inability to let a single scene pass without making some sort of external reference. Right up front we're told by a character that "the 90's is the new 80's." God forbid. This film is absolutely immersed in the pop culture detritus of that decade and has no shame in fetishizing many things that I'm still trying to forget. I live in a cave far removed from any modern high-schoolers, so I can't vouch for whether kids today really are enamored with C&C Music Factory or Steven Seagal films. In all honesty, I think it's writer/director Joseph Kahn's dysfunctional attachment to his childhood seeping through into his script.

So does all of this serve a purpose? Is it post-irony, as it flat-out labels itself near the end? Does this film embrace the corniness of the past without pretense? In short, no. There's a willfull obliviousness necessary for that categorization, and nothing here is allowed to be subtle. References to music or other films can't be made without being subsequently acknowledged. It's a constant string of "see what I just did there?" Maybe it's great if you're too young to remember the 90's, but if you can, it's like being bludgeoned to death with a Kris Kross cassette.

Torrenting a movie that references a movie alluding to
another movie-within-a-movie...  I just OD'ed on "meta."
Detention doesn't give a shit about anything except seeming cool, an approach that makes it ultimately hollow. The longer I sit and think about it, the less substantial it seems. From some reactions I've read, it seems like there's a fair amount of people who love this film. Maybe I'm too old, or maybe I'm just tired of films mistaking rapid-fire dialogue and gimmickry for intelligence. Either way, I can't really recommend this as a good film. Style never trumps substance, no matter how much style you have. If your attention span is short enough to allow you to be entertained without the necessities of plot or continuity, then by all means, go rent this film. Or don't - you might be better off watching YouTube for a couple hours. Rather than embracing wholeheartedly the genre and era it claims to admire, it's just using them as a quick attempt at being hip. This is not post-irony - there's enough deliberate irony here to last me a lifetime.


  1. I got it to work!

    Hey, so your post gives me a lot to think through. I knew when I saw this movie and sorta loved it, that I would have to come up with a way of defending that love because... everything you're claiming about it is no doubt true.

    This month we're doing my favorite indie horror films from the past few years and this is one of them. I swear to God your post ALMOST made me reconsider including it, but then I decided that I'm up for the challenge. I have no idea if Kristine, my co-blogger, will love or hate this either...

    We jUST watched The Revenant, which we will discuss soon. I searched your blog for your review, CERTAIN, you were going to rave about it, and you were lukewarm on it! I am shocked! I think it's the best and most inventive horror movie I've seen in years (more than House of the Devil, which is the last movie I felt that way about...)

    This blog is awesome because the writing is tight as hell, and you've got good taste. And you force your reader to rethink things... I'm glad I found it.

    (P.S. The other movies I picked for us to cover are Strigoi, Super and John Dies at the End - all of which I LOVED. Am going to see search for your reviews in a bit. Almost picked Infestation too, but decided to nix it because I didn't love it as much on rewatch).

    1. Hey, Sean - Glad you figured it out!

      Detention really seems to divide audiences. I can see the appeal from a distance. For about ten minutes, it had me hooked. I just could not deal with its 90s-fetishization, constant name-dropping, and ADD editing. I'm actually glad you decided to write about it - you guys do a great job of dissecting what works for you in a film and what doesn't, and often you uncover things I've missed. I'm looking forward to reading your thoughts.

      The Revenant is a film that I wanted to like more than I actually did. I think I'd be more forgiving of a lot of the questionable elements now that I know the overall direction of the film - particularly the take on vigilantism in the second act. I just had a hard time getting past the homophobia and how iffy the race-related elements were. If you can look past those, it really is a clever film.

      I loved Super, and would likely rate it even higher after a rewatch (my rating rubric tends to lean slightly low). John Dies at the End was a lot of fun too, and if I wasn't encumbered by my love of the book, I would have enjoyed it even more. Strigoi has been on my 'to watch' list for a while, so I'll bump it up toward the top. And I haven't heard of Infestation before, but I'll check it out!

      Really glad you like the blog - I'm a big fan of your site as well. I love your format and how good you guys are at deconstructing films I *thought* I was familiar with. Also, you're one of the few sites whose reviews can literally make me laugh out loud. Keep it up!