George Lucas Educational Foundation
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The least productive current narrative about public education goes something like this. Our schools, especially high schools, are failing. There is a predominance of ineffective teachers. Short of closing bad schools, firing bad teachers and sending kids to charter schools, there is little we can do to change this. Most good teachers, buried alive in the testing mania, are impotent to deal with the system. For the general public this narrative, partially reinforced by films like Waiting for Superman, provides a misguided message of total failure. For teachers struggling in underfunded schools, it encourages anger and self-pity rather than productive action.

To then have a major film come along that reinforces this narrative and takes it even further into bleak anger and despair infuriates me.

So it is with the new film Detachment, and what makes this film even more concerning for me is that it is good enough to be potentially seductive for many viewers. The cast, which includes Adrien Brody, James Caan and Marcia Gay Harden, is first rate. So is the directing, and as a character study the film is engaging. However, this is also a film about a public school and, as a commentary on education, Detachment is a disaster.

Movies about teachers and high schools have rarely been realistic or enlightening. The teachers are most often either heroic Lone Ranger type characters who magically reach previously unreachable students and transcend bad schools (e.g. Dead Poets Society, To Sir With Love, Dangerous Minds, Stand and Deliver), or total incompetents (most of the other teachers in any of those films). The schools are usually terrible, with difficult students and dim administrators.

But at least most of those films were mildly hopeful. Detachment takes the struggle of teachers and schools to a new level of relentless bleakness.

Two of the purposes of cinema focused on social issues ought to be enlightening the audience and illuminating ways to solve our problems. Instead Detachment, reinforcing a counterproductive narrative, is more likely to become part of the problem.

None of the teachers are good, Brody's Henry Barthes included. He reaches kids on a personal level but mostly just preaches to them. He says, "If you have something meaningful to share, they'll listen." And share he does. And they listen. He's a good preacher.

All the teachers are disillusioned. Many are in despair. They all wanted to make a difference but have failed, undone by the kids, the parents and the system. As one teacher says, "We're failing. We failed in the sense that we've let everyone down, including ourselves." Another one leaves a ranting voicemail ripping kids and parents before he commits suicide!

The teachers' view of the students is cynical. One teacher who pops pills all day says, "If I didn't take these things, I'd be committing mass murder with half of these parents. I'd be helping them throw their f______ kids out the window!" The school psychologist has a total meltdown and shouts at a student, "You are a shallow, disgusting creature . . . . Your life will basically become a carnival of pain, and when you can't stand it . . . it will get worse!"

The students themselves are mostly reprobates, disinterested and/or angry and/or lost. They continue the long tradition in films about high schools, reinforcing the narrative of adolescent pathology.

The central student character is a stereotypical bright, lost kid, demeaned by her father, overweight from binge eating, and isolated from her peers. In the most telling moment in the film, she comes to Barthes and he is too emotionally crippled to help her. The scene reinforces the pervasive theme of teacher impotence.

The only group that comes off worse than the teachers and kids is the parents. The few depicted are terrible, and only two show up on Open School Night.

The ending perfectly highlights the central message. Barthes reads lines from The Fall of the House of Usher: " . . . I looked upon the bleak walls . . . . upon a few white trunks of decayed trees with an utter depression of soul . . . There was an iciness, a sinking, a sickening of the heart," while we watch thousands of ripped out book pages blowing across the desolate school corridors. Fade out. Get the picture?

By the end of the film, I wanted to fire the teachers and close the school. This is not good!

Disillusioned teachers, lost in struggling schools with little support and test score pressures, could find the film a cathartic validation of all their frustrations. The film plays into those feelings very effectively. For critics of our public schools, this will validate the half-truths they already believe.

But in its representation of public schools, the film is a simplistic rant. The screenwriter, Carl Lund, is an ex-teacher. It clearly was therapeutic for him. That doesn't make it good for us, and especially not for anyone trying to deal effectively with our present problems in public education.

There is nothing illuminating here. There are no groups of teachers working collaboratively to bring about change. There are no bright, mature students challenging teachers or offering to help them change things. And there are no enlightened, committed parents.

Why not a film about really smart, dedicated, politically savvy teachers and students who take on a group of dim political leaders and turn their school around? Imagine the impact a film with that narrative could have.

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Paul Bogdan's picture
Paul Bogdan
Student-Centered Secondary Math Teacher

Detachment looks at several dark aspects of some schools and some people, exaggerates, and gives the viewer something to think about, and it is entertaining. The students, counselors, teachers, administrators, parents, book publishers, and district personnel exist as portrayed in the movie.

The movie implies that every person is responsible for their own life and suffers (or benefits) from the consequences of their own decisions and actions. It also shows that schools (and children) face the huge task of transcending societal change and bad parenting.

The movie is dark, depressing, negative, not about the solution, and does not portray a typical school. However, since when are movies and TV about realism? It is a good movie. Food for thought is a good thing.

M. A. Hauck, M.Ed's picture
M. A. Hauck, M.Ed
Life Skills Support Teacher

As well it should! A little "Taxi Driver," a little "...And Justice for All," plus a little "Blackboard Jungle" and you have "Detachment."

Anyone who has taught at-risk populations in urban environments (as I have) understands the pain and frustration of trying to correct decades of liberal social engineering and its damaging effects on the traditional family unit in those environments. When the family unit fails to do its job, the child's chances of failure will increase. Why? There's no one at home to provide proper guidance and teach proper values like personal responsibility, self-respect, and respect for others. Teachers are expected to be substitute parents. That's nonsense.

I have also taught in residential treatment facilities with adjudicated youth diagnosed with emotional disturbances. One learns to deal with kids cussing in their face all day, otherwise, they fail. Once one understands why they act that way and not take things personally, they're OK. But some people crack after awhile, like Lucy Liu's character. James Caan's character was the most resilient. A daily dose of an effective SSRI does wonders!

Why teachers fail in this environment is due to inadequate training. They should all be trained in special education in order to deal with kids functioning well below grade level.

The film did a great job at dealing with how underlying emotional traumas do affect how one functions. Barthes is detached due to his own childhood trauma over his mother's suicide. Erica needs an adult she can confide because she's been abused and abandoned. Meredith is rejected and bullied. Most everyone hurts in this film. Barthes tries to feel and show compassion. He succeeds with Erica but not with Meredith. The system is stacked against him. The "little guy" gets crushed. Barthes was the "failed saint."

The film had bleak moments but hey, that's real life. It could have been even MORE bleak without the sappy piano and songs. But that's OK, I don't look to cinema to feel good. I watch films to learn about aspects of the human condition.

It's a shame we don't have a writer like Bertolt Brecht around these days. He was a master and alienation and detachment between the audience and the material. He would have done a great job directing this film. A lot less hammy-handed than Tony Kaye, I'm sure of that. His "American History X" had some of the same problems.

Mark Phillips's picture
Mark Phillips
Teacher and Educational Journalist

Thanks Paul.
After responding to M.A.'s posting I don't want to be repetitive.

I obviously agree that food for thought is a good thing. I also agree that the film is entertaining.
And I agree that there are people out there like the ones portrayed in the movie. I also think there are aspects of many schools captured in parts of the film.

I'm just glad that in the real world of education all of these rarely come together in one school!

I also know that films are rarely truly realistic, although indie films frequently do a better job of that. But I think there is something a bit dishonest about creating the illusion of realism, trying to sell a film as realistic, and then using it to convey a highly skewed very personal message.

I still think it tells us more about the emotional experience of the screenwriter as a teacher than about schooling. If it had been made quite clear that this is what it was, I would have valued it more.

And again, thanks for taking the time to read my piece and to respond. I really enjoy these responses. I just wish there were more!


Mark Phillips's picture
Mark Phillips
Teacher and Educational Journalist

One of the great things about film is how effectively they can be used to evoke feelings and stimulate dialogue, one of the main reasons they're so good in teaching. And almost always the differences in perception are part of the fun. In that spirit I enjoyed your response, as much as you and I differ. Too bad we can't have the exchange in person!

I do agree with you about the Liu and Caan characters, I also do want you to know that I often love very dark films, so much so that some people very close to me roll their eyes when I recommend another dark one.

I felt that this one crossed over the line into a caricature of the dark dismal school and depressed teachers. As you'll see in my next column (a trailer for that one!), my daughter teaches in a school that challenges her inherent hope and optimism every day, but like most, and like some of the "targeted" schools I know in San Francisco, it is also filled with some great positive thinking and acting teachers (even some older ones!), some really great kids, and some very involved parents.

I don't think you and I disagree very much re the problems of schools, though we clearly differed re the message of this film.

I appreciate your investment and that you took the time to thoughtfully respond. As I noted, I wish we could sit down over coffee to discuss it further!


M. A. Hauck, M.Ed's picture
M. A. Hauck, M.Ed
Life Skills Support Teacher

Mark: I'm sure you recall these as cinematic examples of institutional failures to a tragi-comic degree ... two of them written by the late great Paddy Chayefsky (The Hospital, Network) ... plus you have to add Dr. Strangelove, The Loved One, The Magic Christian--all three written by another great satirical writer Terry Southern. Wag the Dog (David Mamet screenplay).

Perhaps Detachment was a bit too heavy handed in retrospect. It could have used some more black humor bits through out. Chayefsky and Southern were masters at that. Well, the closest we have to those writers these days is still Mamet. Forget Aaron Sorkin! Hehe.

There was one film back in the 80s called "Teachers" with Nick Nolte and JoBeth Williams that worked in that same Network/The Hospital vein. I recall that it was both funny and sad without being trite.

Vasilis's picture

Ok you might have felt like shutting down schools after watching Detachment but don't make the mistake to assume that most others felt the same way. I feel you are judging very unfairly the movie as having a goal that, to my eyes, this film has not. My first thoughts were that people need to listen to their children more and let them know they are there or then and they care about them. I didn't see this film as the portrayal of a completely dysfunctional school system but rather as the portrayal of failing families and the destructive effects of the media.

Mark Phillips's picture
Mark Phillips
Teacher and Educational Journalist

I totally respect your different perspective Vasilis. The great thing about discussing movies is the way they provoke very different viewpoints.
I agree with your comments about its portrayal of families and the media. Whether that trumps its very limited and negative perception of teacher attitudes and actions is a personal call. For me the latter dominated. For you it didn't. Different perceptions that are equally understandable and justifiable.

More important to me is just the fact that you took the time to see the film, read my column, and to respond. So thanks.

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