Joseph Kahn’s Detention vs. the World of Pop

Pop culture moves fast but not as fast as Joseph Kahn’s Detention, a rampage through recent pop history that is so delirious–and so sharp about the cynicism ingrained in commercial pop’s almost hateful seductions of youth–that it sometimes seems one and the same with the target Kahn is satirizing.

Students at Grizzly Lake High School are being stalked by a maniacal killer who chops heads and limbs with a scythe. Yep, this Grim Reaper is Time itself–the digital countdown on products and branding and self-esteem that, for this millennial generation, have become the only measure of what matters. Such desperate dizziness describes current pop consciousness. The Grizzly Lake kids are interchangeable consumers–Riley (Shanley Caswell), Clapton (Josh Hutcherson), Ione (Spencer Locke), Billy Nolan (Parker Bagley) are all caught up in an existential whirl of bait-of-switch which is the consequence of capitalism’s rise and morality’s decline. Kahn, a music video director of true visual imagination (Britney’s Toxic, Kylie’s All the Lovers, Pussycat Dolls‘’ When I Grow Up), has co-written a script that comically expresses this fast-moving hysteria.

In the near-decade since Kahn’s still-remarkable action movie Torque, pop culture has gone through so many head-spins that satire has virtually disappeared from the culture. Torque was castigated for Kahn’s avant-witty technique. (He knew what was thrilling and absurd in action tropes and heroic bravado and yet showed the ability to parody it.) Since then, wit is no longer used to criticize behavior but merely to flatter it; to get people to buy more product, to train kids to worship the market, consume attitude and display vanity without thinking. Detention mocks that brazen self-satisfaction when an unbearably obnoxious high-schooler (“I’m Beautiful, Intelligent, Talented, Charmismatic and Hoobastank!”) meets the Reaper. From there, Kahn’s script rings the alarm on modern, cultural-wide homicide.

Kahn’s premise–combining John Hughes’ The Breakfast Club with Scream, then amping it with a mash-up of Back to the Future and Saw–would be diabolical if it weren’t so dead-on funny (harshest of Riley’s many put-downs is to tell a Spielberg-basher “I don’t speak Fanboy!”) and executed with drop-dead panache. There’s a continuous 360-degree pan through eleven years of pop song totems and teen fads that sneaks up on you as one of the most fantastically detailed set-pieces in modern movies. It’s also an homage to Brian DePalma’s vertiginous 360-pan in Blow-Out. Both DePalma and Kahn use their technical aplomb and social acuity to similarly encircle a moral void.

Kahn’s DePalma trickery may obscure his own considerable point about cultural overload (also DePalma’s unconscious panic). It is through cultural critique that Kahn avoids the moral confusion of Diablo Cody’s ludicrous Young Adult where Jason Reitman purveyed Cody’s undigested narcissism for Oscar-baiting self-pity. It carried high school petulance into adult pathology then tried to pass it off as a social statement–yet never honestly admitting a fascination with cool cruelty. (Kahn’s as hip to those games as Whit Stillman is in Damsels in Distress when Violet says “Cool people are not entirely inhuman, just enough to be cool.”) Detention gets at the urge toward cool that is intrinsic to pop marketing. Perhaps only an artist toiling in the marketing trade like Kahn can realize this complexity so clearly.

Detention’s other antecedents include Gregg Araki’s “Doom” generation trilogy–especially its pinnacle, Nowhere (which Kahn has the inspiration to mash-up with Cronenberg’s The Fly), the modern Gothic Final Destination movies and the works of Neveldine-Taylor, the avant-gardists whose brilliant, disreputable genre parodies have been completely ignored by the smart-about-movie elitists worshipping the literally hopeless Pedro Costa, Apitchapong Weerasthekul. Lars Von Trier and Michael Haneke–artistes who remain out of touch with the zeitgeist. (If Kahn were a sentimentalist, his theme song would be Fun’s lovely, yearning “We Are Young”–the millennial retort to The Smiths’ “There Is A Light.” But Kahn boldly douses sanctimony with a quirky diss of Meat Is Murder.)

Kahn’s keen pop critique earns its justification through self parody. Depicting his own directorial credit as vomit is silly and blatant yet the further Kahn indulges pop excess, he sketches a vagrant poignancy that nearly resembles Edgar Wright’s vivifying pop consciousness in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Kahn’s ’80s and ’90s pop references declare nostalgia for a time when pop wasn’t as frantic or ironic but could be genuinely touching. Now Riley is accosted “Who taught you how to make a snuff porno, Lady Gaga!” (Kahn has also helmed a Gaga music video but his sped-up cultural scrutinyderives from the hyper-aggressive consciousness of The Pussycat Dolls’ “When I Grow Up,” a song of unsuspected gravitas as pointed out by critic John Demetry). When pop adept Kahn conceives a romantic dance for Riley and Clapton he evokes both Dirty Dancing and Napoleon Dynamite, his vision suggests High and Low Surrealism.

Follow Armond White on Twitter at 3xchair