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By Adam Nayman
No American filmmaker in recent years has put his money where his mouth is like Joseph Kahn, the director of music videos for artists including Britney Spears, Destiny’s Child, Eminem, Gwen Stefani, Katy Perry, Kylie Minogue, Mariah Carey, Lady Gaga, U2, and Wu-Tang Clan. These are big names, and for the part he played in consolidating their respective televisual images, Kahn—who was born in Texas, grew up in Italy, and went to school in New York before decamping to Los Angeles—became a wealthy man. And then he poured what he estimates is about $10 million into Detention (2011), a comedy-horror hybrid recently out on DVD and Blu-ray that took a year to find theatrical distribution and which is a long way from recouping its production costs.
To make an offbeat comparison—and critics of Detention have made a lot of them, from The Breakfast Club (1985) to Scream (1996) to Southland Tales (2006) to Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010)—Kahn’s venture here makes him a Korean-American cousin to Roy Andersson. The Swedish director toiled in the trenches of television commercial production for decades so that he might complete Songs from the Second Floor (2000), which used the aesthetic of his award-winning advertisements to attack the very institution of capitalism. Detention is also an inside job, but to call it a critique of the glossy product Kahn has put across with such panache over the years misses the mark. Instead, the movie is a like a survey course in pop culture in the post-MTV years, predicated on a thesis that’s so sturdy and reliable that it belies its basic optimism: that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
One way of demonstrating this sort of eternal recurrence in a movie is to work time travel into the plot, and Detention has some of that, although it takes a while to get there, what with all the other things going on at Grizzly Lake High: the big football game, the senior prom, the end-of-semester house party, the debate club meeting about the ethics of eating meat, the genetic mutations, the suicide attempts, and the mummified serial killer who may or may not have escaped from a popular slasher-movie franchise beloved of the student population. Anyway, the time-travel stuff is no more or less central to the plot than the rest of it, and while there is great pleasure in watching Kahn and his Nova Scotian collaborator Mark Palermo tie their various plot threads into a Gordian knot and then severing it neatly at the neck, the affecting thing about Detention is that its characters seem as flummoxed by the complications mounting around them as the audience.
Detention is a movie about vulnerable teenagers, a fact made clear in a confrontational opening sequence wherein a wholly obnoxious Mean Girl (Alison Woods) takes us Ferris Bueller-style through an average morning in her pampered suburban bedroom before being brutally murdered and dumped out the window, at which point the narrative baton is passed on to broken-legged social pariah Riley Jones (Shanley Caswell). On the one hand, it’s a relief to be rid of a such a potentially insufferable guide to the film’s universe; on the other, it’s sobering to see the death of a 16-year-old girl—even one who cites Hoobastank as part of her personal manifesto—played for broad comedy. The question is whether Kahn is pandering to his audience’s basest impulses or trying to work through them to arrive at some kind of reckoning. The rest of this deceptively glib and rather large-hearted movie gives us a pretty good idea of which it is.
Riley is an outsider, but she’s not the only one: all of the other Grizzly Lakers in Detention, even the nominally popular ones like Clapton Davis (Josh Hutcherson) and his girlfriend Ione (Spencer Locke), or football star Billy Nolan (Parker Bagley), are nurturing some private melancholy, and the true suspense lies not in whether they’ll band together to defeat the predator in their midst or save the world but if they’ll each be able to see past their own solipsism and recognize their shared continuity of experiences—of humiliation, rejection, anxiety, and exclusion and all those other milestones that are only funny in retrospect.
The same goes for Detention, actually, which is occasionally gruelling to watch—and not always by design—but which looks better in the rearview, when its underlying narrative contours and carefully prepared payoffs can be appreciated in full. But there’s also something to be said for Kahn’s particular brand of sensory overload. Not everything works, but you only need to bat .300 to make the Hall of Fame, and Kahn sprays the ball all over the place: I especially liked the graphical overload of the opening credits, the miniature remake of The Fly (1986), and the mise-en-abyme conceit of the bit where all the characters watch a pirated horror flick about characters watching a pirated horror flick.
And then there’s the show-stopping montage built around the suggestive metaphor of a hoodie-clad student (Walter Perez) who’s been in detention for 20 years. In a single swirling camera movement, Kahn parses two decades’ worth of fads, phases and flash-in-the-pans, filling the frame with lovingly recreated hairstyles, headgear, and band T-shirts while somehow never losing sight of the kids underneath them. If there’s something purgatorial about this vision, it also affirms the endlessly malleable surfaces of mainstream culture and the hardwired desires of teenagers to plug in. Not only does Kahn not hate the players, but also he doesn’t hate the game. He’s been playing it too long and he’s invested too much. With Detention, he’s all in.
Cinema Scope: It seems to me that Detention is a movie about pop culture that doesn’t denigrate its subject matter. It’s celebratory where a lot of postmodern comedies are mocking or sarcastic. It’s like you’re invested in your references instead of just making empty references.
Joseph Kahn: I wasn’t commenting for the sake of commenting, and I don’t think they’re empty references. As each year goes by, I feel like I have a new perspective on the world as an artist. There’s a cultural shift going on, which is one of the things Detention is talking about. Pop culture stays the same, but it’s also changing radically. More people keep getting fed into the system and coming out of it, which has to do with age. Every year there are new 15-year-olds. Having made Detention three years ago, my perspective on pop has changed. When I made Detention we were in a transitional phase. In 2010, we were still starting to react to the internet. I think Detention is a reaction to that.
Scope: You’re very active on Twitter, and I wonder if you made the movie now if Twitter would play an even bigger role in the characters’ lives? Would the effect of the internet seem even more heightened?
Kahn: I think I would have taken it further. But even with the way the movie is now there’s a big generation gap between people who can follow it and people who can’t. I wanted to test that boundary. I purposefully went into it like that. I wanted a movie that wouldn’t bore me. I have a very short attention span. In the industry I work in, it’s my job to be saturated with media. I know about things that are happening that other people who aren’t as tuned into those mediums might be missing. For instance, because I work in commercials, I’m used to thinking in frame-by-frame edits. When a graphic image pops up onscreen I have to look over it very quickly, and I have to process it very quickly. When I see credits in a movie, I sometimes feel like those credits are being held onscreen too long, for the people who are slow. I wanted to make a movie that didn’t wait for those people.
Scope: There aren’t any concessions in this movie, so I’m not surprised that you had to finance it yourself. Beyond the subject matter, or the craziness of the characters and the situations and even the violence, there’s the speed of the movie. It’s more than a studio would stand for.
Kahn: One thing I learned on Torque (2004) is that studios want you to push the edge, but they don’t want you to push it that much. They make a big investment, and they need to make it back. And most people who go see movies just want to be entertained, so you’re making movies for the lowest common denominator. The question they have is: Does the audience understand it? Does everybody understand it? Why does every movie have to be made for the dumbest person in the room? I always called Torque a dumb movie for smart people. If you’re a dumb person you’ll think it’s the dumbest movie ever. You have to have a certain amount of intelligence to see that I’m being dumb in a smart way.
Scope: Maybe the thing about Torque and Detention is that they’re not very high-handed about being dumb-smart or smart-dumb. You’re not necessarily throwing up scare quotes around everything.
Kahn: I’m making comedies. I want people to laugh. If I make a political joke in a roomful of people who don’t follow politics, none of them is going to laugh. They don’t understand what’s funny about it. Torque and Detention are made for people who watch enough movies to have the context to get the jokes. I wanted to make something that was calibrated specifically for a viewer like myself. Ultimately, I spent so much money on Detention to make a movie that would make me laugh. I learned something about comedy making Detention, which is that, at its core, comedy is a contradiction that you agree with.
Scope: Do you think that the characters in Detention would get most of the jokes in the movie?
Kahn: I think some of them would and some of them wouldn’t. I wanted to make sure the characters were like real teenagers. For whatever reason I’ve hung out a lot with teenagers, and I was noticing that teens today are so different than when I was growing up. I grew up in the late ’80s. As much flack as they get, they’re smarter than when I was a teenager. And there’s a reason for that, which is the internet. Kids have the same emotional values throughout history. They’ll hit puberty at the same time, they’ll get horny at the same time, and they’ll get laid at the same time. That will stay the same. But the intellectual context of how much information they have at their fingertips has changed in 20 years. People might say it’s too much information, but that’s nonsense, because the more information you have, it pushes you forward. One thing I’m trying to argue in the film is that the information has pushed them even further than you’d think. Retro culture exists today in a way that it didn’t in the ’80s and ’90s because pop culture has a memory now. Once you have a song, it stays on the internet, it stays on YouTube. It used to be expensive to be a part of retro culture. There were very specific niches. Today, all that stuff is mashed together and accessible. In the movie, there’s a whole joke about a girl who is in love with ’90s, and then she time-travels and she’s in the ’90s. And the time travel is absurd, but no more so than the fact that she loves the decade in the first place, on a certain level.
Scope: It is absurd that she has this fondness for a period that she didn’t live in, or that she ends up feeling at home somewhere before her time. I’m 31, so I’m young enough that some of the developments you’re describing don’t frighten or perturb me, but I’m old enough to remember how it used to be different, and maybe to have some of my own nostalgia for that. So while I can follow the movie, as you say, I also recognize that it’s doing something different, and that it’s newer somehow.
Kahn: You’re in an age bracket where you have to make a choice. You get to choose if you like this movie or not, and it’s a choice you will make in the first five minutes. Based on Twitter, younger people really like it or love it. Once people hit their late 20s or 30s, it’s 50/50 about whether they’re tuned into it. And when people are in their 40s and 50s, it’s a sliding scale, and they mostly hate it.
Scope: Does it matter to you that a lot of the opinion makers in film criticism are older? According to your math, it disqualifies them from really enjoying the movie…
Kahn: My entire career in pop has been dismissed as shallow or stupid or unintellectual and not interesting or credible. And that’s before I did Torque or before I did Detention. I’m the guy who did Britney Spears or Backstreet Boys videos. I have some big fans of my work, but I’m not considered an important video artist by a certain type of critic. The ones who embrace me are few and far between. I love criticism and I read it and I value it, but I know that I’m going to be dismissed by the vast majority, so why would I make a movie for them? All I can do is make any piece of artwork for what I believe in. I am completely broke off of Detention; I owe so much money for this movie. I didn’t do it for money. I did it because I thought I had something to say.
Scope: It’s interesting that you say you feel like an outsider seeing as how Detention is in many ways about the big, whirling vortex of the mainstream, and how easily people can get caught up in it…
Kahn: I produce very big pop work. I love how pop is a big destroyer of racial boundaries. I was talking to Jimmy Iovine, who runs Universal, and we were talking about pop, about an artist, and I asked how black this artist was. And he said that all pop is black. Pop music is black music. It’s true. It stems from rhythm and blues and soul music that black artists did and then white culture combined with it. To talk about exclusion, I was an Asian male in the ’80s in Texas. Try to get a date. See how that works out for you. Pop was a way to get into a culture I wasn’t part of, and then to try to control it and re-present it. Not represent it: re-present it. I re-presented it in a way that I thought became a more positive version. A lot of my stuff isn’t dark. I have a positive point of view. Pop is a unifying factor for the world. The fact that somebody in China or Bulgaria likes Britney Spears is an incredibly positive thing. White guys want Beyoncé. Hispanic guys think that she’s hot. It’s a free-for-all. It’s a new kind of cultural liberation. It just can’t stay the same. You have to shake it up. Pop is an ever-changing syndrome. The detention scene you’re talking about is doing two things. It shows how important pop is, and also how changeable it is. As people get older, what’s the first thing they say when they hear new music? They say it doesn’t sound like it sounded before. But then they also say that everything sounds the same. How can it be both? That’s a contradiction. Which is it? People are lying to themselves and choosing not to hear the music.
Scope: I think that each generation is possessive of their own music because they know how important it was in helping them to define themselves—or to define themselves against their parents. And then they can’t understand that their own kids or a younger generation can have those sorts of authentic experiences with their own music, or their own movies. It’s a kind of territoriality—like nobody else is allowed to participate in anything culturally significant.
Kahn: Things are processed more vividly when you’re younger. It’s a beautiful thing. It’s a brutal experience. But it’s a beautiful, vivid thing we all get to do once in our lives if we survive it. The thing that ends up happening is that as we get older we start resenting teenagers. I don’t like how youth culture is dismissed.
Scope: That seems like a big part of the horror genre since the ’80s: the movies are made for teenage audiences and feature teenage characters, but ultimately just kill them off. And teenagers are supposed to be so happy to see themselves onscreen that they ignore how expendable the actors in these movies become. The ’80s were filled with movies where teenagers were the stars, but also with movies where they were just there to become corpses.
Kahn: We set out to write a typical horror movie. We were trying to analyze where horror movies were now, and what they were saying. But as we got into it I realized I really don’t like killing teenagers, killing girls in bikinis. There’s something misogynistic about that, something uncomfortable. I felt bad every time we got to a place in the script where somebody needed to die. It didn’t feel fun to me. Horror was the bait that we were dangling so we could flip all the genres around. I read a book on Columbine and the thing that the media had latched onto was that it was a revenge killing. I remember being picked on at school and I remembered how you might always have those revenge fantasies at the back of your mind. There’s that male anger lurking about in the darkness there. In the book it says that these guys weren’t actually picked on—they had girlfriends, they had decent families. When they were going around shooting kids, they thought of it as a video game. They had no compassion. They thought they were in the right.
That lack of compassion is the interesting thing. High school is a microcosm like no other. Once you’re out of high school and you enter the real world, you become part of a demographic: you’re a lawyer and you stick with lawyers, or you’re a doctor and you stick with doctors, you become a football player or a film critic. But in high school you’re mixed together with everybody else, and everybody thinks that everything in their life is so hard. But they don’t realize the person watching them is having a hard time too. One of the conceits of the movie was to put each of the characters in their own genre: one of them is in a sexcapade, one of them is in a horror movie, one of them is in Clueless (1995). And then over the course of the movie they sort of start to peek over into each other’s genres. The only one who can’t see outside of his genre is Sander, who is a version of those Columbine guys. He has no backstory. We were trying to have a major discussion about why killings happen. Everyone else has a backstory. Sander refuses to see outside himself. Killing is not just a physical act, it’s about not seeing outside of yourself, or seeing other people as props. When you see a horror film, the people are just props.
Scope: It’s very ironic what you’re saying, because of course the first scene of Detention features a beautiful girl getting murdered quite graphically. But the scene seems to me to be about the callousness of having something like that happen in a movie.
Kahn: The shocking aspect that always freaks people out is that they’ve invested in that character, even if it’s early in the movie. Even if they hate her, they’re invested in her in a different way than they are in a horror movie because in a horror movie you don’t get inside someone’s point of view like that. You have enough to understand her. We spent five minutes on her point of view of the world and then ten seconds killing her.
Scope: It’s sort of a pocket-sized version of what happens in Psycho (1960).
Kahn: The shot where she’s thrown out the window is directly lifted from Psycho: the scene on the staircase.
Scope: A lot of writers have tried to inventory all the cinematic references in Detention, but I lost count about halfway through. Is it fair to say that you’re drawing from a wide variety of sources?
Kahn: My attitude is formed from things beyond movies, and it’s something that’s tricky for a lot of older film critics to understand. I watch movies, but I also watch a lot of commercials and music videos and internet shorts. I read comic books and magazines and pay attention to the layout of the advertising. I have influences from music and from fashion. Movies are important, but my average day is spent absorbing all of it. A lot of film critics latch onto the film references because that’s what they know, but there’s a lot of other stuff in there. It wasn’t made by somebody who’s obsessed with movies, but someone who’s obsessed with all of it: clothes, shoes, hair, lingo, texting. I do have a voracious appetite for movies—every day I watch at least two or three of them. I am a waste of a human being on a certain level, absorbing as much as I do.
Scope: Are there any very specific things in the movie that you think people missed, or that you’d like to take the opportunity to point out for the sake of posterity?
Kahn: If there’s one thing I want to clarify it has to do with Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, because a lot of people think that we ripped that movie off. We shot Detention two days after Scott Pilgrim came out. All our graphics had been created two years ahead of time. If anything, the overall tone was something I’d been experimenting with in commercials and I wanted to bring to the film. We even had to reduce some of the jokes that were eerily like Scott Pilgrim, but I think that Detention and Scott Pilgrim have different reasons for being the way they are. Edgar Wright’s idea was to make a movie that was exactly like a comic book, and it felt like a moving comic book with panelling and split screens. Detention isn’t a comic book, it’s more like watching people texting on the internet. We did not copy Scott Pilgrim, although I love that movie, and I think Edgar is immensely talented.
Scope: Did you like The Cabin in the Woods (2012)?
Kahn: No I didn’t, and I’ll tell you why. Detention and The Cabin in the Woods say very different things about movies. I think in The Cabin in the Woods we’re meant to be smarter than the characters in the movie. You walk in, you know the genre, you know the clichés, and it reaffirms how stupid the genre is and you get to watch other people being punished for that fact. The only surprise is at the end, and it’s not that great a surprise in my opinion—they justify why those things have to be clichés and then a big hand comes out of the ground. Detention works in the opposite way. It says, “You have no fucking idea how genres work.” Nobody in the movie can predict what’s coming next, and neither can you when you’re watching it. We believe that genre can be changed and that more can always be mined out of it. It’s two very different approaches to genre.
Scope: It got very good reviews, but I think it’s ungrateful of Joss Whedon to try to have the last word on horror movies that way, especially since he’s done good work by staying inside and honouring genre in the past, like on Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Firefly.
Kahn: I think a lot of critics loved it because it confirmed that they were smarter than movies. I don’t think it’s fair to movies or to critics. Critics want to believe in movies as much as filmmakers do, and to make a movie that just kowtows that way, that says that genre is dead and here’s why…that’s just a cop-out, in my opinion.
Scope: I wonder what you think of Quentin Tarantino, since he’s sort of the best example of a filmmaker who flatters critics or benefits from having them be uniquely equipped to spot all of his references.
Kahn: Sometimes I feel like Quentin Tarantino is the ultimate version of Peter Bogdanovich. He’s the Superman version. I generally enjoy the experience of seeing his movies. In his early movies, the references were there but they weren’t the reason to watch the movie. People would deconstruct them after the fact. Now people are more interested in the references before they even get into the movies, and that’s a weird place for him to be in.
Scope: I think things changed when he started Kill Bill (2003) with “The Fourth Film by Quentin Tarantino” in giant letters on the screen.
Kahn: At the beginning, it felt like he was making genuine genre films and other people had to come in and point out that he was ripping off Hong Kong films like City on Fire (1987). Now it’s like everyone’s in on the joke and we’re laughing before he even says anything.
Scope: And we’re also worried that if we don’t laugh, the people around us will think that we don’t get the joke, or that we’re not hip to it.
Kahn: Don’t get me wrong, I like his movies. I’m not afraid of pissing off the directors of big movies like The Cabin in the Woods or other fan favourites. I didn’t like that movie. I still like Tarantino. If I didn’t like him I would say so. He still has value to me. But do I enjoy his movies as much as I did when they first came out? No. The initial Tarantino experiences were so much stronger than what’s going on today, at least for me.
Scope: Is feature filmmaking now your preferred format?
Kahn: I go to whatever I feel at the moment. I’ve made basically one movie every ten years now. I had an opportunity to direct a lot of things after Torque even though it didn’t do very well. I just chose not to. That’s the trick for someone in my position. I can do a music video, I can do a commercial, I can make a movie, I can just Tweet—there are a lot of forms of expression. I will not make anything unless I have a reason to do it. Do I need to make 50 films in my lifetime? No! It’s going to get watered down and I only have a certain number of ideas anyway. I don’t want to be a bitch who just produces stuff while the quality goes down. If I make five amazing movies and I’m happy with them at the end of my life, that’s good enough for me. But the reality is that it’s not just a matter of what I want. It’s so expensive to make a movie. I literally can’t make another movie for a while because I’m just broke. Even if somebody just gave me money I still have all these debts from Detention. Who knows when my next movie will be, or if I’ll even make one? Richard Roeper ripped apart Detention, and he Tweeted at me: “I look forward to seeing your next movie.” Now you can say my movie is shitty and you don’t like it for whatever reason and I will respect your opinion. But you can’t tell me you’re looking forward to the next one because it’s not that easy. I put all my money into Detention. It’s not like picking up a paintbrush and starting over. It’s like getting in the ring and bulking up and when you’re knocked out, nobody wants to fight you anymore because you’re not worth it.
Scope: So is it a misconception that given your track record you could just work with Britney Spears or Eminem or Lady Gaga again and make it all back? You work with these otherworldly stars, and I think a lot of people assume that this means there’s a lot of money there for all involved.
Kahn: It’s a gigantic misconception. Detention cost more than I make in years. I had to borrow money from individual investors and pay them back. It’ll take me years even working as hard as I can. There’s no guarantee I’ll have a job. There are highs and lows in my business. Some years I’m a hot director and some I’m not. I always have to find the next big thing. It’s super competitive. I have to bring my A-game. I’m a boxer. It gets complicated, too. A lot of times in music videos you have to reinvest your fees into things. It’s not funny money. It’s real money. It’s a tricky situation. So with Detention, there was a humongous investment of my entire life into it. I haven’t made any money off of it. I wouldn’t trade that experience. I’m so happy with the movie. It’s what I wanted it to be. If I’m broke for the rest of my life then so be it. That’s what we’re here for. We’re artists. We’re supposed to make art, art that counts and art that we’re proud of. That’s what I did. I would do it again.