'Detachment': A Movie About Teachers, Not Education Reform

A conversation with filmmaker Tony Kaye about his latest project, which is set in a school but avoids making a political statement

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Paper Street Films

Profiles of British filmmaker Tony Kaye often begin by dredging up the controversy surrounding his American History X (1998), which included intense battles with New Line Cinema and star Edward Norton and an attempt to disown the final cut. They're sure to mention his self-admittedly crazy behavior at the time, which left him unemployed in Hollywood for about a decade. Typically, they'd also hail Kaye's music video work, for artists such as the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Johnny Cash, and his evocative abortion documentary Lake of Fire.

What they won't do, or wouldn't before now, is spotlight Kaye's humanist filmmaking leanings. Deep-rooted emotional truths are on full display in Kaye's films, and you can't miss them in Detachment, his latest, which offers a dreamlike evocation of the burdens facing teachers at a failing New York public school.

Adrien Brody stars as one of those educators: a disaffected substitute named Henry Barthes who struggles amid his tortured personal life and tumultuous classroom.

Here, a serene and optimistic Kaye, who seems much different than the former rebel, speaks about the ensemble film. Detachment also stars James Caan, Lucy Liu, and Marcia Gay Harden, among many other notables. It's currently available on demand and begins a limited theatrical release today.


Why is your impressionistic cinematic approach right for a story about teachers?

Let me state firmly that maybe it was a script [by former public school teacher Carl Lund] about the breakdown of the American education system, but I never made a movie about that. Not for one minute. I made a movie about the issue of abortion called Lake of Fire and I consider that to be a solid movie about abortion, but Detachment, for anyone who goes to see Detachment because they think it's sort of an indictment or a comment about education is going to walk away unhappy. It's much better your just stumble into this movie and don't even know why you're going. Or maybe you're an Adrien Brody fan, or something.

So what is it about?

It's a movie about people. It's a movie about humanity. It's a movie about, really, "love beats death." It's a movie about those kinds of things, and it's just sort of a microcosm of our lives. ... It's not deep enough [and] it's not rounded enough, to be those other things. It's like [how] Star Wars isn't a movie about robots fighting each other. It's about something else.

Would you prefer that the movie was publicly framed and talked about in some way that didn't focus on the teacher angle?

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Robert Levin writes about film and other entertainment topics for amNewYork, Inside Jersey, Backstage, and elsewhere. He is a member of the New York Film Critics Online guild.

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