By Charlie Jane Anders
April 13, 2012
Veteran music video director Joseph Kahn has created a film that challenges the limits of genre, to a degree that will make your head spin. But Detention isn’t just aimed at randomly being meta or ironic, Kahn tells io9 — rather, he’s hoping to reflect the reality of youth culture in the age of Twitter and Youtube.
Movie genres are trapped in a pre-internet mindset, says Kahn, and it’s time for them to die.
Detention is a hard movie to sum up — you can read our review here, but suffice to say that it’s about a dozen different movie genres smushed together with Juno-esque ironic dialogue. There’s time travel, there’s a slasher, there’s metafictional storytelling, and there are multiple layers of weirdness. Here’s what Kahn had to say for himself when we spoke to him yesterday.
He’s deliberately testing the limits of irony.
Kahn says this is not just irony for irony’s sake but rather an attempt to capture something intrinsic to today’s youth culture:
They say this is a meta movie. [But] youth culture today is super meta. It lives in a certain sort of retro world where ideas never go away because they have the eternal memory of the internet. So they have this constant sort of feedback with the past. So that concept of irony is a modern concept that all kids have. If you talk to any teenager today, they’re ironic. That is the natural state of a teenager today. So could [a movie] be too ironic? Sure. But I guess we wanted to test the limits of it.
At the same time, there are characters in the film who are singled out as “trying too hard” or “weird” for their encyclopedic knowledge of older pop culture.
Time traveling between 1992 and 2011 shows how much things have changed
One of the big conceits in the movie is that people travel back and forth between 1992 and 2011, and Kahn chose the early 1990s very carefully. He says:
If we went back to the eighties — which is essentially the 30-year span that Back to the Future had, from 1985 to 1955 — If we went from 2011 to 1981, I think that it’s just so obvious of a leap that the comparisons between a person in 1981 versus someone in 2011 is so wide of a difference that you’re not going to learn anything. It’ll just become more of a farce. But if you shift it just a little bit towards 1992, which doesn’t seem that far away, all of a sudden it becomes a statement. How different are kids today in 2011 [when compared to] kids in 1992? And the surprising answer is, very. Because in 1992 they didn’t have the internet.
For one thing, kids in the early 1990s had a much harder time finding out about older pop culture — if a kid in 1992 wanted to learn everything about the history of Led Zeppelin, he or she would have to dig up old books or go to the library, with your parents driving him/her there. Whereas now, you just have to look up the Wikipedia page via your phone and get the Cliffs Notes version. So kids today are much more knowledgeable about the past than kids in 1992 were, thanks to the internet.
He’s trying to break genre forever, because genres are relics of another era
The conceit from the very beginning was… to do a high school movie that contained all the genres and mixed them together, and cohesively tell a story out of it. I also wanted to challenge the audience to question the concept of genre itself. If you really think about it, what is a genre really? It’s a way of telling a story with a certain set of rules. And those rules are dictated by setting and location and time frame. Like, a Western is very distinct from a science fiction film, versus a romantic thriller. Whatever. Sometimes they do tiny little mixes or something like that. But today’s mashup society, where the internet has advanced people to a completely different level and people are not even viewing societal norms the same way they did before, what does it mean to be gay and in a romantic comedy any more? The rules changed, and that’s becoming more normal. Back in the day, you had a certain set of genre rules, because society had a certain perspective of, “These are the rules of human beings.” Well, the rules of human beings are changing, so genre rules have to change. So this is an experiment in terms of finding a new way of telling a story about kids today, using genre [to reflect] who they are.
Not only are kids today more comfortable with mashups when it comes to music and sampling lots of different types of pop culture, they’re also the least racist, least sexist, least homophobic generation of teenagers ever, in Kahn’s view. Also, geek culture has gone mainstream, and there’s way less stigma about liking geeky stuff. Says Kahn:
I hated growing up in the eighties. And these kids today — I’m not saying they’re all they’re all like this — but for the most part, they’re so much more advanced than they were before. So you can’t give them the same rules, because their rules are different… We are a much more blended society… Genres don’t reflect the society today. Genres are like some sort of formula that the studios use to market. They don’t even care if it reflects society at all. They just want to four-quadrant their movies [and appeal to the broadest possible mix of demographics].
He’s playing with teen culture he helped to create.
Kahn has had a long career as a music video director, creating clips for everyone from Britney Spears to Lady Gaga to Blink 182. So in Detention, he’s taking apart a youth culture he helped to put together in the first place — except that he doesn’t see it as lampooning that culture — if anything, he’s celebrating it. In one crucial “throwback” sequence, he features some big pop song tracks that he’s actually done music videos for, because those were the songs he could get the rights to use. And because of his job as a music video director, he hears every bit of pop music six months before everybody else, making him a “freak” — a 39-year-old man who’s hyper-aware of youth culture.
This movie has almost too many layers to count.
It’s a movie that acknowledges it’s a movie early on through an egregious bit of fourth-wall-breaking. And then inside Detention, someone is watching the fictionalCinderhella movies, which in turn feature someone watching the fictional Slashing Beauty movies, which in turn feature someone watching early 1990s porn — so it’s a movie inside a movie inside a movie inside a movie — that acknowledges it’s a movie. And thanks to the movie’s time-travel aspect, there are also multiple timelines and versions of reality.
This is a movie that’s designed to be watched more than once
You won’t get all of the narrative strands and all the connections between the different segments in the film the first time you watch it, says Kahn. Like, for example, a girl named Riley loses her shoe early on and that’s linked via a kind of “dream logic” to the slasher villain Cinderhella. The film feels like an anthology of linked stories, but once you rewatch it you’ll see how everything connects up. Because this film is a love letter to youth culture, it’s also intended to be consumed and re-experienced over and over, the way young people generally consume pop culture nowadays. “What I’m trying to do is make something that’s so compelling, that I know you’re going to watch it again — and when you do watch it again, you get something new out of it every single time… when you watch it again, you’ll see thematic statements come in… It’s like a music video in that way.”