Pop Apocalypse

illustration by Brianna Ashby

According to the second law of thermodynamics, time flows toward entropy, into a world characterized by disorder and collapse. This principle also suggests that a moment in the past will be inherently less entropic than the present. In Joseph Kahn’s film Detention, the character Ione Foster travels from the present—the density and anarchy of 2011—to the year of 1992. She meets a high school student packaged loosely in flannel and a Soundgarden T-shirt, who informs her that Kriss Kross doesn’t qualify as “retro.” Ione turns toward the camera and exclaims, “I’m never leaving this place!” 1992 presents a clearer system of values to her than her own time. It’s a less chaotic universe; it responds to her desires. She can be the agent of disorder. She invents an abbreviation for guacamole: “guac.”

Detention mostly takes place in 2011, in the high school of a small town called Grizzly Lake. It’s a universe ruled by entropy. The main character, Riley Jones (Shanley Caswell), is suicidal. We’re introduced to her in the center of a suicide attempt; she pours a small mountain of pills into her mouth, only to spit them out when a song she loves issues from her alarm clock. Riley also has romantic designs on her childhood best friend, Clapton Davis, played by Josh Hutcherson with a captivatingly neutral cool. Clapton is, unfortunately, dating Riley’s former friend Ione, and is possibly in danger of being beaten out of existence by Ione’s old boyfriend, high school quarterback Billy Nolan. This seems like the general ecosystem of a teen movie, but structurally, Detention is a deeply nested meta movie; it qualifies equally as a teen movie, as a slasher film, and as inextricably knotted science fiction. Pop culture references overlap until they’re dense and unreadable as hieroglyphs. Clapton teaches himself how to fight by simulating the 1989 Patrick Swayze vehicle Road House; “Patrick Swayze didn’t get Kelly Lynch without ripping some throats out,” he says. Ione’s inflexible attachment to the ‘90s is mostly expressed through her temporal crushes: Michael Keaton, Luke Perry, Richard Grieco. “You’re as funny as Bronson Pinchot,” she tells Clapton when they start dating. (Clapton is incidentally attracted to her because of her excessive familiarity with the discography of Sting.)

Detention appeared in theaters in 2012, a year after its tour of film festivals. Critics were mostly bewildered. Richard Roeper found it “more exhausting than entertaining…a directorial drum solo,” although he also conceded that he “wouldn’t be surprised if it becomes a cult hit.” Peter Hartlaub of the San Francisco Chronicle suggested that “everyone must have been chugging Mountain Dew between takes,” and that “there will be young moviegoers who proclaim this genius, and more stodgy audience members who find it torturous.”

Their reactions are understandable. Kahn’s method of storytelling runs on the hysterical kinetic energy generated by its overlapping allusions; at a certain point Detention approaches something like infinite recursion. There’s a serial killer in the film who dresses as a collage of mummy and prom queen; the killer resembles Cinderhella, the titular character of the film’s internal horror movie. When the murders are reported to the cops, one of the officers says, “This attacker you’re describing sounds just like that movie.” “Cinderhella?” “Scream.” “It’s so obviously a conspiracy to make everyone think I’m a total loser making pre-emptive mid-’90s pop references,” Riley tells Clapton after the second attack. Even Kahn’s own filmography is consumed in the density of the film’s metatext. “I just mean, it looks like Clapton’s going to ask out Ione,” Sander, Clapton’s best friend, says. “Which makes about as much sense as that stupid movie Torque.”

Detention is Kahn’s follow-up to Torque, a fluorescent and incoherent action movie mainly defined by the inhuman drift of its camera. In Kahn’s movies, cars and motorcycles and axes move through the air and the camera follows them through walls, through surfaces, into impossible space. You can detect the rhythms of Quentin Tarantino, David Fincher, and even Richard Kelly in Torque and Detention, but the scenes shift too quickly to be isolated to one aesthetic. It’s as if Kahn’s films obey a scattered, dilettantish pulse. His camera is also remarkably sensitive to sound and music, which is most likely inherited from his extensive work as a music video director. At this point he’s famous for directing Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space” and “Bad Blood,” but my favorite music video of his is “Always” by blink-182, in which three horizontally layered split screens melt into and detach from each other. In each, a member of blink-182 is pursuing the same woman through a revolving shot of her apartment; the scenes are almost identical, so whenever they merge it’s like three subtly different timelines collapsing.

In Detention, time doesn’t pass. The characters move through it and alter its substance. Time itself has a kind of invertebrate structure in the movie; it drifts forward, backward, into adjacent pockets of space. A revelation about a character will occasion a flashback, and these flashbacks themselves will manipulate the timeline; when Ione travels to 1992, her mother inhabits her body in the present, which is why her only frames of reference are ‘90s hunks. Later in the movie the characters discover that the world’s about to end; they make this discovery while stuck in detention in 2011, but the explosion that unmakes the world actually occurs in a chemistry class in 1992.

The movie seems to conceive of time as less of a thermodynamic arrow than a kind of cubist block. In the novel The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin, a physicist named Shevek develops a theory of simultaneity, which describes time as something that doesn’t flow as much as happen all at once, past and present infinitely occurring and contaminating each other. “Well, we think that time ‘passes,’ flows past us, but what if it is we who move forward, from past to future, always discovering the new?” he says. “It would be a little like reading a book, you see. The book is all there, all at once, between its covers. But if you want to read the story and understand it, you must begin with the first page, and go forward, always in order. So the universe would be a very great book, and we would be very small readers.” Shevek elaborates that people do not experience time exclusively as succession: for instance, in dreaming, time and its engines, cause and effect, can become displaced or meaningless. “In a dream there is no time, and succession is all changed about, and cause and effect are all mixed together,” he says. “In myth and legend there is no time. What past is it the tale means when it says ‘Once upon a time’?”

This is an opportunity presented by fiction, that the nature of time can be warped until it resembles our actual experience of it, in reality and dreams. Time is unstable fabric, able to expand or contract depending on how we move through it or how we observe others moving through it. Is a minute in conversation the same shape as a minute of solitude? Detention distorts this principle even further, until time is so shapeless that any adjustment will cause a rupture in some distant beyond or before.

When Sander is revealed as the agent of the apocalypse, the reasoning behind it is craven; Riley wouldn’t have sex with him, so he orchestrated the end of the world. Sander is a character we only access through his desperation and his references, which are themselves so narrow and hollow that they are tiny rhetorical ends of the world. He wears a Star Trek uniform to a party; before he kisses Riley he says, “Engage.” “Sander saw no future for us because he lived in the past,” Riley says at the end of the film. “So his experiment was to end time itself.”

Is it strange that a movie so densely referential would characterize nostalgia as a form of apocalypse? Pop culture references themselves can resemble collapsed universes, contextless and meaningless collisions of time. The most legitimate form of travel, the film wants to say, is simply living. In The Dispossessed, Le Guin similarly characterizes Shevek’s own experience of time: “Everything that had happened to him was a part of what was happening to him now.” Riley nearly says this outright. “We now know the greatest experiment isn’t traveling through time or making bombs,” she says. “The only way to change the past is to change the present.” But then she’s distracted by another form of time travel, one in which time is compressed and becomes repeatable. She interrupts her monologue and enters a kind of reverie. “…I can’t think to this song,” she says.