Detention into Very Special Ed and Learning Curve

John Davies as Mr. W

Several years ago, a film called Detention appeared at a local "art" cinema. It received a positive review from our local critic, and it sounded interesting. We went off to see it, and though low-budget and low-effect, it was quite effective. It never appeared anywhere else, and became one of those mysterious, one-time only, special events (which all such events were before the invention of recording). Two years ago the director, Andy Anderson, came to town with a recut version, now titled "Very Special Ed" (as another low-budget--and apparently dreadful--film called Detention was released the same year...and IMDB had them confused for a long time, but looks correct now: Detention). We went to see him and it. I sent the following e-mail the next day (in reply to his promise to get us a copy of the film). I still haven't received a copy, or a reply, but this seemed an appropriate place to post this. People who know me claim I hate every movie. Not true. There are many I enjoy; but many more not worth the effort. Here's my response to one:

Hi Andy-- Truly enjoyed my evening last night with you and your recut film. I saw it when it was here 3 years ago and loved it. I rarely agree with our local film critic--he likes way more than I do. But somehow the premise, as a former teacher, struck a chord with me, and I went, and laughed and wept and loved it. I spoke to you briefly, explaining that I had scoured the Internet for 3 years looking for a copy. I found a few sites--some positive, some surprisingly negative--but never a place to buy a copy. You promised me and my daughter one if we wrote to you. I am doing so. If you send us two copies, we will proselytize feverishly.

A few days later I sent a longer e-mail, full of what I liked and didn't. He had seemed eager for the feedback when we spoke. Maybe I was wrong. Somerset Maugham says: People ask you for criticism but they only want praise. I guess I didn't praise enough.

Dear Andy,

How's that for presumption? The promised longer volume from an admiring fan. The original stayed with me far more than nearly any other film (especially one that I only saw once), and second viewing places you in a pantheon of worthy comedies. We recently had the pleasure of seeing "Whatever Happened To Harold Smith", a film more obscure and hard to see than "Detention" was. Thoughtful, clever, funny, well-acted, well-photographed. A delight. And "Very Special Ed" fits right in.

Let me congratulate you. When I heard you say you chopped 30 minutes, I gasped. Now, I only saw it once 3 years ago, but I think almost all of the cuts were fine. We were discussing it on the way home, and felt that you removed some stuff showing what a hellhole Donner High was (a great title-I think you should sell those sweatshirts, though I couldn't see the name...Pathfinders? Explorers? Cannibals?--I'm serious, I'd buy one!) that was quite expendable. But the early caged scenes were too cut. As I remember (maybe incorrectly) they had to work to get clothes...and there was a lot more suffering before they bought in. That seems truer and clearer. These are totally self-absorbed kids, and though we saw that with their initial stupid remarks, the depth of their self-absorption seemed trivialized a bit. Joey's death seemed to come too fast too...they had to be terrorized a bit more for it to hit so hard. Also, Walmsely came off a lot nicer in this. I remember a shot of 6 of them lying hopelessly with excrement in their cages-boy, if today's kids don't "poop in their own bathwater" I don't know who does. Very powerful symbol, and one that conveyed angst very effectively. The closing cuts were fine as well-the six of them walking away was gratuitous. So-I wish for a bit more horror up front (though I do think you did a very good job of keeping them 'decent'; I remember feeling just a tad sickened by the nudity last time; either I'm coarser, or you judiciously cut the T, P & A shots.)

Problem 2. I'm hoping the titles are just temporary. As a person who works with text and graphics, I find those fake typewriter fonts annoying, because they are so clearly fake. On your version, the lower case a and k were especially irritating, since they are attempting to look like a double-strike and are not. Tiny point....but a good graphic artist would clean some of those up and move them around a little so they are not so obviously faked.

Problem 3: The discussion of unemployment sounded like a bunch of Marxist parrots squawking. I know the idea was to show they had leaned more than facts (and thank you for that...as we embrace tests with more and more glee we will see facts becoming ever the purpose of education, and as a person who knows more facts than most people, I am comfortable saying knowing facts makes you a good Jeopardy player but have no other value in themselves). But it would have been much better if they hadn't agreed so much; they are supposed to be thinking a little, not just reciting party-line doctrine, especially as it closed with a little labeling as to whether Keynes is a Republican or Democrat. And this is a topic many thoughtful people have powerful disagreements on.

On to the good stuff. And there is plenty of it! When I saw this 3 years ago, I would have called myself a conservative right-wing Christian. Now I call myself a loony right-wing libertarian Christian. Probably not a person you would think sympathetic. But I am. I recognize many things about this film that made it nearly perfect.

One: Education is a cumulative process. We start with small things, state capitals and such, and that knowledge makes us able to tackle both more sophisticated subjects and more complicated reading material. When I taught in the Kansas City schools, I taught 11the grade English to non-college bound Juniors. What an irony. The "college-bound" had no business thinking about it as they were barely literate. You cheated a bit by making these kids able-but unwilling-to read, mine were reading on what I would call about 4th or 5th grade level. I did a lot of oral reading, modeling the context, predictive, and analytical skills I wanted to teach. And as I did it, I was amazed at their tiny vocabularies. It hit me forcefully one day when I read a newspaper essay that used the word "obsolete" in the first sentence, and as the word came out of my mouth, I realized not one kid knew what that word meant. That is a deep hole to start in when you are 17, and that's where they were. So I had to back up, just as Walmsely did. I just had to back up a lot farther.

Two: Education is a civilizing process. I wish that were completely true, but it is the best hope we have in our society (lawyers are among the most educated folks in our society). The contrite girlfriend/attacker sounded a bit like the American POWs in Vietnam, but that is a crucial idea, one I saw repeatedly as a teacher. Violence is a response when we cannot think fast enough to do something else. I'm not claiming violence is never appropriate. Another Clarkism of teaching. My kids learned about human relationships from movies/TV, as many had none nearby to learn from. And how are people interacting in film: fucking or attempting to fuck (I would not deign to call it love-making as love has nothing to do with it), insulting each other (the younger and cuter the insulter, the better), arguing with each other, scheming, or fighting. When do you see people talking about a problem and attempting to resolve it? When do you see adults of the opposite sex interact without getting into bed? When do you see people learning and applying learning? Insult each other, yell and fight, and somehow things work out. What fatuous garbage. All these would make poor cinema, yet that is the only human relationship models many kids have. So they fight, fuck, and spew profanity. What else is there?

Three: Language is our most powerful tool, more powerful than electricity and cages. I love the scene when the art teacher comes upon them and is forced to sputter profanely as she cannot understand what she sees. And at the end. The snotty kid (I wish I knew their names, but sorry) sounds so pitiful with his "Fuck you, bitch." Could any utterance have less power at that time? Not to say profanity is wrong...it has power when it is underused. But for a world where fuck is the all-purpose adjective, I was glad to see them grow a bit and have their language grow with them. We glorify money, but the idea I tried repeatedly to teach was that what we do in the 128 hours we are not working is far more important than what we do in the 40 we are. Money is a tool, but only one tool. Language is far better for getting what we want. We are always selling ourselves: our wants, our plans, our needs, our hopes. Those without language-even if they have a lot of money-will never be able to express wants that are not available in the market where money is king.

Four: We make it together or not at all. Competition is great in some things, but only zero sum things. But we have extolled the competitive model so as to make it the only one acceptable. I really liked his encouraging them to work together; this is another cliche painfully extolled in team building and business seminars, but is not truly internalized often in our society. My students would have preferred to dunk on someone and lost the game than to have been dunked on and won. Yours became a team.

Five: Sometimes things are unfair. (I loved your affirmative action statement-3rd best laugh line.) But when it is, moaning about it gets nowhere. We run to someone to fix it for us, thus we have become a society so obsessed with fairness and balance we lose all touch with excellence and achievement. But somewhere inside us is the power to overcome. Joni Ericcson Tada, a lovely and intelligent lady who became a quadriplegic and then a Christian, says convincingly that she is not sorry about her accident, for she would never have learned what she has. But comfort-the ultimate good in our world-is more important than everything else, and we have made an important component of comfort not being offended or challenged. Kurt Vonnegut's "Harrison Bergeron" is the finest exponent of this I know.

Conclusion: lawyers control it all. Fear of litigation motivates far more behavior than a desire to do good. Unfortunately, fear of litigation is the only thing that keeps many people in their place. When I was in college, we had a teacher who made seducing young girls a priority. I was disgusted and appalled; I am certain in today's world he would not behave as he did, and we would all be better off for it. Yes, the girls bear a load of responsibility, but that was wrong; he abused his position. So, I prefer too many lawyers to too few. But they have changed our society for the worse, and they continue to ravage it all in the name of "protecting us".

I wonder if every smart teacher envies lawyers. They think "I'm as smart as those guys, and I bust my butt for ungrateful snots for 40 grand while they make a million a year." I've thought it, and it would appear you have too. And you know what...I do hate them and their ability to make the rest of us dance to their very undanceable tune.

I could go on. (And I am brave assuming you've even read this far.) I have not touched the sticky morality of kidnapping and indoctrinating. As I said that night, you are assuming educators have their students' best interests at heart. I know this is not true. I wish it were. I cannot imagine what made some people choose teaching as a career, but being burned out implies there was fire at one time, and these are the most fireless, passionless people I know. I bet many teachers object mightily to this film. They do not see the truth in "It's all brainwashing, it's just a question of who's doing it." No; they would violently object to this. But it is...how to make sure that the washing includes the ability to think independently?

In case you're wondering:

Best laugh line "No, I agree, you don't deserve an F, but it's the lowest grade we have."

Next: "I knew it! Art always gets the shaft!"

See my Amazon Review of Learning Curve Here.