(The twenty five is an examination of the twenty five films that made me a cinephile. These aren’t necessarily what I consider the best movies, nor are they necessarily my favorite. Though in some cases they are both. Instead these are the films that made the biggest most indenialable impression on me. Films that if they hadn’t hit a certain way at a certain time I would not be the same film goer that I am today. They’re the twenty five.)
We bring a lot to the movies we watch. It’s no secret that personal experience affects how we watch a movie, it’d be odd if it didn’t. Does Broadcast News have more significance for me then someone else because I lived out the Albert Brooks leg of that particular love triangle? Does Dogma intrigue me more then most because I share Smith’s Catholic School education, fascination with the possibility of the divine, and engrained smart ass streak? Does The Royal Tenenbaums hit just so because I see so much of myself and my family reflected in it? The answer to each is Undoubtedly.
But every so often a kind of reverse osmosis happens and a movie insinuates itself into your life and being. I’m not talking about the dazed, narcotic, happiness that comes from the first viewing of a movie that you know will become a favorite or one that articulates something within yourself. I don’t know if I can even quite put it into words. All I know is that watching Donnie Darko is more like taking a bite out of one of Proust’s Madeline’s then watching a movie. I watch it not alone but with my sixteen year old self sitting on the couch next to me brought back vividly to life.
(My beloved Aero...)
Not to go into to much detail about why the film resonated with me so deeply, or what happened that night to make that resonation stick (There are parts of myself I like to keep private. Even in the age of blogging.) But the night I first saw Donnie Darko seems to be the last night of my childhood as well as the first of the long confused adolescence that followed. If this perhaps gives the film some unearned significance for me, then so be it. If you’ve been following this blog you know that for me the movies are an intensely personal experience. As I get older I find I have less and less use for "objective" film criticism, I doubt such a beast exists. Every critic who is worth anything is a prism as well as a reporter, and I always have felt that its part of my due diligence to express as fully as I can to the reader just what that prism contains.
The detractor’s of Donnie Darko, mostly those who caught it on its second wave of buzz, usually condemn the movie as an ungainly, awkward, overblown mess. To a certain extent I would agree, yet at the same time I’d argue that there are probably no three words that better describe adolescence, and any movie that deals with that subject, and is not a little ungainly with its sincerity, awkward with its ambitions, and overblown in its emotions is doing something seriously wrong.
I will concede that the film’s success did have a lot to do with its timing. Many have remarked about the reverse serendipity that had a film about a mysterious plane crash come out a mere month after 9/11. But it wasn’t so much the specifics of 9/11 that Darko seemed to so eerily and completely capture as the feeling of dislocation it brought.
It happened to come out at a moment when a bunch of scared teenagers had just watched the world fall about around them and found in Donnie an able surrogate. True no giant Bunny Rabbits showed up on the golf course to tell us the world was about to end. But to a suburban kid who had been taught all his life to believe in American invincibility and watched that lie implode in on itself on September 11th, The Lone Bunny Of The Apocalypse would hardly be more of a deviation from the norm.
But in all honesty, it’s not the apocalyptic overtones, monologues about Smurf sex, “Grandma Death” narrative puzzles, Donnie’s scenes of “stick it to the man grandstanding”, Kelly’s striking Wunderkid imagery, or any of the other things that so deeply impressed me at sixteen, that really resonate with me now.
Oh don’t get me wrong those things are fine. But what strikes me now, is Kelly’s human eye, the one that has only shown up intermittently in his subsequent films (Don’t get me wrong, I have a certain affection for Southland Tales and more then a certain affection for The Box, having found it to be one of those happy movies that markedly improves with each viewing). It’s Donnie’s Mother’s reaction in the psychiatrist office, when told that her son is likely slipping into Schizophrenia, one of the most heartbreakingly realistic portrayals of how someone reacts to a loved one’s mental illness I’ve seen in a film and her later perfect response to Donnie’s question “How does it feel to have a crazy son?” It’s the halting sweetness in Gretchen’s and Donnie’s relationship, Donnie staring at the long ago picture of the smiling Roberta Sparrow, its all the little messy human moments.
Because that’s what makes Donnie Darko so special. What has allowed it to still resonate ten years on, now that the novelty of its strangeness has worn off and to keep its reputation intact despite the sayers of neigh. At it’s core beneath all the brainteasers, mythology and games, it remains a simple human story (The fact that Kelly’s next film was nothing but brainteasers, mythology and games sans human story goes a long way to explaining that film’s ultimately doesn't work) one of a young man trying to survive in a baffling, occasionally hostile universe, while maintaining some measure of happiness and grace. Now I don’t know about you, but that still pretty well describes my day to day life.
And that’s why though I always watch Donnie Darko with my sixteen year old self next to me on the couch, it never feels like a simple piece of nostalgia to be tucked safely away in the past. Like all the movies that become part of our life it provides a continuity between who I was and who I am, and where those two things overlap.