Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The 25: Part 19: Donnie Darko

(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.


Budd said...

agreed, it is a great movie. Very ambiguous to those that choose it to be so. Donnie and his sister have a certain chemistry as brother and sister that just can't be faked. Hooray for sibling actors. This movie is dark and disturbing with talks of time travel, it is no wonder that I liked it.

Unknown said...

Liked the revue, definitely made me question the meaning of smurfs.

CannibalKid said...

my favourite movie
a total dream!

Unknown said...

Love this film also. One of my fave bits is when Donnie and his science teacher have that discussion about time travel. Fascinating stuff. There is fantastic mood and atmosphere to this film John Hughes by way of David Lynch is what comes immediately to mind.

Excellent review! I know what you mean about films having a personal meaning/connection more and more. I get that vibe a lot to and those are films that I tend to gravitate towards.

Simon said...

Yes. Oui. Indeed.

AK said...

Absolutely on target in every way, your review. It felt (weirdly, in view of the plot)very REAL to me. Embarrassingly, I excitedly described it to a friend: "This may be the movie of my life!" But I still gotta stick with that. Watching it with him, he could barely tolerate it until Gretchen showed up, slamming her locker shut and then he asked "Does he get to fuck her?" He never did see the whole film-he turned it off after he found out it wasn't that kind of movie.
But it's so perfect.
Watched it about 2 nights ago and the Tears For Fears scene, when the bus door swings open and follows everyone into school...that's the kind of masterful combination of acting, camerawork, music and 'bits of business'that most directors can only dream of.
And anyone who appreciates 'Under The Milky Way' by The Church enough to use it in a film has more going on upstairs than the average schmoe.
Perfect.(and how often does perfection happen in such a collaborative medium as film is?)Sorry to rant on so long, but I truly love this movie.

Biba Pickles said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Biba Pickles said...

I'm going to blow your mind. I was in Bon Temp's having coffee with my friend and I had an anxiety attack. I went home and decided to sleep. I slept for 12 hours, but it felt like I wasn't asleep that long. My aunt asked me if I woke up because there were sirens while I was sleeping, but I hadn't. It turns out that Bon Temp's had a fire and part of it was burned. That was my Donnie Darko moment. Not you're blogging about it! OMG, are you the rabbit? I was supposed to die wasn't I? Crap, I better not be in Final Destination.

Bryce Wilson said...

@ Budd: I agree it really helps anchor the movie when all the crazy shit goes down.

@ Devon: Papa Smurf watches later.

@ Marco: Excellent sir.

@ JD: I love that conversation, especially that cryptic fucking ending.

@ Simon: Merci.

@ Rob: Yeah, it's funny how many people didn't get it on the first go around. The music is fantastic. Too bad Kelly fucked up the score in the DC.

@Biba: ... Are you telling me the owner of Bon Temps was a child molester?