Archive for November, 2011

Analysis: “Donnie Darko”

November 29, 2011

Every society embodies a cultural order, and it is this order on which its members rely in structuring their daily experience: their reality, their sense of meaning and purpose. From within such order it is difficult to see, let alone assess and attempt to understand that order. Gaining necessary detachment requires getting outside that construct, delving into a state of mind akin to wilderness, a forbidden place associated with darkness and danger. The subconscious mind is such a place, as is a consciously fabricated imaginary paradigm. Various forms of artworks can serve to facilitate breaking away from an inhibiting culture. Donnie Darko can have that effect. 

Every free-thinking person who has made the big break knows that stepping into that dark-side wilderness is, in itself, a supremely dangerous act because most culturally hypnotized people who remain immersed in the consensus construct are certain to perceive those who step outside as: out-of-step, misfit, even psychotic—rebels, radicals, adversaries. And as every dare-to-be free-thinker knows who has boldly followed his or her own personal rabbit down a hole, there is no coming back, no restoration, no Kansas. A scrambled egg cannot be unscrambled. Albert Einstein could no more have gone back to examining patent applications than Vincent van Gogh could have gone back to teaching and preaching or Timothy Leary could have resumed his career at Harvard or David Lynch could return to a job as a printer. 

The creator of Donnie Darko (2001), Richard Kelly, took a giant-rabbit-down-a-wormhole step when he created (and donned?) his protagonist, Donnie, a troubled teenager who lives in the zone between those two worlds: the wilderness within and the confusing culture in which he struggles to find meaning, purpose, and then freedom from guilt. Not surprisingly, many young people sense a connection to hostile Donnie and his challenge to confront himself and his world. In truth, Western society has become a place where physicists talk like mystics, mystics are treated like madmen, and certifiable madmen are elected to Congress; confusion is commonplace. Despite Kelly’s statements to the contrary, we believe there is a lot of Richard Kelly in Donnie Darko—Donnie physically resembles a dark version of Kelly—although the film cannot be labeled autobiographical. 

The movie is not science fiction because it is not well grounded in speculative science and, therefore, not plausible as presented. Nor is it a horror movie. As we see it, the correct genre is: fantasy. The whole story has the quality of an adolescent’s dream, or an unedited stream of disturbed consciousness. In fact, Kelly said that he wrote it “without making any changes.” Another way to characterize Kelly’s creative process is to call it self-indulgent—not formulated to create a solvable story for the movie-goer. Logic is, of course, inapplicable to fantasies and pseudo-profundities (e.g., the film’s allusions to alchemy are absurd). Yet the film is peppered with valid and potent archetypes that tease the viewer to seek a deep metaphysical meaning that is ultimately absent. 

Those who seek a grand universal meaning in Donnie Darko are like (pardon the simile) cats that find entertainment in chasing their own tails. On the frontispiece of The Donnie Darko Book, also by Richard Kelly, you see a photograph of the smiling author-director. Prominently displayed in the background of that photo is a brightly lighted Ferris wheel in an amusement park—the perfect symbol for a Hollywood movie that begins and ends in the same place and offers the audience a similar joyride. Like a Ferris wheel, the story provides interesting entertainment—over-and-over again for its enchanted cult followers—and offers a view that is out of the ordinary without actually going much of anywhere.