Donnie Darko (US, 2001)

Time-space continuum

Time-space continuum

(This was originally written as a teaching pack and has been very slightly updated)

Credits

Directed and written by Richard Kelly
Produced by Adam Fields, Nancy Juvonen and Sean McKittrick for Adam
Fields Productions, Flower Films, Gaylord Films, Pandora Cinema
Original Music by Michael Andrews and Danny Elfman
Cinematography by Steven B. Poster
Film Editing by Sam Bauer (director’s cut), Eric Strand
Production Design by Alec Hammond
Sound designer (director’s cut): David Esparza
Distributors: Pandora Films/Newmarket (US) Metrodome Distribution
(UK)
Runtime: 113 min / 133 min (director’s cut)

Leading players
Jake Gyllenhaal Donnie Darko
Holmes Osborne Eddie Darko
Maggie Gyllenhaal Elizabeth Darko
Daveigh Chase Samantha Darko
Mary McDonnell Mrs. Rose Darko
Jena Malone Gretchen Ross
Katharine Ross Dr. Lilian Thurman
Drew Barrymore Karen Pomeroy
James Duval Frank
Beth Grant Kitty Farmer
Patrick Swayze Jim Cunningham
Professor Kenneth Montioff Noah Wylie

Introduction

Donnie Darko (USA, 2001, director’s cut 2004) is an exceptionally rich film and can be used to teach the key concepts in particularly interesting ways. From an audience perspective, Donnie Darko is a cult film, it did poorly at the box office on its initial release but, at the time of writing, over 60000 people have voted the film into 94th place on the internet movie database’s ‘all time’ list. Like Memento (2000), Darko’s cult status is derived, at least in part, from its fascinating narrative structure. Its convolutions demand, and reward, repeated viewings. Generically the film is an interesting mix of teen pic, science fiction (SF) and horror; whilst SF and horror are often paired (and the teen pic and horror exists as the hybrid teen horror), the pulling together of SF and teen pic adds a philosophical, and possibly mystical, element. From an institutional perspective Donnie Darko is an independently produced film albeit one driven by the star power of Drew Barrymore; it was produced by her company Flower Films.

Approaches to the Film

1 Narrative

As in all time travel stories, the narrative of Donnie Darko is potentially confusing and, possibly, incoherent. In Todorov’s structural terms:

Situation: Donnie living a typical middle class teen life (apart from his schizophrenia)
Disruption: aircraft engine lands on his house but he survives (having been lured away by Frank)
Resolution: Donnie dies thus repairing the break in the space-time continuum.

It is unusual to have a narrative end with the death of the protagonist, though this is necessitated because his elusion of death causes the narrative problem. In Proppian terms Donnie is the hero as he resolves the narrative; the villain is Frank as he, ironically, saves Donnie. Donnie, like an action hero, shoots the villain but then saves him by staying in his bed to die. Donnie’s selflessness makes him an appropriate hero however his laughter, just before he is annihilated, is ambiguous – is he accepting death or does he think he’s gotten away with it?

The narrative works to hook the audience through the mystery (Barthes’ enigma code; see Barthes, 1990) as to where the engine came from and what is Frank’s (as the ‘rabbit’) intentions? In addition, Donnie’s, and to a lesser extent Karen Pomeroy’s (Drew Barrymore), conflict with the school’s ‘new age’ lunacy, serves to create obstacles to be overcome in his life. Another narrative layer is Donnie’s pyromania, revealed to his psychiatrist, and enacted, through Frank’s prompting, on Jim Cunningham (and so revealing Cunningham’s, and by extension Beth Farmer’s – she fails to see that Sparkleforce sexualises pre-pubescents – hypocrisy).

Because of its convoluted narrative it is useful to apply Shklovsky’s distinction between fabula (story) and syuzhet (plot). Bordwell and Thompson schematises the two as follows:

Story
includes ‘inferred events’ and ‘explicity presented events’  and the

Plot
includes ‘explicity presented events’ and ‘added non-diegetic events’

(Bordwell and Thompson 1993, p.67)

In brief, the story is everything shown by the plot plus events we infer (we don’t see Donnie’s bus ride to school so it’s not part of the plot but as we infer it occurred it is part of the story). The story remains resolutely linked to the diegetic world; the plot, however, includes non-degetic material such as titles and music. The story is the chronological cause-effect chain; the plot is the aesthetic arrangement of the story.

Trying to ‘iron out’ the narrative, and so turn the plot into a coherent story, is a complex process in Donnie. In terms of the story, the plot ends at the beginning (Memento also does this). The 28 days that form the bulk of the narrative are ‘lost’ when Donnie, through unspecified comic book superhuman powers, plucks the engine out of the sky and sends it into the past. In saving the world, the engine has to kill him or time will forever remain ‘out of joint’, Donnie also saves Gretchen; indeed she appears as an ‘innocent’ ‘little girl’ in the end as she’s cycling and wearing dungarees. These dungarees were seen being worn earlier, in an overhead shot that had no causal link with the scenes that preceded and followed it, presumably (because of the camera’s position) by Gretchen, on a trampoline, presumably with Donnie; however it isn’t clear in what timeline this occurs. The fact that Gretchen is different at the end may suggest that the world in which the engine actually kills Donnie is not the same as the one at the start of the narrative. In this world Gretchen is not a young woman traumatised by her stepfather; if it were meant to be the ‘original’ world then the narrative may become incoherent at this point. On the other hand, the fact that Gretchen doesn’t appear in the plot until after Donnie avoids death makes it possible that the narrative has branched off from the original world the moment the engine failed to kill Donnie.

There are more possibilities and I don’t think it is necessary to unravel them all as long as we accept the conceit (which is a scientific possibility) of alternative worlds.

As Propp (1968 ) suggested, conventional narrative structure concludes in the fairy tale ‘and they lived happily after’. Donnie Darko, however, offers a darker conclusion. This isn’t simply because the hero dies, after all martyrdom is meant to be for the greater good, but because the hypocrites (Farmer and Cunningham) will continue to prosper and so the world is a much worse place for the loss of Donnie. On the other hand, Gretchen and Frank survive through Donnie’s sacrifice and he doesn’t bring shame upon his family by killing his sister’s boyfriend. Most Hollywood narratives conclude with the world being a better place; I don’t think Donnie Darko does.

It is this complexity that is one of the reasons that the film rewards repeated viewings. The phenomenal growth of DVD, fuelled by audiences wanting to own films rather than rent them, has contributed to repeat viewings of films and television programmes. Steven Johnson (2005) has argued that the narratives of television drama and sitcom have become more complex over the last 20 years and so audiences are happy to watch programmes more than once. Whilst not without precedent, there have been a number of films in recent years whose resolution casts a wholly different light on what’s preceded it and so encourage repeat viewing; for example, Open Your Eyes (Spain, 1997), The Spanish Prisoner (1997), The Sixth Sense (US, 1999), Fight Club (US, 1999), Inner Senses (Hong Kong, 2002), Intacto (Spain, 2001), The Others (US-Spain, 2001) and A Tale of Two Sisters (Korea, 2003).

This complexity may also particularly appeal to teenagers, the putative target audience of the film. The adolescent years are characterised by confusion engendered by neither being a child nor adult. Often treated as the former and expected to behave like the latter, the ‘mixed up’ kid is a staple character of the teen pic. This is exacerbated in Donnie’s case by his schizophrenia.

2. Genre

Genres are most readily defined by their repertoires of elements. Texts belonging to genres are characterised by being the ‘same but different’; the sameness allows them to be easily read by audiences (and marketed by producers) and the difference allows novelty, and so increase the possibility of being found entertaining.

The repertoire of elements consists of narrative, iconography, characters and setting. In creating Donnie Darko writer-director Richard Kelly was drawing on the following:

Teen pics
Narratives: ‘coming of age’; conflict with authority; often occurs in a short period of time   Iconography: fashion; pop-rock soundtrack
Characters: cliques; bitches (‘plastics’); jocks; figures of authority (teachers, parents; the ‘law’); outsiders; new girl/guy; nerds
Settings; high school; ‘street’; home/bedroom; club/diner.

Horror
Narratives: vampires seeking blood; possession by the devil; creation of monster; serial slasher; rape-revenge; haunted by a ghost; escape from zombies.
Iconography: blood; monsters; religious relics (including crucifixes); kitchen knives in a wooden block; creaking doors; screams; skulls; thunder and lightening.
Characters: monsters; ghosts; vampires; werewolves; mad scientists; ignorant villagers; ‘maidens in distress’; zombies; experts in ‘supernatural science’.
Settings: castles; old dark houses; suburbia; Transylvania; cellars.

SF
Narratives: First  contact with aliens; exploration of space; the uncontrolled machine; after a nuclear holocaust; time travel; alternative worlds; doppelganger.
Iconography: ray guns; synthesiser music; futuristic clothing; spaceships (i.e. not actual spaceships); aliens; high-tech gloss; computer generated special effects.
Characters: man of action; engineer; mad scientist; aliens.
Settings: time: past/present/future; space: inner/outer.

As a horror-SF-teen pic, Donnie Darko is a hyphenate as it is combining three genres without creating something new; unlike, say, teen horror which can be viewed as a distinct genre. The SF element is most evident in its use of the idea of parallel (director Richard Kelly talks of ‘tangent’) universes (which quantum mechanics suggests might exist) and time travel. In relation to the confused world of teens the film’s combination of the narratives ‘coming of age’ and ‘alternative world’ might be suggesting that the world is a confusing place and doesn’t just appear to be to the bewildered adolescent (ironically (tragically) Donnie doesn’t come of age).

Considering Frank as a monster emphasises the character’s ambiguity. Whilst his/its appearance appears somewhat threatening, the giant rabbit’s (an animal that is rarely deemed threatening, though Night of the Lupus, US 1972, might be an exception) first act is to save Donnie. He/it also leads Donnie to unmask Cunningham and though he was directly responsible for Gretchen’s death it was hardly his fault. Horror probably has the least influence on the film and is most evident when Expressionism is used to externalise Donnie’s disturbed mind and in the fact that the events are leading up to Halloween. SF has a strong influence as the film’s conceit is based on the possibility of ‘alternative worlds’, however of the other repertoire of elements possibly only Roberta Sparrow/Grandma Death is present as a mad scientist.

It is teen pic that has the most influence though the narrative, but the film bends the genre rules. Whilst the jocks are conventionally villainous, their bullying activities lead indirectly to Gretchen’s death, the representation of the figures of authority is unusual. The first dialogue of the film occurs around a family dinner table were Donnie and his sister, Elizabeth, bicker resulting in ‘foul’ language being spoken in front of the ‘little’ Samantha. Although the parents express their distaste of the behaviour their reaction is not authoritarian. Similarly the teacher, Pomeroy  and Montioff (Noah Wylie), are positively represented; though the head teacher and Kitty Farmer are commonly used generic types of the slightly hapless principal, who wields his power to hide his weakness, and the neurotic, repressed older woman. Gretchen is the ‘outsider’ whose appearance disrupts the (teen pic) equilibrium by being Donnie’s ‘first love’ leading him to a ‘coming of age’.

Genres can also be defined by associated themes and oppositions, such as adult:child in the teen pic (hence the ‘coming of age’ narrative); human:non human (monster/alien) in both horror and SF. The emphasis on relationships within the family also suggests that Donnie can be considered as a melodrama (‘teen pics’ are often melodramas).

Melodrama usually focuses on conflict within the bourgeois family. The locus of the conflict in the Darko household is Donnie, hence the psychiatrist whose role it is to cure him and so make the family ‘whole’ (ironically psychiatrist RD Laing suggested that mental illness was caused by the nuclear family). Donnie’s schizophrenia is emblematic of his ‘teen angst’; it is his state of being and not something that can (nor indeed does he appear to particularly wish to) be cured. Lilian Thurman is quite clearly out of her depth; her rationalisations for his behaviour are belied by the audience’s knowledge that Frank (as monster) is real, even if his existence contradicts conventional physics.

The New Age aspect is also emblematic. It highlights alienation as people seek meaning in its pseudo scientific-religious explanations of existence. Psychiatry is based upon the assumption that we are all neurotic and so need therapy. New Ageism offers simple explanations of life that enable us, should we embrace the ‘philosophy’, to forget our neuroses. Despite Donnie’s mental illness (or because of?), he understands that life is too complex to reduce to a simple love:fear opposition.

Using genre as a tool allows us to get a grip on the complexity of the film. Each genre present opens up a different aspect of the movie.

3 Representation

Clearly, as a teen pic, the film draws upon generic types. These can be investigated as part of representation by questioning what messages and values are being offered; for example why are jocks vilified? Donnie Darko departs, somewhat, from generic representations of the parents and teachers. Donnie’s parents are sympathetic and although we are introduced to the Darko family with a typical argument over dinner, neither of the parents are shown to be the cause of the conflict or repressive in their behaviour, despite dad’s traditional gender views.

Dad’s views are emphasised in discussion of the 1988 Presidential election (where George Bush snr. was facing Democrat Michael Dukakis) with independent-minded Elizabeth. The fact that Donnie appears to have no interest in politics emphasises his existential angst; though I’m unsure as to why the setting is 1988.

Also playing against type are the teachers who more than figures of hate and/or fun. Monittoff and Pomeroy, representing science and the arts, both oppose the repressive atmosphere of the private school. These characters are counterpointed by Beth Farmer and Jim Cunningham representing the hypocritical forces of reaction.

The casting of the ‘over-weight’ Chinese-American Jolene Purdy as the outsider adds a racial edge to the film (she does appear in an extraordinary number of shots) and is used to emphasise the hypocrisy of the Cunningham-Farmer axis through their reaction to her performance just before Sparklemotion.

What is striking about Donnie Darko is its attempt to represent the ideas informing Einsteins’ theory of relativity. A colleague (Jason Drewett-Gray, Benton Park’s head of physics) informs me that the film is accurate in its use of theory but the energy required to create the Einstein-Rosen bridge, that allows the engine to time travel, is so vast that, in the context of the film, it would not be possible. However, Dr Martin Lees (of University of Warwick) says that the ‘many worlds’ theory is not regarded as credible in mainstream physics.

4 Audience

Donnie Darko’s release, to coincide with Halloween in 2001, suffered from its proximity to September 11’s aircraft falling from the sky (the ‘Arabic’ font had to be removed before it was shown though it appears on the DVD). It was given a platform release in an attempt to build the audience that wasn’t actually found until the appearance of the DVD – see 4 Institution.

Cult movies rarely thrive in mainstream cinema as there needs to be an exclusivity associated with appreciated the film; though Pulp Fiction may be an exception. They often have a narrative open to numerous readings; Blade Runner (1982) being a prime example. Donnie Darko also offers an alternative to the more formulaic products of Hollywood and so appeals to an audience seeking intellectual stimulation as well as entertainment. Many of the user comments from the Internet movie database (a selection of which appear on below) celebrate the film’s distinctiveness, and in doing so often celebrate their own taste. As Matt Hills (2005) suggests, in relation to J-horror, ‘cult distinctions and cultural preferences’ go hand in hand:

An established body of academic work has explored the fact that ‘cult’ status often hinges, for fans, on an imagined or constructed distance from the status quo of ‘mainstream’ film culture’. (Hills, 2005, p. 161)

This distinctiveness from the mainstream, allowing those who appreciate the film’s unconventional aspects to feel superior to the mass audience, can also stimulate anger in spectators. For example, comment four was not alone in suggesting that the film was far from perfect; marius reveals his own taste too:

‘i hate those guys who try to find a story where there is not one and try to find out the “deep meaning” of each and every detail’

The extremity of ‘hate’, assuming it’s not hyperbole, suggests intellectual insecurity emanating from his(?) inability to read subtexts and/or his desire to see the world in as straightforward a fashion as possible and so eschew complexity. It may also be anger directed at the (perceived?) pretentiousness of those who are discussing ‘deep meaning’ in the film.

In terms of ‘uses and gratifications’: the teen pic is particularly good at offering personal identity for its target audience (one of the few genres that can be defined by who it’s aimed at). Through its cult status it offers personal identity to those who feel they appreciate the film’s complexity. This complexity may also stimulate a search for information about relativity and time travel (Stephen Hawking’s A Short History of the Universe is given a ‘name check’). As the high Imdb rating suggests, many were entertained by the film and the unclear resolution, and complicated narrative, is likely to stimulate social interaction.

5 Institution

Many students experience of cinema is limited to contemporary major studio Hollywood product. The fact that Donnie Darko is independently produced does not guarantee a film outside or even on the fringes of the mainstream; all three Terminator films, for example, were independently produced. Indeed, in its use of genre, the film offers enough of the familiar to readily engage its audience.

Four production companies were involved in the making of the film: Pandora Cinema, Flower Films, Adam Fields Productions and Gaylord Films. The most significant being Flower Films:

About
Nancy Juvonen founded Flower Films, Inc. with Drew Barrymore in 1995. In the summer of 1997, Flower began a two-year, first-look deal with Fox 2000 Pictures, a division of Twentieth Century Fox. Juvonen is responsible for Flower’s day to day operations and oversees each of the projects on their development slate, including three projects at Fox 2000, of which NEVER BEEN KISSED was the first film to go into production.

Since Flower Films has been opened it has produced; Olive, the Other Reindeer (1999), Charlie’s Angels (2000), Riding in Cars with Boys (2001), Donnie Darko (2001), Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle (2003), and Duplex (2003).

Biographies
Nancy Juvonen: Raised bi-coastally in Marin County, California, and Connecticut, Juvonen majored in education at the University of Southern California. After college she settled in San Francisco where, before joining Barrymore, she assisted legendary E Street Band member Clarence Clemons in starting his company.

From http://drewfan.com/info/flowerfilms.php (accessed May 2005)

Richard Kelly, on the DVD commentary, describes Barrymore as the godmother of Donnie Darko. For financial backers her (star) presence in the cast helps reduce the risk. Flower Films’ slate suggest a mainstream sensibility and so Donnie Darko is something of an exception. Whilst the presence of female ‘players’ in Hollywood is certainly not new, the gender of producers and directors, and the fees paid to female stars, suggest that sexism still thrives in LA.

Donnie Darko received a platform release (58 theatres and probably the same number of screens) in the hope that positive word of mouth would allow this to be increased. The opening weekend take of a mere $110 000 (and a final gross of $0.5m) meant this was not to be; the release of the director’s cut, in 2004, more than doubled the take.

Compare this to summer blockbuster I, Robot (2004) that opening in over 3000 theatres and $52m opening weekend. We can be confident that this film cost more than Donnie Darko which was shot on a miniscule $4.5m in 28 days.

The Director’s Cut is more often a marketing device rather than the ‘true’ version of the film shorn by a studio’s meddling. Donnie Darko’s director’s cut adds some good looking special effects but attempts to explain more clearly what’s happening through extracts from Grandma Death’s book. Because these read to me as pseudo-scientific gobbledegook, and so align the book with the New Agers, they actually serve to make events more ridiculous and so detract from the film.

Barrymore isn’t the only star presence in the film: Patrick Swayze built a reputation as a romantic lead, with films like Dirty Dancing (1987) and Ghost (1990), and to play a paedophile when one’s career arc is in decline is a daring choice (Kevin Bacon’s also did this with The Woodsman, 2004). As befits ‘indie cinema’ the film plays with both Barrymore’s and Swayze’s star persona. ‘Wild child’ Barrymore has grown up as Pomeroy, but is not devoid of her rebellious attitudes and so is sacked by the school. Swayze seduces his New Age acolytes, with a sales pitch and charm, instead of the leading lady suggesting the appeal of his life:fear worldview is wholly emotional rather than intellectual.

Also interesting is the casting of Katharine Ross, who became a star with The Graduate (1967), and had mostly worked in television during the 1990s (Donnie Darko was her first performance in either film or television since 1997). The Graduate was a movie that helped bring 1960s counter-culture into the mainstream and her presence harks back to days when teen rebellion had a political edge. In contrast, the rebellion in Darko is more metaphysical.

Important for the success of Donnie Darko was Newmarket Film’s intervention when it looked as though the film might be going straight to cable television. Darko was the independent distributor’s third release and they express the ‘indie’ ethos as follows:

Launched in August of 2002 by partners William Tyrer, Chris Ball and Bob Berney, Newmarket Films’ only criteria for acquiring a film is quality. Large or small, with a wide or specialized release, Newmarket’s goal is to deal in films that boast a certain level of artistic and commercial merit that has been set within the company. (http://www.newmarketfilms.com/about.cfm, accessed September 2005).

Whilst independents usually embrace to notion of film as art, Newmarket are savvy enough to ensure the films they pick-up for distribution have the chance to make money. Indeed The Passion of Christ (2004) has no doubt guaranteed their future for the next few years at least; the major distributors baulking at a film subtitled (mostly) in Latin. Their handling of Memento (2001), their second film, exemplifies the platform release strategy using ‘word of mouth’ rather than a large marketing budget, to make an impact.

Distributors are responsible for a film’s p + a (prints and advertising (ie marketing)) and, roughly, Hollywood spends a further 50 per cent of the film’s budget on p + a. Memento’s $5m (source imdb.com) budget suggests little for p + a (the prints themselves cost in the region of £1000 each) and so the film opened on 11 screens and took $235000. By the third weekend (Friday-Sunday) this had increased to 70 screens (taking $679000) peaking in week 11 on 531 screens ($156500) (source http://www.the-numbers.com/movies/2001/MENTO.html, accessed September 2005). At the end of its (exceptionally long) six-month run it had taken $25 0000 and was regarded as a ‘sleeper’ success; that is a film that doesn’t decline week after week from its opening. Summer 2005’s North American sleeper was March of the Penguins (La Marche de ‘empereur, France, 2005).

Whilst box office success is obviously important to a film’s profitability, cinema release has primarily a shop window function that will raise the profile of the film when it is released on DVD. DVD has embraced the ‘yours to own’ mantra of consumerism to such a degree that the greedy studios have been rapidly reducing the gap between cinema and DVD release to such an extent that, in the summer of 2005, there were some calls from within the industry to simultaneously release film and video. Mum and Dad (UK, 2008 ) did get a simultaneous release on Boxing Day of 2008.

Many indie directors, with exceptions such as John Sayles and Jim Jarmusch, see their movies as being calling cards for Hollywood; Memento’s Christopher Nolan went on to make Insomnia (2002) and the Batman movies (2005, 2008). Richard Kelly appeared to have done the same as his next feature, Southland Tales (2006), stars The Rock and Sarah Michelle Gellar. However, so opaque was the (intriguing) narrative that even the ‘arthouse’ audience didn’t like it; let’s hope The Box (2009) redeems his reputation.

The film was much more successful in the UK taking £1m on its release; twice the North American figure in a marketplace about 1/10th the size. In an excellent example of synergy Mad World (the lyrics of which seem so apposite to the film that it’s not hard to imagine they may have inspired Kelly), a cover of Tears for Fears eighties hit by Gary Jules, was the Christmas number 1 in 2003.

The film inspired bar-cum-art-gallery dreambagsjaguarshoes to commission graffiti art collective, theymademedoit, to create an exhibition inspired by the film in six hours, 42 minutes and 12 seconds.

“The director, Richard Kelly, came to the exhibition as well. I don’t think he could really believe it was happening, and I think he was shocked at the level of support, because I don’t think that the film had actually done that well in America.” (http://www.ideasfactory.com/art_design/features/artdes_feature55.htm accessed October 2005)

The UK success no doubt helped the commissioning of the Director’s Cut. The exhibition, and a documentary about it, are extras on both versions of the DVD. There is also an interesting set of interviews of fans talking about the film, ‘The cult of Donnie Darko’.

Conclusion

Anyone who attempted to teach all the key concepts through one film is likely to end up in an insane asylum. The strength of the key concept approach is that it allows disparate texts to be compared and opens up individual texts to different perspectives. One of the strengths of Media Studies is we can study any text (which is often mistaken as meaning the subject doesn’t discriminate between the quality of texts). It should be clear that Donnie Darko is a particularly fertile film for analysis. In addition to the aforementioned Memento, other independently produced films that should work well in the classroom are Requiem for a Dream (2001) and Hamlet (dir. Michael Almereyda, 2000). Mainstream Hollywood should, of course, not be ignored: for example, Dark City (1997) The Truman Show (1998 ) Gattaca (1998 ) and, Pleasantville (1999) and Erin Brokovich (2000). In addition there are the pseudo-independently produced films such as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004); Focus Pictures is the specialist arm of Universal. In recent years the growth in popularity of East Asian cinema has made classes more receptive to certain types of World Cinema.

Of course, in terms of narrative-based texts, broadcasting should not be ignored (and neither should literature) in the classroom. However it is easier to deal with one-off narratives than series; the latter tend to offer a richer experience if many are seen and these resonances are harder to capture through the screening of exemplar episodes. As noted earlier, Stephen Johnson has contends that narrative complexity in television has been enhanced by the opportunity of repeat viewing:

You can… measure the public’s willingness to tolerate more complicated narratives in the success of shows such as ER or 24. In terms of multiple threading, both shows usually follow around ten threads per episode… In 1981, you could weave together three major narratives and a half dozen supporting plots over the course of an hour on prime time… (Johnson, 2005, p.72)

Although the narrative complexity of these hit TV series is of a different order to that of Donnie Darko these are mass audience shows that, in the case of 24, also contain a cultish appeal. Possibly, when dealing with such TV series, students need to watch many episodes on their own in order get a rounded sense of how it is working.

As a (more or less) complete text, films remain probably the most powerful form for classroom analysis and they can also be fantastic to watch.

A selection of ‘User Comments’ on Donnie Darko from the Internet Movie Database (on http://uk.imdb.com)

One
compelling, eerie, intense, haunting, evocative, potent, sad, heroic, 22 April 2005

Author: mstomaso from NJ, USA
Being an angst-ridden teenager has never been easy, especially when you can see what’s down the road, and it looks a lot like the end of your world.

Writer and Director Richard Kelly is an artist whose films I will anticipate and Jake Gyllenhaal is truly remarkable among a very rich cast. He plays a troubled young man with a brilliant intellect and a vast imagination, struggling with the boredom of standard education, and a society afraid of its own shadow (e.g. contemporary America). An imaginary friend, Frank – a seven foot tall metal-headed skull-faced demon-rabbit saves his life by removing him from the the scene of a catastrophe just before it occurs, only to lead him down an alternative path to an even more terrible oblivion complete with forecasts of doom, psychiatrists, and self-help charlatans.

This film feels as creepy as any well-made ghost story I have ever seen, yet redefines the genre of supernatural storytelling in a very unique and original way.

Donnie Darko is a film about heroism and sacrifice, decorated with disturbing imagery, the horror of everyday life, and a soundtrack reminiscent of Lynch’s best. It is also a film worthy of several viewings and at least as many varied interpretations.

I can not honestly recommend this to anybody who attends films for the pure sake of entertainment. Nor can I recommend it to people who need straight answers or have limited attention spans. It’s art, and does not need to provide pat explanations for itself. As entertaining as this film may be, it has an unrelenting and merciless dark side, and might disturb even the most veteran indy film carmudgeon.

This is a great film. See it.

Two
Brevity cannot possibly do this justice…, 17 June 2003
Author: darren_anderson_uk
*** This comment may contain spoilers ***
In recent years, Hollywood has specialised in churning out mainstream trash; generic trash not even fit for the cutting room floor. Yet despite these movies’ shortcomings, they continue to enjoy success at the box office. Sequel upon sequel, photo fit remake upon photo fit remake, frequently taking the box office by storm whilst simultaneously relegating smaller independent projects to the now relatively unheard-of arthouse cinemas. The tragedy is that the independent filmmakers are often those with the most talent; the most creativity; the most flair. One such filmmaker is director Richard Kelly, who saw the release of his scifi-drama-horror-tragedy-comedy-romance-thriller Donnie Darko last year. After reading a few rave reviews for the movie, I decided to check it out to find out what all the fuss was about.

Three
A thought provoking masterpiece, 6 May 2003

Author: ready__break from Calgary, Alberta
Donnie Darko is a type of movie that provides any viewer a type of material that promotes hard thinking and even harder re-thinking. After the film ends, it’s almost impossible to keep yourself from thinking of all the possible way to interpret such a film. It’s not quite surreal or full of quirky nonsense, it’s more like a set of events, which seem to make sense on one level, no sense on another level, and finally perfect sense on another level. The movie acts as an illusion to what’s really going on, its almost pleasantly distracting.
Four
far away from a perfect ten, 26 March 2005

Author: marius_2k2 from Romania
first of all, i agree that this film is in a way highly overrated, but still is a good movie. of course, many of you who scored a “perfect ten” for this movie will say that i didn’t understand it… oh, but i did. and it isn’t too much to understand. i hate those guys who try to find a story where there is not one and try to find out the “deep meaning” of each and every detail (of course after they saw the movie and saw the IMDb rating and comments). i accept the fact that many of those who watched this movie really loved it, but i disagree to the fact that some of them believe that we (the ones that found this film to be not a “genial” one) didn’t understand it and that we are in a way frustrated that this movie has a great rating. like i said before i think this is a good movie, but is far to be a great one (in my opinion the movie is saved by its end, its cast and the “cute” bunny). 7/10

Bibliography
Roland Barthes (1990) S/Z (Blackwell Publishers: Oxford)
David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson (1993, 4th edition) Film Art (McGraw Hill: New York)
Matt Hills (2005) ‘Ringing the Changes: Cult Distinctions and Cultural Preferences in US Fans’ Readings of Japanese Horror Cinema’ in McRoy (2005)
Steven Johnson (2005) Everything Bad is Good For You – How Popular Culture is Making Us Smarter (Allen Lane: London)
Nick Lacey (2000) Narrative and Genre (Palgrave Macmillan: Basingstoke)
ed. Jay McRoy (2005) Japanese Horror Cinema (Edinburgh University Press: Edinburgh)
V Propp (1968 ) Morphology of the Folk Tale (University of Texas: Austin)

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5 Responses

  1. […] unknown wrote an interesting post today onHere’s a quick excerptIn an excellent example of synergy Mad World (the lyrics of which seem so apposite to the film that it’s not hard to imagine they may have inspired Kelly), a cover of Tears for Fears eighties hit by Gary Jules, was the Christmas number … […]

  2. […] Barrymore isn’t the only star presence in the film: Patrick Swayze built a reputation as a romantic lead, with films like Dirty Dancing (1987) and Ghost (1990), and to play a paedophile when one’s career arc is in …Continue Reading […]

  3. thanks for sharing Donnie Darko (US, 2001)

  4. […] Donnie Darko (US, 2001) February 2009 3 comments 3 […]

  5. An unnerving, electrifying debut film from 26-year-old writer/director Kelly, one that elucidates the universal traumas of growing up, but does so with a startling uncommonness. Near-perfect film for me. Good review, please check out mine when you can!

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