Sunday, February 19, 2006

The Donnie Darko Experience

I remember picking this rather obscure movie October Sky from the video library about six summers ago, I remember that day pretty vividly. My "quota" of 3 movies per weekend was almost up with A Bridge Too Far (which I was borrowing for the 5th time) and The Black Cauldron. I was about to pick up The Other Side of the Midnight cassette when I noticed this new arrival right next to it. The cover said starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Chris Cooper...... and hello, Laura Dern! Based on a true story? Okay.... let me try this one. That movie simply blew me away and clinched my aspirations for moving into the Aerospace realm after my undergrad in Electrical. The movie, the storyline and the entire cast was excellent but it was the lead actor playing his age (rather than some late 20s dude playing highschooler) with consumate ease and conviction that caught my eye. This boy, Jake Gyllenhaal literally brought to life the teen Homer Hickam who is inspired by the Cold War shock that was the Sputnik launch to go for a life in rocket science, via college and all that jazz..... a life beyond the wildest dreams of a coal miner's son.

I heard no more of this promising young actor for about a couple of years till I stumbled upon a "top seeded" movie in KaZaA, something titled Donnie Darko. The synopsis on the internet read "Troubled adolescent Donnie Darko, receives a disturbing vision from a a 6 foot demonic-looking rabbit that the world will end in 28 days, 12 hours, 42 minutes and 12 seconds. With the help of various characters, including the rabbit who calls itself Frank, he slowly discovers the mysterious physical and metaphysical laws that govern his life and that will lead up to the destruction of the universe." Wooooooooooo........... this is going to be quite some ride!
Cable internet had just arrived in my home state, but the infrastructure and bandwidth was extremely limited. The Mars probe had a steady stream of 11 kbps from the fr1ggin red planet to Earth, I counted myself lucky if I got 4 Kbps from the hub next door! Moreover, due to the lack of adequate electrical security measures, the sensitive modems just lay down and died *everytime* there was a spike. A couple of days and 144 phone calls after, the tech support comes in and replaces the modem.... you had a 1 yr guarentee. Thank God for small favors! Finally, 8 days after setting the download task, the 800 MB file was on my computer in finished form. Hallelujah!

The movie opens with Donnie waking up at dawn..... in the middle of the road straddling the a mountain ridge, his bike collapsed next to him. As he cycles down the road, the unforgettable "Never Tear Us Apart" track by INXS plays. The effect of that haunting, hearbreaking track rings in your ears as Donnie takes us to his affluent small-n-happy American family living in a white suburban neighbourhood is, pretty rankling to say the least. The lyrics and the overall feel of that song somehow warns us of the fate of the protagonist and all around him. The foreboding atmosphere created by the 30 yr old Richard Kelly reminds us of David Lynch's menacing "netherworld" that hides behind pleasant Anytown, America. We are introduced to his dad, a cool one like Eugene Levy of American Pie canon at that... not the abusive/negligent/beer soaked/psycho/mid-life crisis stereotype of Hollywood. His mom is a loving and understanding mom, much like the Maaaas of Bollywood, his elder sis is on her way to the Ivies (she shares a rather endearing sibling rivalry with Donnie) and his cute-as-a-button kid sister all of ten. A far from dysfunctional family! But we learn that Donnie is a troubled young man and has a history of mental problems after an out of hand prank turned arson. Now, he's on the Prosac and psychoanalyst diet at the grand old age of sixteen. He is in an uppity private school, uniformed kids, vigilant teachers, spotless hallways..... in short nothing like the Gangsta's Paradises of Harlem. This is Donnie's world, at first glance something not so different from Archie's sylvan Riverdale.

Other characters are Gretchen Ross, a new student who has a traumatic history and is living in an assumed identity with her mother. There is an instantaneous chemistry between Donnie and Gretchen...... the powers that manipulate the living and the dead seem to thrust these two people into each other's life. There is a rookie out-of-grad-school english teacher played very competently by Drew Barrymoore, one of the two teachers in the school who understands the trounbles, angst and disconnects that plague her students. The reading assignments she gives out and her pointed talks with her students tells us she is very well tuned with the kids and concerned of the all-round well being of her students. Rather than squeeze out results pertaining solely to their narrow "brief" like her most of the school staff. Something like Coach Carter who shuts down the court till his students get passing grades, but with less leeway as she's on probation..... and stacked against the dinosaurs of "scientific education of children".

Patrick Swayze has a cameo as Jim Cunningham, one of those charismatic Gurus who try to dumb down things, make you take reductionist approaches to life and it's problems and take the easy, painless way rather than meeting things head on. There's the physical education teacher Mrs. Farmer who is the absolute opposite of Drew's character, sports a very narrow-minded outlook and totally taken in by Cunningham's simplistic brand of thought. Plus a host of minor characters each tightly woven into the storyline, all etched out perfectly by the ensemble cast.

However, the most engaging character is the 6 foot tall "entity" in the furry suit with the grotesque and demonic bunny face. This enigmatic entity only Donnie could see (obviously a wicked take on Harvey, the friendly invisible giant rabbit) leads him to create havoc that is both destructive and creative. There's this ancient and spooky woman Roberta Sparrow, nicknamed Grandma Death...... a character who might hold the key to the doom thats closing in on your heels. All the calculated acts of "destruction" and his interactions with the other characters has something to do with the prophecised destruction of the universe..... The viewer is guided by cryptic title cards on "The Philosophy of Time Travel", "Wormhole Phenomenon" etc as the movie progresses, a luxury available in the recent prints. It somehow diminishes the mystery of the movie by offering a canonic explanation..... people like me who watched the first drafts had a slew of theories on Donnieverse. Anyway, I am not complaining, at least I am glad that Donnie's world would find it's "peace".
There was a whole corpus on DD Apocrypha and this word-of-mouth buildup led to the movie re-releasing in 2004, three years after it's first release. This time it found it's much deserved success in the DVD and re-run segments. On it's first release it was pulled out pretty fast 'coz the lay viewer was quite confused and angry at the movie. A similar fate met Guy Ritchie's recent movie "Revolver.... but I am confident Revolver will be a much appreciated and studied movie in the near future. )

The mystery sci-fi aspect aside, this movie appealed to me on other fronts. The disconnect Donnie feels to the world around him, the inability of his family to reach out to the troubled teen, the system that tries down to water down or disregard existential issues faced by adolescents are powerful messages in the film. The shrink diagnoses after a few sessions that Donnie might be developing schizophrenia but attributes to him not being able to cope up to the world around him. However, she misses the woods for the trees as the real issue was the inability of the world around him to see Donnie and his problems within. American law and society which stipulates compulsory psychoanalyst sessions and "one size fits all" solutions to individual juvenille issues sometimes sends the hapless youngster into a downward spiral of instability. In Donnie's case, the prank turned arson created this guilty-disturbed individual tag which forever colored the way even his family views him, let alone Donnie's image of himself. His inability to percieve the nature of Frank (if the ridiculous and terrifying at the same time rabbit is real or a just a manifestation of his increasing instability) at the begining leads him to try and destroy Frank in the next "meeting". This however only succeeds in wounding Frank and the wound itself is a pointer and at the same time a "multiplier"to the mystery...... something that becomes very apparent when Frank appears again and unmasks himself when Donnie is watching Evil Dead with Gretchen asleep at his side.

Donnie tries to leave subtle distress signals like "They are making me do it" when he is commanded by Frank to carry out the first act of destruction... a red flag of the Schizo types so that someone would note his "history" and approach him. He tries to save himself and others around him. There's a play on the possible overlap between madness and the ability to perceive the supernatural...... messages from the highest power in most religions always start with a bona-fide certificate like "The message is directly from God, there is no need to be afraid. Sonny, you ain't dreaming and no, you certainly aren't mad".However, Donnie slowly unravels the mystery further with encounters with Frank, Gretchen, the young science teacher and Grandma Death and finds the truth of the his mental state and the reason for Frank's appearance. Following this (slow and subtle) discovery, we see Donnie carry out his tasks with the maniacal glee and conviction of a Fedayeen... while at the same time crushed and heartbroken by the implications of his action and the subconscious understanding of his own fate. The scene in which he almost curls to foetal position, clutching a teddy bear and spells out his feelings and fears to the shrink is almost a giveaway on "what is required of Donnie's life". Nevertheless, he is convinced that the forces that manipulate everthing makes no mistake and lately he is made aware of what he should do(what he IS going to do).... this is done by very effective CGI. This foreboding of doom and the aura of self-destruction around the lhero, one who ain't very likeable at that..... so well LIVED out by Jake Gyllenhaal's expressive face and body language is the USP of the movie.

One is also struck by the pointlessness of our actions; no matter how earthshaking the results are or how deep the emotion that guided the acion is, the people who you intended to benefit may be oblivious to your suffering and mental turmoil. The existential question-"For whom? What's in it for me? Am I even in the picture?" is blasted into our face after the dust settles in the storyline. The last scenes which convey a message of the end beneficiaries being oblivious to the enoromity of Donnie's actions and his life is quite distressing..... I would like to say more about this but I won't be able to do it without doing a spoiler. The sole comfort is the fact that *some* of the characters do feel Donnie's "touch" on their lives...... the feeling rushes in as extreme regret, sorrow, gratitude and self-awakening without even knowing where it came from. And this beautiful, epiphany-like cutscene is set to the haunting and philosophical "Mad World" track by Gary Jules and Michael Andrews.

Still, the feeling of futility of sacrifice and thanklessness towards Donnie does burn a hole in your heart....... I remember being morose for a number of days, pondering over existentialist issues and looking up the masters of this genre, O.V.Vijayan to Satre. Donnie Darko has that effect on the perceptive viewer..... watch it. An unforgettable experience.

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At 5:08 PM, Blogger Hiren said...

I am not so heavily into movies but you have a unique writing style and seem to enjoy your writing.

Something I forgot to tell you last time- In wordpress you can archive better. For instance this writeup would go under movies which will reflect on the right hand side. Check this out

Secondly one can deltet comments so there is no point putting on anonymous comments. When you put it off, the word "other" appears by which people from other blogsites can place their comments. Currently, you shall be restricted to blogger.

This in case you are interested in increasing your readership. I have been blogging for six months and just passing on some tips on what I have learnt.

At 9:26 PM, Blogger Mind Curry said...

hi anand, i have not yet seen such a movie buff like you yet! man! but its really great..i think movies teach us a lot in life..and nice writing. cheer loyola son!

At 12:15 AM, Blogger Anand K said...

@ Hiren: Thanx Hiren.
However, doesn't wordpress blogging require a good deal of knowledge of javascript? My IT skills are limited to windows media player and ACDSee... plus the mandatory C/C++. It took me some time and effort to make the touch-ups you see on my blog. Gotta put on my thinking cap and first chalk out a layout plan for my own wordpress page, dig into some programming and polish my verbose style of writing.

@ mind curry: Yea, guilty as charged milord. Movie buff to my bitter core! A result of 20 yrs of night-out desi/hollywood/other languages movie marathons with my movie maniac dad, brooding movie critic bro and poor long suffering mom. ;) I got crow's feet and dark circles under my eyes before I had my first whisker. Sighhh.... the childhood trauma!
Movies are sometimes mirrors of life and is a powerful medium, but DD is one of those movies that somehow grips me totally....

At 1:02 AM, Blogger quills said...

You have been officially declared as the 'Roger Ebert' of blogoshpere. (I have been going around declaring a lot of titles on unsuspecting but deserving bloggers, so please do not wonder so much as to who gave me this authority. :)))

How on earth do you watch 3 such intense movies over a weekend? :)

Anyways, two thumbs up!!!

At 11:05 PM, Blogger Anand K said...

Thanx for the title, Empress. Your liege is honoured! ;)

Pssst.... Roger Ebert has been consistently a really good critic, a thinking man unlike that supreme oaf Reed (saw his unforgivable racist review of a classic like Oldboy?). But Ebert has made one unforgivable, heretical gaffe by panning The Usual Suspects.

Three movies per weekend?
Factor 1: Having a family of movie maniacs helps....
Factor 2: Having near zero social life. :P
Factor 3: Broadband Internet and filesharing software

At 7:02 PM, Blogger quills said...

aha...thank you! I have to say I like the title you have bestowed on me... (roars to show off) ;)

Ok..never watched "usual suspects" but I will take your word for it.

And p2p file that's how you find stuff. Which site? :)

At 7:05 PM, Blogger quills said...

hmm...was being a Leo first...then I decided it was better to follow Japanese traditions and just bow or nod as any normal human being would do. :)


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