...watched Donnie Darko last night, and jotted down some thoughts I had about it. It's more of a response than a review, and as such it's all a bit obvious and reads a bit like an essay. Still, this way my incoherent thoughts can plague someone else for a change...
Donnie Darko - I died in 1988
No song could be more superficially apt to commence Donnie Darko
than Echo and the Bunnymen’s The Killing moon
; bunnies, killing, the eighties, it’s all there. Though it bears little relation to McCulloch’s oblique, fateful lyrics, Bill Drummond’s personal quest for the mythological Echo seems to have been curiously anticipated in Graham Greene’s The Destructors
(1954). Donnie summarises ‘they just want to see what happens when they tear the world apart’. Rehearsed by Greene, Drummond and the KLF torched a million pounds in reprise of this anarchic and childlike urge to scramble the order of things in a single flicker.
So an Echo was the starting point. Donnie Darko is couched in memory, but this cultural free-association - the eighties, ET, Back to the future, Dirty Dancing
- retells a decade just beyond recollection. This is not an unconscious fabrication, as Donnie asserts ‘no-one remembers their infancy and anyone who says they do is lying’. (Richard Kelly, the writer/director was widely praised for forging such a mature film while in his early twenties.) Nobody wants to remember childhood as a period of worry and uncertainty. Reassuringly the fragments we possess expose a glossy, super-saturated filmic reality, the latent sources of which are reaffirmed by television repeats of films we may or may not have seen the first time round. The hyper-1980s of Donnie Darko
, with its casting of Patrick Swayze and Drew Barrymore, is the 1980s of our memory, true or false; the teacher warns ‘and did you stop to think that maybe infants need darkness?’ Reinventing the 1980s isn’t a return to childhood, it’s a denial of childhood’s danger and disorder.
In common with the KLF, arson is Donnie’s modus operandi. While his acts of vandalism are seemingly motiveless, they are also unerringly redemptive; the high-school hothouse of conflict and repression is quenched with a flood, then Cunningham’s dark secret is damned by fire. Rather than tearing the world apart, Donnie’s manic assualts on the order of things seem to uncover a more satisfying reality. Memory, time and space are united in their plasticity, and Donnie’s delusions seem more acceptable than the foetid deception of Jim Cunningham or the dogmatic Puritanism of the PTA. As Greene would have it, ‘destruction after all is a form of creation’. Whilst inhabiting a fantastical 1980s elegy, Donnie Darko is himself convinced of the value in questioning the tidy assumptions of his environment.
Daydreams appear significant for Kelly, as does gesture. Gretchen and Donnie’s delayed first kiss embodies the tantra of juvenilia, and when they do make love it is indicated merely by a chaste holding of hands, a reverent nod to the sublimated sexual tensions of Ferris Bueller
. And it is with a gesture that the final Echo is sounded. Gretchen pauses to wave to Donnie’s mother, and with a hazy recognition the present acknowledges the past, not as empty relic, but as waking dream.