That's right, I'm resuming the series. Why? Because this pandemic ain't gone, y'all. I was optimistic about it for a little while there, but that was damned-fool talk, is what that was.
I wrestled with the notion of calling this Part 20, and retroactively saying that the three "What I Watched This October"s were 17, 18, and 19, but nah, why bother?
Let's kick it off with a couple of things that were technically Halloween-night views, but struck me as a good way to reinaugurate the pandemia.
Donnie Darko (2001)
Is this one of my favorite movies? I think it just might be. It never fails to work on me, that's for sure. I saw it for the first time in 2002, when it was released on DVD. I watched it with a friend; she'd read about it, or had seen a trailer, or something. I had no idea what it was, but couldn't possibly have cared less; I'd have been happy to watch pretty much anything if it meant I got to spend some time with her. It was one of those times when -- this is my memory of it, at least -- we both just fell into the movie we were watching and did not emerge again until it ended, after which there was a brief period of slack-jawed amazement followed by a lengthier period of effusive gushing about what we'd just seen. I'll never not think of that when I see this movie.
With that comes a generous helping of melancholy. The version of me who sat on that couch, mind wide open because I was seeing an incredible new movie and heart wide open because it always was with her, is gone forever. He may as well never have existed, in some ways. It'd be nice if, in his vanishing, he'd been able to give the world an incredibly heroic shot of love the way Donnie does in this movie when he makes his exit, but hey, I'll take what I got over what Donnie got every single time.
Watching it this year, I was with a couple of friends, one of whom I've known since even before the movie came out. He told me as we settled down to watch it that every time he sees it, he thinks he might find some key to make the plot make sense to him, but never does. This time was no different. Lest you misunderstand, let me say that he doesn't care.
Neither do I. For one thing, I'm not sure it doesn't make sense; I'm not sure it does, either, but the uncertainty draws me in, and never alienates me even for a moment. The movie makes emotional sense to me, and if that's true, then I'll forgive a lot. Here, I'm not even sure it's necessary to forgive anything.
Donnie is a kid who is getting by the best he is able, what with the emotional problems and all. His parents, loving but a bit on the detached side, are giving him some professional help with that in the form of therapy, but are otherwise hanging back a bit and letting him find his own way. This leads to a fair amount of unruly behavior from him, but mostly of a harmless variety. Donnie, like any number of other disaffected cinematic youth, feels alienated from the world around him; he especially feels alienated from the systems he is forced to belong to, such as his school and (though this is not touched upon as heavily) the religion that provides its backbone. He feels trapped within these systems, and when he encounters others who seem to also feel trapped, his knee-jerk reaction is to reach out to them empathetically. He tries to help Gretchen; he tries to help Cherita; he tries to help Roberta Sparrow; he gives advice to the kids during the Jim Cunningham lecture when he feels that the man's "fear/love" approach is failing; and the actions he takes at Frank's behest are easy sells for him because his "imaginary" bunny friend tells him that his classmates need saving. It's an open question as to what, exactly, Donnie sees when his liquid spear becomes entangled with Gretchen's; it might be her death, it might be that of his mother and sister, or it be both (as well as his own potentially). The movie does not give us that information, but we've got every reason to assume that he feels he is saving the life of his girlfriend, or the lives of his mother and sister, if not all of the above.
Gretchen playfully says that "Donnie Darko" sounds like a superhero's name early on, and Donnie's response is to playfully ask who says he isn't. If I'm not mistaken, writer/director Richard Kelly indicates during one of his commentary tracks (probably for the director's cut of the film) that that is not a throwaway interaction; we're supposed to more or less see Donnie as a superhero of sorts. Works for me!
Dipping into a more metaphorical read, I was struck this time by how much animus the film has toward the educational system in general, and the educational system of a Catholic school specifically. The film, perhaps feeling it was better to keep its head down a bit, doesn't do much in the way of directly attacking the notion of religion-led learning, but it's there if you want to see it that way. We spend time with only four of the school's faculty. One is an idealistic English teacher who clearly wants to develop these kids emotionally as well as intellectually, perhaps believing it is the same process; another (revealed later to be her boyfriend) is excited by the prospect of discussing theoretical/philosophical science with Donnie, but disengages himself from the process quickly when it veers into territory that could threaten his employment. A third is the principal, who seems to exist primarily to preserve the status quo. The final one is a gym teacher who has somehow transitioned into teaching her class material from a local self-help guru, whose empty platitudes -- and cheesy videos -- rub Donnie the wrong way. These platitudes represent an ordered world, one in which all of human experience can be expressed in terms of how individual actions reflect an individual's response to fear. Don't act out of fear; act only out of love. Donnie recognizes this as bullshit of a not-even-especially-high order. Why wouldn't he? It's basically the same worthless philosophy he's already been getting from school. Donnie, with his emotional problems, knows that the world isn't simple enough to be able to be graphed like that; he rejects Cunningham's ideas out of hand, and in so doing symbolically rejects the type of philosophy that will not allow the gym teacher (Mrs. Farmer) to permit for analysis of troubling literary works. The Mrs. Farmers of the world believe too much thinking to be a bad thing; but Donnie knows that it is a necessary thing, regardless of whether it fits neatly into a worldview designed to provide comfort rather than actual guidance.
Mrs. Farmer's philosophy also, perversely, permits for the existence of Sparkle Motion, a dance troupe consisting of preteen girls gyrating in not-entirely-unsexual manner to not-entirely-unsexual music. Her simplistic view of the world could just as easily see this dancing as the work of the devil, but in this case, it has gotten past her. She is incapable of deciphering cultural cues, and as such she is inadvertently sexualizing these girls well before they are ready for it. I'm sure it'll work out just fine. (In fact, though not directly related, it will get them all killed.)
This time, it was all that material that struck me as what the movie is really about. It's dressed up in a surrealistic sci-fi/horror costume, but it's really about one misfit's raging against an educational system -- and maybe even a society at large -- which simply cannot take someone like him properly into account.
I'd love to talk about those sci-fi/horror elements in depth and try to figure that aspect of the movie out. I think it's within my reach, at least to some degree. But the truth is, I'm content to let the mystery be. I don't need everything to have a sensible explanation; some things don't, and that's just a fact. Anyone claiming that their answers fit every situation is probably best avoided, anyways.
Either way, I hope I'll someday make the time to take on this movie in more fulsome fashion. I think it's well deserving of it, that's for sure.