n the exhausting effort to keep ahead of the tides, young friends, Stylus has a new column to offer you. We’re calling it A Kiss after Supper, and in it we’ll be tracing the expert use of pop music through some of the more music-friendly films of the past thirty years. With directors like Spike Jonze, Quentin Tarantino, and Wes Anderson using their robust appreciation for music in novel ways to document their stories through music as well as cinema, soundtracking is perhaps more critical to a film’s emotional tone than it’s ever been. As such, we thought it about time we wrote a little something on the issue...
I am Donnie Darko. But that’s alright. At various times, I’ve been Raskolnikov and Herzog. For a brief bloated afternoon, too many hot dogs deep, I was Ignatius J. Reilly. It’s like the first day you’re in abnormal psych. The professor warns you not to take your self-diagnoses too seriously. Everybody sees each textbook disorder claiming a part of themself. We show all these symptoms. Likewise, we know these characters too well to accept coincidence. We wrote these parts, and we toothed those very words. We house splinters of art and psychology in what makes us knowable, to ourselves if not to others.
As such, Donnie Darko, though the most enigmatic of pop art mainstays, has claimed a place amongst our collective consciousness. Of course, it was a long-time coming, and the back-story, as with most cult landmarks, rivals its fiction. After a promising showing at 2001’s Sundance Film Festival—a strong class that included “Memento,” “In the Bedroom,” and the glam-pomp fave “Hedwig and the Angry Inch”—Richard Kelly’s bizarre homage to the Reagan decade was financed by Drew Barrymore’s production company, Flower Films. Unfortunately, time smothered Kelly’s picture. Released in the months following 9/11, the film proved too dark and disturbing at a time when America wanted the sheer bomast of American Hollywood. Featuring the mysterious disintegration of an airplane, Darko’s cold visual imagery collapsed into the recalled visions of horror and fall that mesmerized us all that morning. It was impossible at that point to tease apart fiction from our new and still unknown meta-fact. Still confused by the sheer weight of reality, an awakening to new limits of the conceivable was enough for the day. By night, we needed something more secure, and Kelly’s challenging film was doomed.
But, as with so many cult films, Darko refused to fade. Helped along by a two-year-plus hiatus at the East Village’s Pioneer Theater for midnight showings, growing DVD sales, and a relatively successful 2002 run in the U.K., Kelly found backing for the re-release of a new director’s cut. Released in the early summer of 2004, the cut proved more than an arthouse champ, playing well in suburbs and stadium-sized multiplexes alike.
Given the largesse of such a back-story, it’s hard to imagine the film living up to it. But Donnie Darko manages just that, albeit in a way that continues to gurgle and spoil in your memory long after the screen goes black. Time travel, schizophrenia, notions of solitude in a world with or without God, the natural artifice of the physical world, the idiocy of adult self-improvement as only an adolescent sees it. All rather robust themes, dense notions, and all of them dealt with here. Synopses typically wind up sounding like the Cliff’s Notes to the Bible, unworthy of the effort. This movie has to be seen. And then it has to be argued about. In a bar-room or just against the white noise of your own thoughts, you have to consider it. Every voice finds its own thesis; every perspective is unquestionably true, undoubtedly how the film was intended. We are all right when it comes to Donnie Darko. We all have the answers.
Regardless of its complexity and its labyrinthine narrative structure, Donnie Darko is one thing without question: Richard Kelly’s loving treatise on the 80’s. Set against the pivotal Dukakis/Bush race in the fall of 1988, its first line of dialogue is Maggie Gyllenhaal admitting to her conservative parents that she’s voting for Dukakis. With the current clown in the House, it’s hard to remember just how critical that election seemed at the time. Reagan, senile and gray, had run out of terms. It was the only way we could rid ourselves of his leather rule. We were up against it again, the Cowboy’s stern-faced fighter-pilot bureaucrat seeking us all out in with false slogans and arthritic gesticulations.
With the stage set, Kelly runs through a slew of well-timed eighties references. The discussion of the Smurfs springs to mind, as Darko himself—played, with a subtle cherubic promise he’s since wasted, by Jake Gyllenhaal—insists that Smurfs are asexual, and in one of the film’s more direct comedic moments, questions “What’s the point of living if you don’t have a dick?” Elsewhere, the family sits around watching Monday Night Football, specifically tuning in for the Washington Redskins, a team that’s fallen hard since that decade. Nods to iconic eighties’ family-programming like Who’s The Boss abound, and in a critical opening sequence the camera pans past Darko’s mother—the incomparable Mary McDonnell—to reveal she’s reading Stephen King’s It.
Most importantly for our purposes here at A Kiss After Supper of course is the paean to eighties’ music in Donnie Darko. Kelly loved specifically the UK-pop, the new-wave-dream-pop, of the decade, and his film is threaded with some of the most familiar hits of the era. Opening as Donnie rides home at dawn after waking in the middle of the road, Kelly cues INXS’s “Never Tear Us Apart.” Notably, given that we’ll be looking at the Director’s Cut of the film for this piece, the song wasn’t included in its initial theatrical release. With an additional $290,000 for the Director’s Cut, Kelly went back and paid the necessary royalties and used it to open his film. Its throbbing strings and Hutchence’s muscled vocals sit well against the odd scarlet lighting of Steven Poster’s cinematography, introducing the viewer to a film set only partially in this world.
Later, in Kelly’s introductory sequence to the major characters at Darko’s school—a cast that includes Drew Barrymore as the rebellious teacher Karen Pomeroy, Noah Wyle as Darko’s science advisor on all things time-travel, Patrick Swayze as seedy guru-spiritualist Jim Cunningham, and Beth Grant as the delightfully shrewish instructor Kitty Farmer—the clean guitars and building drums of Tears for Fears’ “Head Over Heels” begins. Kelly slows down the camera’s passage to highlight the scene’s innate surrealism, a glance at most of the film’s supporting characters gone wry in the song’s over-the-top histrionics.
During the film’s climactic party scene, as Donnie and his sister celebrate her acceptance to Harvard, Donnie opens the door to girlfriend Gretchen Ross to the gothic dance of Joy Divison’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart.” Gretchen’s mother has been in another fight with her step-father, and the song’s historical and lyrical import seems the ideal backdrop for such a fumbling at love. Gretchen’s confused and struggling, and as she turns to Darko to somehow pull her up, the song is muffled by the walls of Donnie’s bedroom and becomes ambient din. Emerging from the bedroom, Kelly closes in on the clock as a reminder of how little time Donnie has. Echo and the Bunnymen’s psychedelic string-wash “The Killing Moon” plays loud against Donnie’s increasing distortion. Voices are rimmed with reverb now for Donnie, and the song’s autumnal pull darkens his crisis.
Where most of the film’s music is simply used as timely wallpaper, Kelly isn’t beyond the shrewd use of pop music to subvert what he sees as unwelcome social trends. At the school’s talent show, after a gauche operatic performance by one student, Duran Duran’s “Notorious” is used diagetically to soundtrack Darko’s younger sister’s dance-squad showcase. As the troupe “Sparkle Motion,” five over-made-up young girls juke, still skinny of age, provocatively to Duran Duran’s overtly sexualized dance smash. The irony here is open and bold, a withering look at the vicarious pageantry of American Moms, those who push their daughters into roles they themselves were always too awkward or shy to fill. Juxtaposed with Darko’s own burning of Jim Cunningham’s house, the schism is laid plain: violence and oblique perversion are the remains of the day for American youth.
Still, the film’s most dynamic inclusion is the cover of Tears for Fears’ “Mad World” by score-composer Michael Andrews and his friend Gary Jules. Andrews needed one song for his one-man instrumental score, and he turned to Jules, with whom he’d worked in the band The Origin, to provide the vocals (interestingly, the song would eventually go to number on in the U.K., and would push sales of Gary Jules’ solo effort Trading Snakeoil for Wolftickets back into the charts). On a personal note, the first time I watched this film, I kept returning to this scene. I must have watched it fifteen straight times at full volume. My wife at the time stomped out of the bedroom and wondered just what the fuck I was doing listening to the same song in such a fevered loop.
With Andrews working solo on the piano, a Debussy-like roll that seems to pillow the film’s hazy end, Kelly traces the nights of his various characters, those left broken like Cunningham and those still lost in the gauze of adolescence. Soft strings splash against Jules’ skinny Stipe-like voice. But the music doesn’t drown the film’s sound. You can hear Cunningham cry, exposed as pedophile and a fraud. You can feel the silent light on the rabbit drawings of the-real-life Frank. You start to put things together here, and then you realize there’s no compass. You need its lack of logic; you absorb its myths and impossibilities. You don’t look in those blank corners. “I find it kind of funny/I find it kind of sad/that the dreams in which I’m dying/are the best I’ve ever had.” Like it began, a broken airplane part, of unknown source, crashes through the film’s Salingeresque saga. Raising more questions than Kelly wants to answer, as the music ends, Gretchen waves to Mrs. Darko, a woman she shouldn’t know but for the magnetic reign that draws us all in against tragedy. It’s an unbroken circle that goes oval in periphery, a serpent mouthing its own tail, but mainly, a claim to overlook the real and start again, chapter one.