Saw Donnie Darko yesterday. In my mind, this is what a good "Signs" would have been like. All that searcher stuff, sci-fi themes(Time Travel for Darko, Alien Invasion for Signs), but even though both have dumb coincidences that make Divine Providence seem like a bad stage director, Donnie Darko is aware of this and references the "Deus ex Machina" concept a few times. It's not clear whether Donnie turns away from his agnostic flirtations, though I might see something on a repeat viewing. Shaymalan was far too obvious about Mel Gibson's character's return to Christianity. Donnie Darko is to superb Twilight Zone episodes as Signs is to pretty bad Twilight Zone episodes.
I remember somebody on the internet(Kathy Shaidle, maybe?) saying this movie was dead-on about the decline of Catholic schooling in the '70s and '80s. It is a Catholic school that looks like it is either a Jesuit or a former Jesuit school, a IHS being carved beneath the cross, but no priests or nuns, nor even religious pictures are in sight--supposedly this is representative of '80s Catholic schools. The only really smart teachers are either closet atheists, like the physics teacher who knows how not to upset the administration, or are teachers thwarted by the administration, like the English teacher hesitaningly played by Drew Barrymore, who is fired for teaching a mildly-edgy Graham Greene short story. Her last words to Donnie, her prize student? She tells about a great unnamed linguist who declared "cellar door" the most beautiful phrase in the English language, a point reference later in the movie. And that unnamed linguist turns out to be none other than J.R.R. Tolkien, whose name is never spoken in the movie. The writer-director sure knows his Catholic authors.
A "health" teacher passes off insipid pseudo-psychology as great insight that supposedly fits in perfectly well with the great tradition of Catholic self-analysis when it really only fits in with the most bourgeois forms of autoerotic self-improvement and middle-class worries about the economic and psychological, and not spiritual, effects of premarital sex on teens. Students are asked to place themselves on a single spectrum, one side being Fear, the other Love. The inspiration for this ever-so-intricate system is the health teacher's hero, a local self-help guru played by Patrick Swayze, a nice nod to the film's setting in the late '80s.
Donnie Darko gets into trouble after criticizing his teacher for her system's utterly simplistic way of ordering human relations--even more simple than the Enneagram, if that is possible--and gets so infurated he makes a obscene, uncalled-for comment that gets him a suspension. He also declares the self-help guru to be the "f*cking anti-Christ" during the guru's insipid "special" school assembly lecture. I'll have to refer any would-be defenders of the Enneagram to this movie.
Speaking of the Enneagram and bad pop psychology in contemporary Catholicism, the only retreat I went during college was an almost utterly worthless Enneagram-based retreat put on by the university's Catholic parish, redeemed only by the mass and the opportunity for confession. I know one man of the utmost charity and intellect who was kicked out of a Redemptorist seminary for writing a thoughtful and devastating critique of the pretensions of the Enneagram system to good psychology and Christian orthodoxy. (Behold! It is Online! See the Essays in Theology Section) The Enneagram was a favorite of this ex-postulant's superiors, so they booted him for putative rigidity, forever keeping him from the priesthood because American vocations directors generally take the judgement of other vocations directors at their face value.
But I digress. I'm curious about the near-absence of the authoritative voice in the contemporary arts, so I kept looking for the "true guru figure." In the old Twilight Zone episodes, for instance, the authority is always the voice of Rod Sterling and sometimes the weridos. Frankly, there is no such voice that is not in some way undermined by the movie, with the exception of "Grandma Death," the ex-nun turned time travel philosopher turned senile old lady who has no speaking role, only whispering to Donnie a silent phrase later revealed to be the haunting words "Every living creature dies alone." Perhaps the dismissed English teacher is one of the wiser characters, but her dealings with her less bright students show impatience as well as personal and professional immaturity.
So in other words, everybody's human and flawed. Hooray for flaws!
Nice work that looks like it would bear repeat viewings. My greatest reservation is that it is a bit too subtle for the casual viewer. There's also an unfortunate scene where Donnie's pre-teen sister asks the meaning of the obscenity she just witnessed her older siblings fling at each other. Having kids say obscene words in movies is really pervy in my eyes.