Monday, July 18, 2005


Yesterday afternoon I watched Donnie Darko for the first time--after months of urging from friends and students (and my daughter, who went out and bought a copy just so I would watch it.)

I found it fascinating, disturbing, brilliant. The people who urged me to see it had already provided me with an interpretive framework (i.e., "it's a story about time travel," "find The Philosophy of Time Travel on the web before you watch," etc.), so I wasn't quite tabula rasa when I sat down in the recliner yesterday. But I was prepared to be dazzled and puzzled, and the movie lived up to my expectations.

I'm still working through the connections, but two parallels came to mind as I finished watching the movie, and they represent two completely different readings of the movie. The first is Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five, where Pilgrim becomes unfixed in time and moves back and forth between the events of his life. If we take this as a parallel, we "read" Donnie Darko in a fairly literal way--it's just a story about time travel, how a paranoid schizophrenic loved and saved his family and girlfriend by (unwittingly) offering himself in their places. Other than the obvious parallels, I don't see this comparison as particularly fruitful.

The second parallel, which I DO find fruitful and suggestive, is Ambrose Bierce's "Incident at Owl Creek Bridge," set in the Civil War. As I remember the story: a Confederate soldier (Peyton Fahrquar is his name, I think) is executed by Union troops, who hang him from an improvised gallows. As the soldier dies, his mind creates an escape narrative--the rope breaks, he falls into the water below Owl Creek Bridge, escapes from the Union patrols, hides, and some 24-48 hours later, returns home to the woman he loved and left behind to join the conflict.

This entire scenario plays out in his mind, real as life, in the seconds it takes for the Union rope to break his neck and kill him. The story is told as if the escape narrative was "real"--first time readers don't know until they finish the story that it was all in Fahrquar's head. The last scene of the story is the conclusion of the first scene of the story--the rope didn't snap, Fahrquar's neck did.

Can we "read" the narrative of Donnie Darko as the final spasm's of Donnie's consciousness as he is crushed to death beneath a jet engine? In other words: the final few minutes of the movie would be all that "really happened," everything else--from Donnie waking up in the opening moment of the movie to him kissing (?) his sister and falling asleep, having set things to right--is an escape narrative created by his mind as a way to deal with death?

Donnie is told during the movie that, "Every living creature dies alone." This seems to be his bete noir. By inventing the story of Frank, saving Gretchen, etc., his mind makes sure that he does not die alone. He gets to be a Savior, and the hero of the story he's created.


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