Friday, May 19, 2023

Donnie Darko and Southland Tales at the Rio, with Richard Kelly in attendance (updated and expanded)

1. Southland Tales night (written BEFORE the Donnie Darko screening)

I couldn't resist. I had never seen Southland Tales, and Erika was occupied, so I was present last night for the Rio's screening of it. I must say that I had a lot of fun. A few cineastes were bemusedly chatting in the lobby about how "incoherent" Southland Tales had been - a sort of chuckling, head-scratching, "well-I'm-not-mad-BUT" kind of puzzlement - and I observed that I felt it was PERFECTLY coherent, I was just utterly excluded from that coherency. 

At least one of them laughed! 

But I've never felt excluded from Donnie Darko. It's a very, very weird film in its own right, but somehow it feels less so; the sense at the end of the film that you've completed a perfect circle is somewhat overpowering, so much so that you might not even notice, if you're not of a mind to reflect on it, that it's almost impossible to EXPLAIN what you've just seen. It's a film Erika isn't very fond of, so since I don't get a lot of time for movie-watching on my own (and when I do, generally prefer to look at films I have not seen before), I've bought a ticket to this. I mean, when else will I have the chance to see Donnie Darko with the filmmaker in attendance?

Richard Kelly seems a very pleasant person. Surprisingly young: he's still in his 40s, but registers as much younger than that. He has a sense of humour, and seems actually able to identify with people who don't understand his films (at one point joking about Southland Tales being "incomprehensible;" he acknowledges that the struggle is real). 

I wonder what cut of Donnie Darko they're playing? Has the director's cut won the day, for events like this? I prefer the theatrical, but I've only seen the director's cut one time through, so I'm willing to go with either. 

I guess we don't get to hear any other Rebekah Del Rio songs tomorrow. She's amazing. One of the high points of last night was hearing her perform "Mad World" (partially in Spanish - "Mundo Loco"). Much as I'd have loved to come away with an album that that was on, it is not available on any of her recordings (yet); I asked. Which makes having heard it even more special.

If I'd had cash and if one of the albums on her merch table had been her debut album, not a Twin Peaks soundtrack, I'd have bought it (but I might hold out now until something with "Mundo Loco" comes out - she did say that something was in the works).

2. Donnie Darko night

That's weird: tickets weren't cheap, it was a Friday night - and yet that was the busiest film screening I've been to since the start of COVID, I think. The Rio was packed. The average age of the patrons was maybe 25. And some of them hadn't even seen the film before! 

Richard Kelly seems like an extraordinarily nice guy. He was a little less forthcoming with the huge audience last night than the smattering of devotees who turned out for Southland Tales, and questions had to be spread out judiciously - because there were plenty of them. They were all interesting, and Rachel Fox did a find job mediating ("questions, not statements!"), but there were tons I didn't get to ask - for instance:

With Southland Tales, Kelly had given a nod to Kiss Me Deadly, but hadn't mentioned Alex Cox or Repo Man, in spite of the flying/ glowing vehicle at the end. Would have been interesting to talk to him about that - about his feelings about Cox's filmography. If Donnie Darko is Kelly's Repo Man, is Southland Tales his Straight to Hell

Or, say... the moment in Donnie Darko when Donnie is first lost in the mirror, communing with Frank, and Samantha interrupts him and asks, "Who are you talking to?" - there's a feeling of a visual effect there, as Donnie "snaps out of it," but while it is very striking in terms of the effect, it's immensely subtle on the eyes; you feel it, are jolted by it, even, more than you actually see it, so much so that I wonder if it's all down to Jake Gyllenhaal's performance. Is there a visual effect there? If so, what?

When Noah Wyle's character, the science prof, says he's not going to be able to continue the conversation lest he lose his job, is it because he wants to tell Donnie that "there is no God?" ...because an American high school teacher sure wouldn't be able to get away with that...

...and so, does Kelly believe in any conception of God? Because there's something quite mystical and profound about the film... Donnie is "following God's path," as he says. So is Donnie Christ? Some questions, you just know will make your fellow audience members groan...

Speaking of which - was Kelly cognizant of Nietzsche's eternal return of the same when he wrote the film? There is something of the eternal return in it: the idea of affirming life so deeply, living in such a way that you can embrace and accept even your most painful moment as something that will repeat itself eternally, of refusing to say no even to this... Donnie is laughing as he goes to bed at the end of the film; I think Nietzsche would have approved. I also think that asking this question would have seemed very, very pretentious, though maybe less so than the "Donnie as Jesus" question, since people wouldn't know what the fuck I was talking about (do kids today even know who Nietzsche was? I somehow doubt it). 

But, like, some people HAVE read Nietzsche. It's not entirely obvious that Kelly is among them, however; it could just be that Nietzsche is on MY back, filtering my read of the ending... who knows... 

Those are the questions I didn't get to ask. The one that I *did* get to ask - I expressed shock to discover that Kelly is, still, a pretty young guy. He was born in 1975 - he's 48, the same age as Drew Barrymore. When the events that happen in Donnie Darko take place, he was barely a teenager. Having had no idea before these events how young he was, I had assumed he had - like I did - grown up fucked up in the suburbs, that Donnie was an analogue for him (in asking the question, I said that I was "almost as fucked up" as Donnie was at the time, but - tempting tho' it was - I did not enumerate how; suffice to say that it would be interesting to know if LSD was a factor in Kelly's youth, since 1988 was about when I began my experimentations with that drug...). His answer was interesting, noting that the difference between 1988 and 2001, when the film came out, was no greater than the difference between the present day and 2011, but the level of cultural change between '88 and '01 was vastly more substantial. He talked about 80's nostalgia films (The Wedding Singer, also with Barrymore, was one of the only other ones around) and about how he'd had an older brother who helped give him a feeling of a connection to the decade. I had figured the lure of the 1980s might have had something to do with his soundtrack choices but, though he mentioned music, it didn't seem to be the overriding factor.

It was interesting to hear, but it wasn't the best question or most interesting answer of the night. The best question came from the back of the house, and involved the whole "kiddie porn" angle. Donnie's reconfiguration of time (spoiler alert? If you haven't seen the film, you have no business in this paragraph, but do what thou wilt, I guess) has mostly net benefits; by virtue of Donnie embracing his own death, Gretchen and Frank aren't killed, and Drew Barrymore's character doesn't lose her job (because the school isn't flooded, etc). Donnie is selflessly setting things right, sacrificing himself... except for one detail, that Jim Cunningham - Patrick Swayze's - kiddie porn ring is NOT busted, if Donnie doesn't burn down his house. So - the questioner asked - does the kiddie porn just continue?

And thus was revealed something that you SENSE in the film, but that isn't by any means explicit: that what you see in the "Mad World" montage, after the now-missing month of October that everyone has lived through then been dragged back to the beginning of, by virtue of Donnie's manipulation of time, is evidence of the "residual effects" of said month (most of this is not verbatim but I believe those last two were the words Kelly used). It's not just Donnie who has travelled in time - he's brought the whole world back with him! We see Kitty waking up troubled and Cunningham crying, and the idea is - though the details are left mysterious - she's somehow realized the truth about him because of these residuals. He's crying because - obscurely, unclearly - he knows he has somehow been busted! 

...So no, the kiddie porn does not continue, though it would have if Frank and Donnie - because it's two of them, really - hadn't manipulated time as they do. Just like it's only by virtue of assenting to his death that Donnie saves Gretchen and Frank, it's only by virtue of Frank and Donnie going through their own journey, beginning in Frank's own death, that Cunningham is busted, in either version of the world. Cunningham wouldn't have been busted if Donnie hadn't lived through October, even though Donnie ends up dying in the... second October? See what I mean about the film being inexplicable...? 

But it really is a happy ending all around! 

The other fun detail of Kelly's Q&A is that apparently, when Kelly was doing post-production of the film, he shared space in an all-night lab with a crew who was working on a Madonna video, and he made her a cappuccino. (He also laid out a meticulously crafted cheese-and-crackers plate, but she didn't touch that - "too many carbs?" he speculated, but noted that she did drink the cappuccino.) 

(A residual effect of that last paragraph is that I discovered I have no idea how to spell cappuccino. I guess I have never tried to write the word before. I mean, I've fixed it now, but I was like, "two Ps one C? One P two Cs?" Took me three tries to lose the red squiggle.)

Also loved Kelly's remark that in choosing to set the film in the 1980s, he dodged certain contemporary phenomenon: "I didn't want him to have a blog," Kelly quipped. I chuckled. I thought of another fucked up 80s kid and his blog. It's probably all-round better for Donnie that he didn't have something like this.

Oh, and it was the theatrical cut. That was nice. Kelly acknowledged fondness for both versions but thought the theatrical cut was better for a first-time audience. I agree, though now I want to see the director's cut again!

Thanks to the Rio Theatre and Rachel Fox for two very entertaining nights with Richard Kelly - one of the most personable filmmakers I've interacted with, ever. If you get a chance to see Southland Tales and Donnie Darko with the director in attendance - if this event, billed as the "Fluid Karma tour," really IS a tour, and it comes to your city - do go to both films (hint: you'll get a much more intimate audience with the former, which means more chances to interact, ask questions, request signings, etc). Sure glad I did both nights! 

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