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Crazy for Amerika: “Donnie Darko” and patriotic nonconformity

Donnie Darko: The Director's Cut movie poster

“Donnie Darko” (“Donnie Darko: The Director’s Cut”)
Dir. Richard Kelly
Starring Jake Gyllenhaal
Pandora Cinema and Newmarket Films
R, 113 minutes (133 minutes), 2001 (2004)

Spoiler alert

This review covers the longer “Director’s Cut,” released in 2004.

The original “Donnie Darko” came out soon after 9/11. It didn’t do well at the box office, for a reason.

To this day – still after almost fifteen years – Amerikans who were around on September 11, 2001, and see an airplane fly over Lower Manhattan or near the Pentagon may have a reaction to that. It doesn’t mean they aren’t oppressors. It doesn’t justify anything they say or do related to 9/11 – except taking responsibility for the consequences of wars and meddling in the Middle East. Much less does it exculpate the groups these individuals belong to. No matter how much one loves them as humyns or empathizes with some of them in a medical context, it is a true generalization to say Amerikans are enemies of the oppressed in the world and have a long journey to embark on if they are to change.

Amerikans accurately sense they have much to lose and that their current levels of privilege aren’t guaranteed except by the violence and power of a state that won’t last forever. This gives rise to both reactionary movements and some mental conditions. The anxiety, depression and stress Amerikans genuinely experience may reflect aspects of their privileged lives in a system whose laws are beyond anyone’s power to nullify. However, those things don’t make Amerikans innocent or not oppressors. This is necessary to keep in mind. It’s important when thinking about an Amerikan with a mental health condition experiencing alienation, such as the protagonist in “Donnie Darko.”

Belonging to an oppressor group doesn’t mean a few individuals can’t oppose oppression. Hopefully more Amerikans will oppose their group interests, accept responsibility, and get in line with what the rest of the world needs to do in order to end wars and oppression. But, people in the First World can’t oppose their group interests in a sustained way if they don’t accept the full extent of their privilege. It’s not just that there are people worse off as is often unhelpfully said to people who are depressed, but that the sadness, exhaustion and anxiousness one feels occupies the place that happiness, activity and serenity would in compatriots who are also oppressors overall. The feeling of emptiness, the worrying, the fatigue etc. don’t take away one’s responsibility to be informed about that, to learn about related issues such as what the united $tates is doing internationally that is more important than any struggle going on just between Amerikans, and to be careful about what one says and does with the interests of the world’s oppressed majority in mind.

In “Donnie Darko,” a passenger jet’s lost engine crashes through the ceiling of an Amerikan teenager’s bedroom. The engine seemingly comes out of nowhere. The event seems to have no cause except maybe an inscrutable malevolent or menacing force. (Actually, the force might play a necessary corrective role as suggested in the director’s cut.) Donnie Darko escapes death because ey was sleeping on the golf course. Donnie seemingly has hallucinations and does the bidding of a masked figure before the viewer is taken back to square one. At that point, the falling engine kills Donnie in bed. Why Donnie? Why do events have to revolve around Donnie in the first place? Nobody can really say. There is nothing special about Donnie before the engine drops, nothing anyone else could see from eir own perspective. Even when Donnie does things that could hurt people, it seems nothing could be Donnie’s fault.

Donnie burned a house down when ey was little. Ey was playing with fire. It was an accident. Donnie ended up going to jail and may have developed a disorder where none existed before. This reviewer imagined that, in an unrevealed frame, a schizophrenic Donnie was successfully treated. Maybe the whole movie is a dream or symbolizes a therapeutic process, and Donnie is lying somewhere. At one point in the movie, Donnie does come face to face with the reality of eir responsiblity for Frank’s haunting em. If Donnie is being treated by a perhaps-unseen therapist, to what end is unclear if the ending isn’t to be taken literally. No amount of mental disorder or nonconformity can free somebody from a system of oppression, but frequently the result of therapy is to adjust to the status quo, be a more submissive child, become a more career- and lifestyle-focused adult, be a more efficient worker, be a more politically compliant prisoner, etc., or change how one behaves without really addressing the limitations imposed by a system.

In the four weeks after the engine incident and before the world ends because of a time travel -related disruption, Donnie’s seeming mental disorder is juxtaposed with the actual emptiness of Christianity, education, motivational speaking or self help, therapy and election politics in Amerika. There are multiple references to the U.$. presidential race between George H. W. Bush and former Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis. Mental health and elections are both a recurring topic in “Donnie Darko.”

Many Amerikans saw “Donnie Darko” as teenagers and felt it was edgy. The movie became a hit with the alienated. What the Amerikans who loved the movie or still love it need to ask themselves is, how did they end up in the mainstream. Why did they worship a movie that seemed to revolt against Amerikan culture, but end up getting behind wars many supported for reasons of cultural difference with non-Amerikans. Why did they support invasions, bombings and coups that reflect a failure to learn a lesson about history repeating itself. And if they think “Donnie Darko” is about the conditions of youth, how might their Western petty-bourgeois ideas about youth have led to supporting spying and military attacks against Muslim nations?

“Donnie Darko” appeals to nonconformists, but the main character does many of the things others at Donnie’s school do. Donnie even picks on Cherita Chen though to a lesser degree than others do. Donnie may just struggle while conforming. Ey says out loud what others think but keep to themselves. If one watches “Donnie Darko” closely, it is arguably patriotic and thus connects pseudo-nonconformity to patriotism. The lost jet engine tears through an Amerikan flag covering the ceiling of Donnie’s room. Donnie must have been looking at it every night. Donnie’s English teacher (played by Drew Barrymore) is one of the most likable characters. After Ms. Pomeroy is fired because of another teacher’s disagreement with eir reading assignments, ey leaves the school with a box of belongings that include the Amerikan flag; symbolically, Amerikan ideals leave with em. The “sit next to the boy you think is the cutest” teacher has a liberal feel to em as does Donnie’s parents despite the father’s supporting Bush. Another teacher, Donnie’s science teacher, can’t talk about God because ey could lose eir job. There is a former Catholic nun who left the church and became a science teacher. One can see the influence of the “sexual revolution” on the walls of Donnie’s room which Donnie’s parents furnished after the house was repaired. The notion that Islamists threaten to take down the Amerikan flag in order to intrude in Amerikans’ bedrooms is common. In this, atheist and agnostic Amerikans have found common cause with Christian Amerikans.

It isn’t mentioned in the movie, but there was a rumor during the 1988 race about Dukakis having a mental health issue. If anybody started a rumor about a presidential candidate and mental health today, it would probably be shot down unless it was, say, about a Republican with something like narcissism. Nobody wants to be known as narcissistic, schizoid, paranoid, antisocial, or schizophrenic despite sympathetic portrayals of people with schizophrenia. However, things like anxiety, depression, OCD, ADHD and PTSD are viewed more sympathetically, positively, or as justifying weed legalization. This brings me to:

Since 2001, Amerikan culture has become more psychological in the sense that some disorders are less-stigmatized, and psychological explanations are more accepted as a way to understand individuals’ behavior. Some of this is related to an increase in atheism, a topic discussed in “Donnie Darko.” Also, tens of millions of Amerikans are thought to have a diagnosable mental disorder. For many Amerikans, receiving psychiatric treatment or counseling isn’t as embarrassing as it used to be. In addition, there has been increased integration of political correctness and psychology in the last few years. After years of hysterical Amerikans’ disproportionate vengeful attacks to destroy and remake the world after 9/11, ideas taken from psychology are selectively used to support claims of potential harm to individual Amerikans in certain social groups. The injury some individuals – including the highly privileged who happen to belong to one minority group – might experience from a lesson or assignment in college is then reflected on the individuals’ group(s) regardless of anyone’s intention. It seems almost every Amerikan is potentially suffering from some trauma-related disorder and could respond to a “trigger,” because the majority of Amerikans aren’t hetero, white, non-working-class males, and even among that group there are other identities that might confer a need for protection. Yet, the solution isn’t seen as therapy for the most part in the context of trauma triggers; it is the institutionalization of post-modernist language-focused efforts and Democratic Party victories. Psychology has become a way for a majority of Amerikans to negate complicity in the exploitation and oppression of people outside the united $nakes. First World people including First World workers and First World females owe reparations to workers and toilers in the Third World, but Amerikans’ notions about their own trauma distract from this. To the extent Amerikans do have trauma-related conditions related to systems of oppression, these may not go away without recognizing their responsibility for various things including wars some are willfully ignorant about.

Psychology was used against non-whites and females for so long it is no wonder some are tempted to wield psychological language in favor of oppressed or historically oppressed identities, or deploy hysteria strategically. The effect of Amerikans’ doing such in general, though, is to make the suffering of non-Amerikans seem less important. This happens regardless of intention. An idea like “racism drives us crazy” may have been useful decades ago, when there was a particular need to defend armed resistance to Euro-Amerikan repression in the united $tates, for example. Today, it mostly leads to the Democratic Party and to integrationism.

According to the most popular school of therapy in the united $tates, all of the preferred mental disorders of Amerikans involve “dysfunctional thoughts.” It is only some disorders like schizophrenia that remain highly stigmatized among Amerikans, though, because they more obviously involve psychotic delusion. It isn’t clear to most how the flashbacks, physical symptoms etc. of PTSD (for example) could involve a delusion. So, PTSD is relatively easy to accept politically. The claims of people with schizophrenia are easier to dismiss even when they are unrelated to a hallucination or delusion. The diagnosis of schizophrenia has been used to legitimize the oppression of non-whites and institutionalize them. Schizophrenia was once a “white” disorder before Euro-Amerikans used the category as a weapon against New Afrikan people, including Malcolm X and civil rights activists. It is interesting in this context, though the word “schizophrenia” is never used, that a white teenager who is privileged in almost every way seems to have schizophrenia in “Donnie Darko.” Euro-Amerikans are diagnosed more often with anxiety and mood disorders.

The 2004 director’s cut strongly implies what Donnie experiences in the four weeks isn’t just a mental disorder or spiritual phenomenon. This belongs to a trend in movies where people aren’t really “crazy” after all despite what looks like fantastic hallucinations and delusions. Yet, that just makes “Donnie Darko” a science fiction movie and may reinforce the idea that schizophrenia really is different, making even the narcissism of many Amerikans seem unremarkable in comparison. The extremeness of schizophrenia functions to make other disorders seem more normal in contrast. One might readily accept that white males have psychotic disorders as a manifestation of privileged hysteria rather than suffering. One may do so while viewing various non-white or non-male Amerikans as having clinical conditions (or responses to certain words) that support claims of oppression, or support these Amerikans’ ideas, instead of disproving them. The fact that rich white people etc. have the same disorders and usually are right in their own eyes is inconvenient.

Donnie’s therapist relates Donnie’s behavior to not being able to deal with the forces beyond Donnie’s control that Donnie feels are threatening. No doubt everyone from the richest imperialists to the poorest citizens in the united $tates experience inability to cope with perceived threatening forces. That doesn’t mean they aren’t privileged internationally. A related idea of alienation together with false ideas about the economy, and only partial acknowledgment of privilege, can lead to fascism mislabeled “socialism.”

Donnie’s English teacher leads a discussion about a story in which a group of children who don’t want chocolate candy bribes set out destroy a beautiful old house from the inside out. (Who cares that one of the boys’ father built it.) They discover a lot of money inside a mattress. They burn the money. It is retired decorator Mr. Thomas’ savings. “We aren’t thieves,” T. says in the story. T. doesn’t hate Mr. Thomas, though. “All this hate and love, it’s soft, it’s hooey. There’s only things.” Everything must go. Even the walls must go. Donnie shares in class that “destruction is a form of creation” as the author says. “They just want to see what happens when they tear the world apart. They want to change things.” If there is any part that redeems the movie, this is it. The short story – Graham Greene’s “The Destructors” – may not be as important as what Donnie says. It has to do with taking action in the First World that doesn’t involve seeking money for some group, such as a group of u$ or British workers. There is a great temptation to want to change things but keep most of the printed and digital money in the First World for the people there, when the system should be destroyed. Strategically sawing the beautiful old house into pieces – a metaphor for destroying the system – and leaving the money instead of stealing what was stolen from others, are better than some notion of bankers oppressing First World workers by hoarding money those workers deserve. The reality is First World so-called workers benefit from capitalist exploitation mostly of Third World workers. Some claim to want to destroy the system, but would deprive the Third World of the reparations owed it and would perpetuate the differences giving rise to imperialism.

It’s unfortunate the idea of not caring about money may just remind many viewers of terrorism or of destruction for its own sake. Some of what Donnie does doesn’t really change anything or is unfocused rebelliousness aimed at some people and property who happen to be around em. Nonetheless, this reviewer recommends watching “Donnie Darko” again – or for the first time – despite its limitations if anyone is still thinking of voting in a First World election. ◊

MIM Theory Number 9 : Psychology & Imperialism, 1995.

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