Personal Essay: Difficult Movies, Hard Thinking, And Donnie Darko

Not too long ago, I loved difficult movies in the same way that I loved difficult novels. Not because they were obscure or hard to understand, but because they grappled with issues I thought were important: the nature of reality, love, death, pain, freedom. If it didn’t require at least a little effort on the part of the viewer or reader to engage, I didn’t think it was worth anyone’s time, and especially not my time. I mocked people who thought that movies should be popcorn fare, full of explosions and happy endings, who wanted mere entertainment. Film, I insisted, could and should be an art form. Anything less was trash, and people who enjoyed it uncritically were philistines.

More recently I’ve been avoiding movies altogether. I won’t watch the bad ones, but I won’t watch the good ones either. And not just movies: I’ve avoided novels, even full-length nonfiction, and read more magazines and blogs, especially those about abstractions, humor, economics, or design. I still disdain escapist novels and movies, but I’ve been avoiding the intellectual and emotional effort required to engage in a more serious work of art as well. After I saw “Lost in Translation” I felt hollowed out inside; although the movie was excellent, I don’t often have the emotional energy to engage with something difficult in the way that I used to.

Then, Sunday night, I finally saw Donnie Darko, and it was exactly the sort of movie I’d been avoiding: a dark and confusing portrayal of a young man slipping into paranoid delusions. The protagonist, Donnie, has no truly coherent world, only these shards of experience that he can’t quite put together. The adults around him have assembled their world-views, and stick to them: the unsympathetic teacher with her psychobabble, the father with his conservative politics… None of those world-views are entirely accurate, and Donnie’s presence often unsettles others, who are suddenly aware of the flaws in their own conceptions of themselves and their worlds.

But of course, having a consistent and comprehensible reality is a key part of being an adult. You build yourself a coherent, self-reinforcing ideology and world-view and you live in it like a shell. The sun rises every day. My political party is the better one. My nation is great, despite its flaws. I love my family. My work matters. I am not a soulless automaton.

Donnie has none of that, but he tries to build one– the problem being that he’s got to analyze every bit of reality and weigh its meaning. When two pieces fit together, it’s a sign, not a coincidence. If someone mentions that “cellar door” is a beautiful phrase, then something important will happen near a cellar door. I’ve felt that way, although not to the psychotic hallucinatory extent Donnie does: There’s a meaning in this, there’s poetry in this, there’s something here that needs to be examined. The examined life is quite tiring. Learning means, in many ways, learning what is not worth examining, and then passing it by. The poet, the artist, the philosopher, and the paranoid schizophrenic have in common that they refuse to ignore certain things, and instead find great meaning in them. It’s hard work, though.

When I was in high school, I took classes where I read Shakespeare, Aristotle, Unamuno, Garcia Marquez, and Tolstoy, and spent my days in this fog of analysis. We had a visitor one day, a former star pupil, who had graduated from college and was working in a law firm, and who said he just didn’t do much of the deep thinking and reading we were doing in our class: it was just too hard, and offered too little reward. I thought he was a fool, but I’m doing the same thing now.

That is, I’ve built myself a shell and kept out confusion and poetry because it’s too hard to deal with. I’ve been trying not to think, because it’s easier that way. And not just a little easier– look at what happens to Donnie.

As I got out of high school and really began to understand what it was to live in my head, and how I could grow up to be a functional human being instead of just stumbling around with my emotional entrails in my hands, I said to myself and to anyone who would listen: “I never want to go back to that. I never want to do that again. I will not do it.” So, I built my shell. I detached myself from experience as much as possible.

I mean, sure, nobody actually wants to feel bad. Neque porro quisquam est qui dolorem ipsum quia dolor sit amet, consectetur, adipisci velit, as the ancients said. But at what point does pain avoidance become cowardice?

It did, I think, at some point along the line. And now, here I am. Self-satisfied, twenty-seven, making fun of people with squalling, chubby brats at the next table, trying to dress like the boss. I imagine that for most people, there’s an exterior shell and there’s someone else inside. And I guess that I’ve got someone in here, somewhere, as well. But I’ve put so much into that shell, I’ve tried to become it. I’ve committed intellectual, artistic, emotional suicide. I’ve taken the easy way out.

We are the hollow men,
We are the stuffed men,
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw.

2 thoughts on “Personal Essay: Difficult Movies, Hard Thinking, And Donnie Darko”

  1. I could make a crack about forcing you to come out and see “13 Going on 30,” which I still might do, but this is one my favorite things that that you’ve written.


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