Sunday, April 1, 2012

"How do you explain midgets? Or sock monkeys?"

Many years ago, I made the mistake of telling a David Lynch acolyte that I'd seen TWIN PEAKS: FIRE WALK WITH ME and hadn't cared much for it at all. He asked if I'd ever seen any of the TWIN PEAKS series and I had to admit that I hadn't. "Well that's just STUPID," he remarked and, I gotta admit, he was right. FIRE WALK WITH ME presumes your familiarity with TWIN PEAKS and delivers a whole lot more to a fan of the series. Eventually, I put the situation to rights, watching the complete run of the series and following it with FIRE WALK WITH ME. I'm still not a huge fan of the last section of FIRE (as fantastic as Sheryl Lee's performance is, the demystification of Laura Palmer is a bit unnecessary) but I can definitely appreciate it more having enjoyed the two-season run of the TV series.

The main point of this ambling prologue? For this year's White Elephant Blogathon, I was assigned S. DARKO, the 2007 straight-to-DVD sequel to Richard Kelly's 2001 cult favorite, DONNIE DARKO. I've never seen the latter, nor do I ever intend do. Even before destroying my life by watching S. DARKO, I had no intention of seeing DONNIE DARKO. It feels like a thing that has come and gone and I had to be there to really appreciate it. (It didn't help that, at the time of it's release, most of the DONNIE DARKO proselytizers I knew usually tended to be people I actively disliked.) For me to watch DONNIE DARKO now seems like plunging head first into the Harry Potter books/movies or trying to get into Pogs or Pokemon or something. What's the use? The cultural relevance of these things diminishes daily.

But I digress. The only two points of reference I had going into S. DARKO were two items, culled from the Netflix page for the film.

The cast, a veritable cavalcade of nobodies:

And this:

They're being VERY generous with that extra fifth of a star.

S. DARKO opens with a back story crawl in a font that somehow manages to be more annoying than Comic Sans:

And how about that prose? Or is it blank verse? Either way, it reads like it was written by a gloomy 14 year-old during homeroom. "And when darkness consumes the starlight, nightmares rule the night..."

Next, we meet the title heroine, Samantha Darko. She's embarking on a cross-country trip from her home state of Virginia to Hollywood. She's accompanied by her friend, Corey, who dresses like the Halloween store version of a hippie:
Corey is all about, like, whatever, man, just having a good time, and loosen up, let's get wasted and stuff, you know? She's the free spirit to counter Samantha's troubled, dark(o) soul.

The film immediately plunges into a lengthy montage set to a terrible Julee Cruise knock-off, while the girls road trip the light fantastic through the USA. It's shot and edited like a '90s music video -- lots of shots of the girls waving their arms in the air, exchanging private laughs, bopping to the music, etc.

The thing about this montage -- the thing about this whole movie, really -- is how presumptuous it is. It assumes, not two minutes into this film, that we're invested enough in these characters to really track with them during a wordless sequence of them just being them. It immediately throws the film's storytelling into a deficit. The characters (or filmmaking) are going to have to suddenly become a lot more interesting to justify this assumed familiarity. The subtitle of the film -- A Donnie Darko Tale -- aches with the filmmakers' presumption that there will be call for more such tales that further expound upon the Darko omniverse; perhaps even a TWIN PEAKS-like spinoff TV series. As arrogant as this presumption is, there's something kind of heartbreaking in its cluelessness.

Anyway, during the montage we get a little taste of the filmmakers' idea of symbolism. Samantha hangs out the window with a pinwheel...

... only to have the wind whip it out of her hand and onto the road, where another car crushes it underwheel:


The girls breakdown and soon meet a greaser heartthrob in a nowhere town, inaugurating a love triangle that so obviously rips off -- I'm sorry, pays homage to -- TWIN PEAKS' Laura Palmer/Donna Hayward/James Hurley trio.

All of my TWIN PEAKS/David Lynch rambling at the beginning had another point: there's no one the filmmakers want to be more than Lynch. In the writing -- characters often speak in non sequiturs -- the setting -- something sinister lurks in small town America! -- and, above all, the forced quirkiness, the filmmakers (who I won't name out of animus AND out of laziness; it would require more research and I have got to get to bed) are aiming for Lynch and falling far of the mark. The next time someone says that all Lynch does is cobble together a buncha weird stuff and make it not make sense on purpose so that people only think it's art... well, it's a lot harder than it looks. Lynch's work has an internal consistency that marries his form and substance perfectly. S. DARKO can only reach for pastiche:

Look at this image. Two pretty, young, all-American girls in that most wholesome of venues -- the soda shop/diner -- sharing a milkshake with crazy straws while two Men In Black walk in stage right (you can only see the one in this frame grab)... it wants so badly to be a Lynch film.

But enough about that.

I started to write out, in detail, the plot to S. DARKO but got depressed and angry. Here it is in a nutshell:

Samantha can't dream anymore so she sleepwalks and becomes this demon girl who possesses a Desert Storm vet who has this weird phallic pseudopod he uses to burn down a church and blow up a windmill. Samantha dies in a car wreck. Then her friend reverses time so that her friend dies in the car wreck instead. And then meteors start to destroy the earth. And then Samantha reverses time so that all the events in the movie never actually happened.

Ultimately, it becomes tiring to take swipes at S. DARKO. It’s pretentious, dull, and horribly realized. But I can't waste too much more energy on it. The fact is, it's not funny-bad like CRIMES OF PASSION or chilling-bad like TRIUMPH OF THE WILL (my two previous White Elephants). It's just BAD.

However, here are some randoms:

- Overall, the film has the feeling of a sequel that, for legal reasons, is not allowed to fully use its predecessor's cache of characters and ideas. It feels like it sidesteps a lot of overt references to DONNIE DARKO. Richard Kelly has made it clear that he had nothing to do with S. DARKO and, if he's reading this, I'm sure he knew a lot better and I wonder if maybe he's had a chance to look at the query letters I sent Darko Entertainment a few years ago. (That script is still available for your perusal, buddy!)

- The film takes place in 1995 and the filmmakers are careful to bludgeon the audience with pointless period signifiers. The O.J. Simpson trial plays in the background of one scene, a Daniel Johnston shirt is worn (out of character, I may add with futility) by Corey, Sam watches an infomercial for the George Foreman Grill in her hotel room, and a cop actually uses the phrase "I support Desert Storm and everything" in 1995 for some reason. The soundtrack also employs two of my favorite '90s one hit-wonders: "Hobo-Humpin' Slobo Babe" by Whale and "Black Metallic" by the Catherine Wheel.

- John Hawkes -- having a good time doing a slight variation on Dennis Weaver's motel keeper in TOUCH OF EVIL -- is the only good actor in the film. He's barely in it.

- The crazed Iraq War vet is a totally overwrought and offensive stereotype; see also the films' Christian characters, who are all mindless creeps who may or may not be child murderers. Even though he's homeless and crazy, the vet seems to have access to a rather intricate and impressive forge. There's a brief montage of him toiling to create the metal mask version of whatever that dumb rabbit thing was in the first Darko Tale.

I’m sure the intended effect here was for fans of the first film to raise their eyebrows and go “oh ho!” in anticipation of some delightful twist that would bring it all back around to the events in DONNIE DARKO. I can imagine these fans were disappointed.

- The dialogue. Wow. At one point, after the church is burnt down, a resident of the town asks a law enforcement agent how he explains what happened. "I don't know," the cop replies. "How do you explain midgets or sock monkeys?"

There's also a scene where Samantha confronts Corey, who's riding around with her new boy toy and getting drunk. Samantha asks why they can't leave the nowhere town yet.

COREY: Because we’re having fun.
SAMANTHA: Drinking warm beer and dry humping to Journey?

And then, in an amazing cutaway, we see two goons in the back seat with an uncomfortable looking girl sandwiched between them. We've never seen these characters and will not see them again. The two goons high five and say

GOONS: Boo yah!

- That dumb rabbit thing shows up in the film's epilogue, as a food sculpture on the plate of a science nerd who the film implies might pick up the Darko mantle:

Again: the filmmakers have a tragic case of wishful thinking. 

The final shot couldn't be more vapid:
That's S. Darko herself, defacing the window of the bus that's taking her back to Virginia. Good riddance.

Who asked for this? Was there really a horde of mutant DONNIE DARKO fans who needed to know what happened to his sister? I’m, like, MAD that I did this. Life is too short. Time is too precious. The night is full of nightmares.

I’ve got the Three Colors Trilogy and about 100 other unwatched-as-of-yet Criterion discs just begging to be reveled in and I spend 100 minutes with this hot garbage?!

I can say with certainty that I'm never participating in the White Elephant Blogathon again. Until next year.


  1. Hello, hope you enjoyed my choice of movie.
    Too bad you couldn't watch my original and actually good suggestion, this was out of grudge.
    I'm sorry you say so many mean things about Donnie Darko, since is my favorite movie of all time (while this may be one of the worst movies ever made).
    Hope one day you can go and see Donnie Darko not as a cultural-time thing, but as an actual film with a lot to say about ourselves.
    It's deeper than you think bud, it's not an 80's check list like many seem to claim and make people think it is.
    Anyway, I'm sorry you had to watch this one, my original submission was GREAT.

  2. Jaime: Thanks for your words and, yes, I deserve what I got for renegging on LOVE EXPOSURE (and for giving some poor sucker ROLLER GATOR my first year on the White Elephant roster).

    As for the mean things... I was so twisted and embittered against S. DARKO that I took it out a little bit on its forebear. I suppose I'll get around to DONNIE DARKO some day, it's just very low on my list of priorities (cinematic or otherwise). I did enjoy Kelly's insane-in-a-good-way THE BOX (but skipped SOUTHLAND TALES).

    Thanks again! And boy-o-boy do you know how to pick a grudge movie! I'd hate to be your enemy.