Sunday, 22 July 2012

Exisentialism and Donnie Darko

Let me start this post by highlighting that I have been wanting to write about this subject for ages, but it's a case of where on earth do I start. You'll see.

One of my philosophy modules last year was one called Existentialism. While deeply fascinated by this module, the concepts it discusses also disturb me. It would be wrong of me to say that I can define this theory in a paragraph, but for the purpose of discussion I will give you a basic overview. So a way of looking at it would be that we humans bury our heads in sand in life in the way of sticking to routine - 9 to 5 jobs, routine of a work week to weekend and so on. We bury our heads for two reasons: 1) because humans fear and recoil from freedom and 2) because we don't want to face up to the fact that we are mortal beings, whom have limited existence. If we truly accepted the fact that we will cease to exist one day, we would live what philosophers' call an "authentic" existence. In sticking to routine and becoming social conformists, we not only attempt to give up our freedom and thus responsibility, but we attempt to attach meaning to things in life and thus keep our knowledge of our awareness of our own finitude at bay.

You'll probably see now after that very short overview - which has a lot of points and views missed out from it, why I was fascinated but too feared the subject matter. It opens up a can of worms because it really makes you consider your whole existence. This is the real is-there-a-point-to-it-all stuff.

In studying the subject I became aware that one of my favourite films is to be considered an existential film, for it discusses some of the topics that existentialism purports. That film is American Beauty. American Beauty is one of those films that I've always been drawn to, but it's hard to say what it is about it that I loved so much. And then I realised that it was this philosophical tie-in. So I set about googling existential films and bought a few to watch to help me understand existentialism more. And that's when I came across Donnie Darko.

If you've ever watched that film, then your mind will be just as blown as mine. If you haven't, you've got to watch it - seriously. I have watched this film too many times, and I'm still just as lost as the first time round. There are the numerous theories of the whole story itself; the contrast between a primary universe (PU) and a tangent universe (TU). We humans live in a primary universe, it's what we experience everyday. Time, for us is a stable element but, in this film it has been corrupted by a fourth dimension which creates a TU. Tangent universes are to be seen as "alternate universes" and they are highly unstable and usually last a few weeks before they collapse and destroy both itself and the PU. This is what happens in Donnie Darko, and the following 28 days in the film are set in this TU/alternate reality.  

Enough of the brief overview though, because I find the smaller philosophical discussion in the film so much more interesting. It's the juxtaposition of characters that are trying to find an authentic meaning to life in comparison to the bury-their-heads in dull routine types. You have the gym teacher at the PTA meeting arguing that a book (which is "meant to be ironic") should be overruled because of the themes it discusses, which seems ironic in itself in contrast to the immanent destruction of the world which is fast approaching their blinded lives. It almost suggests that we are so wrapped up in fear that we deny reality and therefore live inauthentically. 

Then you have Jim Cunningham, the flashy over the top Hollywood creation of a man that can make anyone overcome their fears. The characters are drawn to his promises of a fearless world, when in fact he is a corrupt and sick child pornography hoarder. Appearances can be deceiving, and appealing. The irony here is that a TV personality can't make you overcome fear, because it's something you as an individual need to face up to yourself. Jim Cunningham's character represents the suppressing of fear; which is what we humans tend to do but really we need to accept fear, because in accepting it we understand the essence of our existence. Donnie, in contrast to Cunningham, is in search of a deeper meaning to existence which goes beyond popularity, materialism and money. Donnie may well be perceived to be a prisoner by the other characters, trapped in a lonely world of schizophrenia, but he is on a path of accepting his freedom and therefore finding the truth and living authentically. At this point in the film you really see the contrast between ignorant humans preferring to deny reality; they are more interested in seeing sparkle motions dance routine instead of facing up to the truth of their existence for they desire routine, materialism and facades. Those searching for the truth are ridiculed and isolated by a society that is brainwashed through fear into following orders and committing controlled behaviour.

The ending of the film captures existentialism pretty neatly too. Donnie is lying in bed, laughing at something the audience isn't consciously made aware of. This is at the point when the jet engine comes crashing through the ceiling and kills him. The last 28 days never happened. This point to me suggests that Donnie has accepted fear, accepted his finite existence and no longer fears death. The hand wave between Gretchen and Donnie's mother hints at a concept of those manipulated in the TU (i.e. Gretchen and Donnie's romance) bearing distant connections to people in the PU. Gretchen feels something when she looks at his mother, because in an alternate, tangent universe she shared a connection with that family. This may explain why some people warm to others in life for unexplainable reasons. It's such a fantastic film on so many levels of symbolic and literal meaning. I don't think I ever want to fully understand it because you can read so many different things into it and that's what makes it such an accessible and likeable cult film.


  1. Blow my mind why don't you! haha! This may take a few reads and another watch of donnie darko to get my head round :). I absolutely love the film American Beauty as well- how is it tied in with philosophy?

    1. You're welcome :) American Beauty ties in with existentialism because Kevin Spacey's character Lester is having what is called an existential crisis. This is where he questions the meaning of life, considers his purpose and senses that life is meaningless. You get all this from the earlier narration where he says “Both my wife and daughter think I’m this gigantic loser and they’re right, I have lost something. I’m not exactly sure what it is but I know I didn’t always feel this… sedated." Upon realising he is only engaging in dull routine for fear of being used to it, he quits his job and takes responsibility for his actions and in doing that he creates authentic meaning to his life. He realises that life is meant to be lived, there's no point waiting for a future that might not happen.

      This existential outlook ends positively for in embracing freedom Lester finds happiness which you can see in the near smile on his face at the moment of his death.

      It's such a good film, I'm glad to hear you like it too!

    2. Sweeeeeeeet got it i'll watch it again with that in mind, you so deep Lauren!! haha x

    3. This is what Philosophy does to you!!! Haha

  2. As alaways Lauren another fascinating read

  3. Great read. Very well de-constructed.

    1. Thank you, I'm glad you enjoyed it. Have you watched Donnie Darko/what are your thoughts on it?