Here they are:

  1. No one knows what’s important
  2. There is no “we”
  3. Context, identity and affinities matter
  4. The essence of cinema lives between your ears
  5. Nobody’s perfect
  6. Films make memories
  1. No one knows what’s important

One thing I’ve noticed as I’ve tried, for the last three months, to catch up on all the movies I’ve missed seeing over this past decade — 6 years of which were lived outside the United States, one year of that spent homeless and all of them, wherever I was, lived poor if nearly always with Internet access — I’ve noticed that I can never be sure what films will remain important — and I’ll give them that word although I’m not so comfortable with it. I prefer “enduring”, a less pretentious word and it’s meant as more personal than cultural.

So, as I’ve re-watched films that stuck in my mind for one reason or another, or made it onto lists or into reviews on my blog [possibly NSFW], I’ve been surprised which ones have stuck with me and still mean something, even 9 years later. I’ve also been surprised that I’ve forgotten films that I remembered liking or even wrote about and now can’t remember the last time they crossed my mind. United 93 is one of them, and I’ll talk more about that film and that experience under point #3.

I’m not so surprised that a big chunk of films that still resonate come from early in the decade. I’m reckless with most things in my life and quick to judge people, but I need to live with movies in order to make up my mind about them. That’s one reason I would never make a good film critic: Too slow, too prone to make provisional judgments. I will say: Films that I felt strongly about then I still feel strongly about now for the same reasons; that is, if I still feel strongly about them. If you understand me.

Three months of thinking about it, and after years of watching it many, many times, Donnie Darko still feels like the most enduring film experience I’ve had this decade. No suspense; there it is. Now you don’t have to wait several weeks to discover my number one as I make my way through the films of the last decade.

I was visiting a friend in New York in the fall of 2001. I had just helped him move to Brooklyn from Chicago. During our time in Chicago, we had been passionate friends. We were there for the September 11 attacks on the Twin Towers. That week had been sunny; the week we saw Donnie Darko the weather in NYC had turned cold and gray. I don’t remember the theater in which we saw Richard Kelly’s debut film, other than me and Santosh, there were only two other people watching with us, and I don’t remember why I chose Donnie Darko. It might have had something to do with the film’s poster, featuring a young Jake Gyllenhaal wearing a goofy t-shirt in a sexy-dorky way, that single vein on his arms showing the way to a burgeoning maturity, and bearing an expression that reminded me of one of Jack Nicholson’s many demented masks in The Shining.

I remember being the one who chose it and I enjoy taking responsibility for that decision. I would hate to think I would never get a chance to watch one of my favorite movies in a real theater on a large screen. I never have again.

Santosh and I looked at each other once during the movie — maybe after the second appearance of Frank, the giant bunny rabbit. Our wide eyes met and we both giggled. We talked later about how we’d felt we’d discovered something special, something weird, something significant. At the time I appreciated the film’s quirky humor and its sci-fi inflected mystery (attributes mitigated by the pointless Director’s Cut.) but after watching it many times since, I came to regard its pathos as equally effective.

Donnie Darko, the teenage character, struggles against his sense that most everything everyone else knows is wrong — his teachers, his parents, the self-help guru played by Patrick Swayze — and the conviction, but also the guilt, that knowing what’s right will isolate him categorically. Jake Gyllenhaal performs this character with a commitment he’s never matched again: Self-knowledge ruptured by self-pity, delusion and bathos and returning to touch down on sardonic wisdom, all fluidly delivered by Gyllenhaal.
In the scenes with his therapist, played by a dry and subtly presented Katherine Ross, Gyllenhaal shows his stuff:

“The search for God is absurd?” Dr. Lillian Thurman asks, by rote, and changing the tone of the subject from the personal to the abstract. What they had been discussing previously was if it were possible to ever truly know another human being.

“It is if everyone dies alone,” Donnie answers, sounding like a wizened old man.

“Does that scare you?”

Again, the therapist uses a tired shrink-question. In these sessions, her character alternates between boredom, empathy and repulsion.

Donnie pauses and decides not to answer the question directly, but rather puts the conversation back on track:

“I don’t wanna be alone,” he whimpers, back to being a kid.

Yet, this kid ends up being the hero and savior of a catastrophic, fantastic scenario only he understands and only he can put right and it kills him. “The dreams in which I’m dying are the best I’ve ever had/It’s a mad world.” Teen angst to the maximum.

So, I don’t know about all this “important film” stuff. Donnie Darko was an important film to me, and to me and Santosh together, a far more significant and satisfying confluence than I could possibly describe to you in an essay of this size. It surprised me to find out that Donnie Darko was important to almost 200,000 other folks who rated it highly on IMDb: DD is #124 among the top 250 films on that site. Who knows what they felt when they saw it or if they valued the same things I valued about it. I know what I felt and what I remember.

If a critic uses the phrase, “the most important film of the…” he’s trying to make a name, probably for himself, less laudably, or maybe for a movie that he feels passionate about, which is excusable, but still, it’s not honest. Further, I’m suspicious of the motives of anyone who calls something important. Important to whom? Doesn’t that matter? If there’s not an agenda attached to that word then there’s an implied hierarchy. Don’t put impute your hierarchy on me, man.

If I’m not sure what I’ll feel about a film at next sitting, and I often don’t know quite how I feel, I write my responses honestly, laying my cards, my context, my provisions, on the table, and trying to convey how this or that film made me feel, in those moments when I saw it, in those times when I thought about it afterward, and during the effort I took to write about it and communicate those feelings to someone else. Films make memories, a concept I’ll get to in another post. What’s important in that process is to be honest, and then whoever’s listening can decide what’s important for herself.

I’m happy to leave the judgment of importance for the film historians: Critics who write books, not blog posts or press releases or even 500 word articles in Salon.

I’ll cover the other points in future posts.