Monday, 24 October 2011

Donnie Darko: a true contemporary classic

Donnie Darko crept into cinemas six weeks after 9/11. Out in the real world a decade of confusion, paranoia and fear had began, so it was no surprise audiences stayed away. Richard Kelly's movie is a strange, dark work full of unusual and occasionally unpleasant characters behaving in disturbing and destructive ways. It could have even been the film’s bittersweet streak, as punishing and beautiful as a night spent with the object of your unrequited love, which kept the box office receipts low. Whatever the reason, the film didn’t break even on its theatrical release and grossed little more than $4.1 million across the globe, $400,000 less than it cost to make.

Ten years on, the film has become a success for a host of reasons. Like many of the best movies, it snags one’s mind first time around but rewards on each repeated watch, offering up unmissed subtleties each time.

The eponymous troubled teen is sensitively played by Jake Gyllenhaal, who owns the screen each time he appears, even when a man in an unspeakably scary rabbit suit shares it with him. When we first see Darko he is lying asleep in the middle of the road on a hill above his hometown at dawn. This is a brilliant, beguiling and unorthodox way to begin the film, abetted by Stephen Poster’s stunning cinematography. Poster knows a thing or 50 about the creation of visually arresting images: he was second unit director of photography on Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Blade Runner.

With the film having opened with such a lucid statement of intent, Darko cycles down the hill towards home, perhaps mirroring the mental and emotional descent he is about to embark on. As he rides, the first song of an inspired soundtrack plays. It is Echo & the Bunnymen’s The Killing Moon, a midnight tale of beauty and darkness.. Richard Kelly initially wanted INXS’s Never Tear Us Apart for the opening. Although the Australian band’s song is worthy of inclusion and was released in 1988, when Darko is set, it can be no match for the incredible blend of bombast and yearning provided by Ian McCulloch's group.

When we meet Darko’s family, there' a conversation about the merits of then-presidential candidate George H.W Bush and Michael Dukakis. This is quickly forgotten as rivalry between Donnie and older sibling Elizabeth (played, in a stroke of clever/obvious casting, by Jake Gyllenhaal's sister Maggie) quickly escalates into unnecessary but hilarious profanity around the dinner table. The squabble also contains Darko’s first mention of his mental illness and hints at the psychological unravelling to come.

What follows is  confusing, fantastical, and tense, but always compelling. We’re inducted into Darko’s school life with Tears For Fears’ mellifluous Head Over Heels and are introduced to coke-sniffing school bully Seth Devlin, inspiring teacher Karen Pomeroy (played to frustrated perfection by co-producer Drew Barrymore) and a host of others.

Most scenes are either captivating from start to finish or contain a memorable incident, from Dr Monnitoff (Noah Wyle) and Darko’s conversation about time travel, to the movie’s greatest line. Gretchen Ross (Jena Malone), Darko’s nascent love interest, askes where she should sit in her new class. Pomeroy replies, “Sit next to the boy you think is the cutest.” Elsewhere, Patrick Swayze is a revelation as self-help guru with a secret Jim Cunningham, while Beth Grant’s Kitty Farmer is monstrous as that most dangerous of authority figures: a pushy mum and an ignorant teacher.

Categories have their uses, but maybe one of the reasons Donnie Darko failed commercially is its refusal to sit comfortable within one. It is a comedy, drama, high school movie, fantasy and love story with moments of terror. It’s also an intelligent, discursive film. Amid the chats about Smurfs’ reproductive organs, there is a constant moral probing at work, with Darko, Pomeroy and Monnitoff loosely on the side of good and Cunningham, Farmer and Devlin more firmly in the camp of evil. What makes Farmer perhaps the most interesting of these is that she would never consider herself a bad person.

There is an argument that Donnie Darko is rather pretentious. By writing and directing a film so clever, beautiful and complex, Richard Kelly is perhaps showing off his intelligence and storytelling skill a bit too much. Fair comment, but so what? Usain Bolt is a show-off and he’s the fastest man in the world. It’s only when the work you produce lacks merit that your methods or temperament matter to anybody except your colleagues or loved ones. Lemmy from Motorhead collects Nazi memorabilia, but that doesn’t make Ace of Spades any less amazing. As for Kelly, he leapt up his own bottom when he went on to make Southland Tales, a mess worse than a post-party kitchen.

Donnie Darko is a film with murder, arson, flooding, teen sex, time travel, disturbing apocalyptic dreams, unconscious masturbation, school talent contests and references to Graham Greene. A decade on, it is still haunting and hilarious and should be revered like the modern classic it so clearly is.

Friday, 29 July 2011

Amy Winehouse: Meeting and remembering a truly great Londoner

Amy Winehouse came out of the London suburbs to become an essential part of the city’s pop hierarchy with a voice, attitude and words all of her own. That she was born and grew up in Southgate is only worth a mention in passing. To dwell on that would be as pointless as highlighting David Bowie’s origins in Beckenham or Kate Bush’s birth in Bexleyheath. The pull of London’s centre for those born and raised on the fringes of it is inexorable. Ask anyone which place they think of when they think of Amy and “Camden” will be the only answer worth hearing.

The north London district that was a base for punk, Britpop and more became Amy’s playground. She stumbled into kebab houses, pulled pints in The Hawley Arms, spanked all comers at pool in The Good Mixer and stood waiting impatiently, cursing the Northern line, as so many Londoners have, on the platforms at Camden Town tube station.

Since she passed on up to the Pyramid stage in the sky last Saturday afternoon, 30 Camden Square has been visited by fans of all races and ages, with some receiving Amy’s clothes from her devoted dad Mitch. There has been talk of a permanent shrine memorial being built in the square, while this week police have been called to stop punters celebrating her memory too enthusiastically. There are flowers, cards, posters, scrawled slogans, bottles of vodka, cans of beer and cigarettes laid out in her memory. On Tuesday I paid my own respects and put down one of the latter, left at my house by a friend after a night of partying.

A more apt tribute than a static memorial, though, given the remarkable talent she had, would be a music school named in her honour. As the most gifted pupil to have graduated from Croydon’s BRIT School, Amy left all her alumni in the shade. Even Adele Adkins, the Tottenham-born and Tulse Hill-raised singer currently sitting at the top of the album charts on both sides of the Atlantic. Amy’s second album Back To Black, the only one she was really satisfied with, sold three million copies in the UK and 2.3m in the US before her death. But numbers ain’t everything, despite what the accountants think.

On Friday afternoon in December 2006, I was privileged to spend a couple of hours in her company. A friend and colleague of mine was filming the interview, while I kept the conversation flowing. There was no difficulty in that. Her personality was as striking as her music and her looks. Five feet three, but she might as well as been ten feet high. She was covered in confrontational tattoos and a mass of hyper-coiffured jet black hair. Full of mischief and wit, she sat there like a contemporary femme fatale, albeit with a microphone and an Oyster card instead of a gun and a Cadillac. Fittingly, halfway through the interview she had a violently angry, swear-heavy phone conversation with her future husband Blake Fielder-Civil. In a typically unafraid and honest gesture, when we suggested allowing her privacy for the call, she shook her head while we remained in the room. She told me I reminded her of a garrulous Camden pal and admitted she’d been drinking that day, but bore no tell-tale marks of the serious drug and drink problems that would ultimately contribute to her early death. She was exactly the sort of person you’d want to spend Friday afternoon with.

At the time many of the other amazing songs from Back To Black were almost impossible to avoid anywhere within the M25, much as they have been in the week since she passed away. At the time, they’d only been released two months and were still cementing themselves as modern classics. Artists had written about love, sex, heartbreak and despair before and have since, but has there been another line as enticing and as “I told you I was trouble, you know that I’m no good”? As unflinching as Back To Black’s opening, “He left no time to regret, kept his dick wet”? As defiant as any in Rehab?

She could have sung the instructions on a Toilet Duck and made men weep in the street. That she could tear out her heart and sing about the only thing that really matters – love and why it breaks you and makes you like nothing else – turned her into a superstar. The world is sadder without her.