I guess I was subconsciously expecting this book to be a letdown. The first two in the Cultographies series were excellent and very much to the point: so, at least one had to be somewhat behind, right? Rarely does one find a series made up entirely, and with no exception, of excellent books. And yet, the third Cultographies book is another sure-fire winner.
This accomplishment is even greater if we consider that it deals with the most difficult title of the three. THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW and THIS IS SPINAL TAP (previously reviewed here) are both universally liked and popular. They’ve been with us for several decades, they had the time to grow its cult following, while numerous articles, essays and whole books have been devoted to their meticulous analysis. Not so with DONNIE DARKO. Devoting a book to the most recent among the titles (released only 7 years previous to writing), Geoff King did not have the advantage of piles of literature to rely on. Although DONNIE DARKO became an “instant cult” phenomenon, it remains to be seen whether its cultdom will last for decades as the case is with THE ROCKY HORROR and SPINAL TAP. But, King does not shy away from the difficulties of his task, and overcomes them masterfully.
He deals with the fact that DONNIE DARKO was hard to categorize, which is a cult-worthy credential, but one that made industry figures tread warily. He goes on to narrate the history of troubles the film had to overcome to find the finances, then to find a distributor at Sundance and ultimately to reach its audience. The latest trouble had to do with the unfortunate release date, immediately after the 9-11 tragedy. Still, there are telling details to be known about the theatrical and TV trailers for the film, as they unveil how the makers wanted their film to be perceived.
As the matter of fact, Geoff King stresses the role of the audience in creating a cult phenomenon – provided that the makers structure their work in such a way to make it cult-friendly: “A major qualification for some texts that generate ‘fan’ activity, as John Fiske suggests, is that they are ‘producerly’, by which he means texts that generate more than usual amounts of interpretive and other activity by their followers; ‘they have to be open, to contain gaps, irresolutions, contradictions, which both allow and invite fan productivity.'”
In other words, one of King’s key arguments in this book is that the originally released version of DONNIE DARKO – with all its gaps, irresolutions and contradictions, with its intentional ambiguity between a symbolic (psychological) and literal (science fiction) reading – invited fan activity and various interpretations that had a good deal in obtaining the film a cult status. It is a bit unorthodox, but in this particular case quite necessary that King devotes some time to analyze fan response at the ‘customers section’ of the sites like Amazon and internet forums at the IMDb, and they strongly support his case that DONNIE’s openness to various readings was among the crucial factors which made its cult.
King compares the theatrical release and ‘Director’s cut’ and convincingly argues that the latter version has actually diminished DONNIE’s cultdom by over-explaining the ambiguities of the original version and by explicitly using ‘The Philosophy of Time Travel’ as the guiding light in interpreting all the mysterious events of the film. This may be the key reason why many fans prefer the earlier (ambiguous) version.
Some devoted fans may be angered by King’s very objective assessment of the film’s merits, especially when he places it among the ‘light-weight’ variety of cult film, made such more by blurring the generic distinctions than (as is more common in cult movies) by transgression, provocation, shock and excess. DONNIE “seems a very safe and non-threatening form of cinema”, and it had received prominent mainstream reviews upon its release, mostly positive and approving. It did not take numerous years to crawl from obscurity and attain recognition: it became an instant-cult classic, embraced by the majority. As such, it “remains very much a part of the commercially oriented indie-sector rather than its more marginal realms.”
Yet, it is precisely the objectiveness of his approach which makes this a reliable, well-researched and convincing study of a complex film and the attendant phenomenon of cult films in general. Very readable and intriguing, the book made me want to see DONNIE DARKO once again, and that’s an additional quality: it makes you think, and makes you want to argue with it, too.
Since all three books of the first series of Cultographies proved to be such a success, we can impatiently await the upcoming titles, which should include books on films such as BAD TASTE, THE EVIL DEAD, BLADE RUNNER etc. Keep up the good work!
by Geoff King
Wallflower Press, 2007