Time and Space: The Illusion of Editing and Filming Technique
There is a magic about the film Donnie Darko that cannot be fully comprehended upon the first viewing, not the second, nor even fully on the third. In fact, I think it would take all the time in the world to dissect every subtle plot key and timing device used in this viciously intellectual movie. I also believe that that was exactly what the director and writer, Richard Kelly, had in mind when crafting the time drama. The film portrays time in a way that is uncommon in conventional cinema, it chooses to see time as not a certainty, but as something malleable and inconstant. Donnie Darko is trapped in the middle of a true time warp, one that exists only inside of his own head. How then, could the director possibly convey this unsettling truth through the medium of film? The answer is editing, genius, radical, and complex editing. Throughout the film you believe that you know exactly what is real and what is not, what is hallucination and what is fact. What this movie strives to do is disrupt our rational thinking process, awaken us to the possibility that everything we know to be truth may be a fallacy. What are the laws of physics if a not device invented by humans meant to ease our conscious mind about phenomena that are ultimately inexplicable? The complicated editing of Donnie Darko excellently illustrates the complex nature of time and space referenced within the film.
Donnie Darko is a peculiar movie in a few ways; one of the most notably different characteristics is the pacing of the film. Shot in just twenty-eight days (the same length of time spanned throughout the film itself), the film meanders and sprints through the 4 weeks simultaneously. On minute we are seeing a Donnie with hunched shoulders and a sinister smile on his face, seemingly cool, calculated, and knowledgeable all in one expression. We are then bombarded with a fast paced montage of what exactly Donnie is seeing at the moment, or what Frank (Donnie’s hallucination that transcends time, space and all explainable existence) is showing him. This type of editing is meant to juxtapose time and matter. We are seeing a short shot of Donnie thinking, and are then given access to the lengthy but fast ideas bouncing around in his mind. The montage is longer than the shot we were previously seeing of Donnie, therefore illustrating the concept that time is not a constant thing, nor is it confined to our human perception of it. By pacing the movie in such a random and nonsensical way, the director manages to skew our visual perception. Although the film does move forward in time as expected, we are still unsure of the message and the purpose of Frank’s existence, which seems to be the entire point of the movie, therefore forcing us to think, forcing us to try and rationalize what is happening within Donnie’s brain. This is made even more confusing by the fact that the movie is from Donnie’s point of view, and by not knowing the purpose or the meaning behind the main character, we are thrown into a completely new spectrum of viewing. This is Kelly’s point; his editing and story force us to comprehend the meaning in a new way.
Of course editing alone cannot convey the complex attitudes of the film. The type of motion, the choice of music, and the acting all assist the overall effects of the editing. For example, the first scene we are privy too at the school is not just a remarkable piece of cinematography because of the continuous long shots, but also because of the subtle and not so subtle slow motion accompanied by introductions to the most influential characters of the story. All this is happening while a nostalgic song plays in the background, transporting the viewer to another time, just like the rest of the film. The camera work itself is also different than the norm, unexpected and fresh. The beginning of the scene begins with the shot upside down and in slow motion it rights itself, just in time to see Donnie’s feet touch the ground after jumping out of a school bus. The camera then flits back and forth throughout the school, smoothly introducing all of the key characters. The next scene that integrates the mediums of sound, editing and camera work appears much later in the film during a school talent show. The shots switch back and forth from Donnie’s sister and her dance team to Donnie burning down the antagonist’s million-dollar home. The scene is set to a rousing eighties Duran Duran song, which juxtaposes the criminal act that Donnie is committing with the happiness of the rest of his family. Slow motion is again utilized to slow the perception of time during this scene. We are supposed to believe that these two acts are happening simultaneously.
Being such an unusual film, Donnie Darko had some barriers it needed to cross. Time and space are inconstant in the universe of the film, and Richard Kelly had to find some way to portray that in the most realistic way possible. Through editing, camera work, and music he was able to convey the principles of the film. Time is not the neat little package we as humans have summed it up to be. There is more to the philosophy of time than we are aware of. The way the movie was edited gave the viewer a taste of the unknown and made them think outside the box that has been drawn around us. Somehow, the film had to illustrate that it took place in an alternate reality where time and space were interconnected and not tangible. Whether you believe that the fabric of time is as fragile as it is in the world of Donnie Darko is up to you, but there is no denying that the way the film is put together makes you forget, if just for a moment, that we think we know how the universe works.