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October 17, 2006

In case you missed it—October 17, 2006

One of the biggest problems I have with mainstream music, movies, and T.V. is that they are so dominated by overly commercialized pulp that marginal works see little light. Legitimately good works often go unnoticed, but it also produces an irritating phenomenon I like to call the “Donnie Darko Dilemma” (alternately the “The David Lynch Conundrum”). This is a movie that, if it had been exposed to mass audiences and extensive reviews, would have instantly perished into obscurity and ridicule, but instead became a “cult” hit with tons of fanboys and -girls who proclaim its unequivocal genius. The average moviegoer—somehow blinded by Donnie Darko’s “indie” status—thinks its rambling, ridiculous philo-psycho-babble actually counts for legitimate dialogue or insight. And, everyone having seen it only in the context of a tight group who won’t accept the movie’s message as anything short of divine, legitimate criticism of the movie’s flaws somehow gets shoved to the side. So let’s go right into it, shall we?

Movies: Donnie Darko (2001)

I’ve heard Donnie Darko called many things. “Deep philosophical insight into modern teenage life” or “a touching portrait of the pains of puberty and coming of age” or my personal favorite, said by a friend of mine: “the defining teen movie of our generation.”

Donnie Darko is neither of the first two, but most definitely is the third. Allow me to explain why I agree that Donnie Darko is the “defining teen movie of our generation.” I agree because, as depressing as the thought is, Donnie Darko is a pretty accurate symbolic representation of modern movies marketed to teens. Someone in Hollywood apparently decided that when movies are made darker, more confusing, and with dozens of cuh-razy twists, they suddenly become better. I don’t know what exactly started this trend, but Donnie Darko definitely epitomizes it.

To give you a better idea of what I’m talking about, look at the defining movies of the generation before us. I’m going to use The Breakfast Club as a typical teen movie here and Indiana Jones as a typical action movie. Both of the movies are straightforward, with clear enemies, clear battles, few real twists, and simple resolutions. Yet they both manage to be halfway decent movies. Now look at a modern teen movie like Donnie Darko and a modern action movie like, say, The Rock. Both have complicated villains, complicated heroes, and complicated conflicts that (barely) escape clear definition. Neither, I would say, is markedly better than its ’80s counterpart. The point I’m trying to make here is that movies like Donnie Darko are complicated not because they need to be, but because they aren’t good enough on their own. As a result, they throw up a bunch of complexities to confuse you into thinking you just saw something intelligent.

And now, I’d like to end this with a quote:

Donnie: Why are you wearing that stupid Bunny suit?

Frank: Why are you wearing that stupid man suit?

Ladies and Gentlemen, the defining movie of our generation.

Music: Genesis (c. 1972)

Anyone who knows even a little bit about music knows Phil Collins. Even my aunt, who owns only a mix of Kenny G and (strangely enough) UB40, knows who he is. A smaller group of people knows who Peter Gabriel is. If you’re having trouble, remember Say Anything? The music John Cusak plays on the boom box is Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes.” Even fewer people can recall a Genesis album besides The Way We Walk. But back in the day, when Pater Gabriel and Phil Collins were both members of Genesis, they produced some of the most sublimely absurd music ever to be put on an album.

A quick listen to Foxtrot, one of their more interesting albums from the ’70s, yields a 23-minute magnum opus entitled “Supper’s Ready,” which covers such wide-ranging topics as love, war, social security, Winston Churchill, and the Apocalypse. It also yields “Horizons,” a peaceful and deceptively complex one-and-a-half-minute guitar solo, as well as “Watcher of the Skies,” reportedly inspired by Arthur C. Clarke’s stories.

In all honesty, a lot of Genesis’s early work is Peter Gabriel going nuts in the way only prog-rock in the ’70s could. Much of it is just pure nonsense. Take, for example, this line from “Supper’s Ready”:

“The Prince was a brick!/The brick was an egg!/The egg was bird!/Fly away you sweet little thing they’re hot on your tail!”

What makes it worth a listen is that, as crazy as it was, this was real experimentation. Unlike modern “experimental” bands like the god-bless-their-hearts-they-try Mars Volta, you can hear some true artistic talents trying to push the boundaries of a medium. Bands like Genesis, Yes, and King Crimson were trying to engineer new structures, new sounds, and even new instruments. (Genesis often went to concert with a machine that looked like a keyboard but, when a key was struck, played the recorded sound of an entire orchestra playing that single note.) Sometimes they really succeed, and you can hear the strands of something truly unique and original pushing its way to the surface. And that’s worth digging through the bargain bin for some old-school Genesis next time you’re at a record shop.

As always, any suggestions for reviews can be e-mailed to me at bmw940@uchicago.edu.