Friday, November 6, 2009

A wonder stuck on one hit

Back in 2003, shortly after I first saw Donnie Darko, I was having a conversation about it with a friend. This was my second friend to show a slavish devotion to this one-of-a-kind film, the friend who introduced it to me being the first. Seeing that others were crazy about it as well helped deepen my appreciation of the cinematic discovery I'd just made.

The name of the director, Richard Kelly, came up, and I asked my friend what the deal was with him. Ordinary name, no previous credits that I was aware of. "I don't know," answered the friend, his voice rising at the end to indicate his own amazement. "He just came out of nowhere I guess."

And so I came to mythologize Richard Kelly as some kind of J.D. Salinger of filmmaking, a guy who had burst on the scene to present us this singular vision, then might just slink back into the shadows of seclusion. I cautiously dared to hope for an impressive follow-up to Donnie Darko, but I almost couldn't imagine Kelly producing anything else. It was like Donnie Darko was so mind-blowing that it could exist as the entirety of his career, and that would be enough. What else was there to say?

And maybe he should have stopped right there after all.

You see, Richard Kelly is as much a flesh-and-blood human being as the rest of us, and his subsequent career choices have each been painful reminders of that fact. The Box, his third directorial assignment, due out tomorrow, does not figure to change that.

But let's take things in chronological order.

1) Domino (2005, Tony Scott). The first time Kelly's name materialized in the credits after Donnie Darko was in this hyper-stylized assault on your senses, a truly vulgar creation designed to glamorize the life of Hollywood princess-turned-bounty hunter Domino Harvey (Keira Knightley). Tony Scott took his worst instincts and turned Kelly's script into a jittery, stroke-inducing strobe light of a movie, which fetishizes violence, cigarette smoking, and pop culture. I blame this turkey more on Scott than Kelly, but mostly because I have Kelly on a pedestal -- the bare bones of his script couldn't have been that good.

2) Southland Tales (2007, Richard Kelly). All the large-scale ideas that got smaller-scale execution in Donnie Darko get driven over the top here. A truly epic mess about a cross-section of truly idiotic characters in Los Angeles of the not-too-distant future, Southland Tales tackles nothing less than Big Brother, terrorism, nuclear holocaust, neo-Marxism, celebrity, alternative energy, drug abuse, the Iraq War, and time travel. Most bizarre is the cast of has-beens, featuring the likes of Jon Lovitz, Cheri Oteri, John Laroquette, Wallace Shawn, Nora Dunn and Curtis Armstrong, with Seann William Scott, Dwayne Johnson, Sarah Michelle Gellar and Mandy Moore serving as the supposed A-listers of the group. It's as bad as it sounds, but I'd be lying if I didn't admit that it occasionally crosses into the territory of "so bad it's good." Will probably be a cult film at some point, but not the way Donnie Darko is considered a cult film.

3) The Box (2009, Richard Kelly). As this movie has not come out yet, I am left only to speculate. But let's just say the ads have not inspired me with very much confidence. The scenario -- "if you press this button, you will be given $1 million, and someone you don't know will die" -- almost sounds chilling. But the ads have inadvertently echoed the terminology of the Saw franchise, as Frank Langella (missing the left half of his face) says the words "Make your choice," echoing the command spoken by Tobin Bell's Jigsaw numerous times throughout that series. What's more, outside of Langella, it's not a very heavyweight cast -- Cameron Diaz and James Marsden have their time and place, but a Richard Kelly mind-tripper doesn't seem to be one of them. In fact, the cast is one of the main elements that undermined Southland Tales, though that wouldn't have been good even with a slate of Oscar winners. To give a couple more first impressions: The footage looks grainy and washed out, and the poster is as generic as can possibly be, befitting an anonymous thriller from the 1980s more than a potential masterpiece from a supposed wunderkind.

4) Other projects. Kelly's name is often heard in connection with Knowing, the Nicolas Cage vehicle that came out earlier this year. He was once attached as director (The Crow's Alex Proyas eventually did the deed), and he is listed as a screenwriter on the film some places, but not others. The confusion is just as well for my current thesis, since I actually liked Knowing. Then there are a couple other films he's produced through his production company, called Darko Entertainment, including World's Greatest Dad and I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell. I liked the former and did not see the latter, but I thought the trailer for the latter looked absolutely terrible (a bachelor party gone horribly wrong -- ho hum). It's funny, in looking up Kelly's credits, I see he is also listed as an executive producer on a film I'm going to be seeing this afternoon, in an advanced screening, called Rogue's Gallery. My wife works for/with one of the other executive producers, which is how we're getting in.

Since there are really only three main films after Darko where Kelly's been credited with a significant contribution -- one of which has not even come out yet -- it may be both premature and unfair for me to go on record as disappointed in him. After all, The Box could just as easily give me those Darko chills again. I should know, from plenty of experience, that films are often much better or much worse than they appear in their ads.

So instead of specifically indicting Kelly, let me just say this: It ain't easy being a genius. You have to keep following up and following up and following up, and any future project that isn't viewed as improving on your body of work, inevitably detracts from it instead. Maybe Kelly will never again make anything nearly so good as Donnie Darko. Since I currently have the film ranked as my third-favorite of all time, I could hardly blame him for this.

Here's hoping that Richard Kelly can settle somewhere in the middle -- that he can stop monkeying around with bombastic, untranslatable visions, in a vein effort to duplicate Darko, and can just be satisfied making solidly crafted movies instead.

Before he was the director of Donnie Darko, Kelly was just a film student at USC, a guy with two short films to his credit. He was human like the rest of us, and can be so again.


Don Handsome said...

Vance, great post. Most appreciated.

Just a couple additional Kelly-related thoughts to share...

I agree that the Box looks to be ho-hum (but I’ll still see it). I believe that the basic premise is something from a Twilight Zone episode - maybe one of the newer incarnations of the Twilight Zone at that - which kind of lends itself to speculation that the movie might be really terrible as expanding half an hour of content into a feature length production doesn't usually work out.

But perhaps there’s more to it. I remember right after Donnie Darko was released, there was all sorts of buzz about what Richard Kelly's next flick would be. I remember reading an interview with Kelly (I think) in which it was said that he had two major ideas that he was kicking around - I remember the first as it was tentatively called The Box in which a box was buried as a time capsule and when it was dug up it was found to contain increasingly dire predictions about the (now) soon to come future. These predictions gradually come true. OK so THAT version of "The Box" became Knowing. The second idea he mentioned was about a stranger who grants wishes that contain dire consequences (which is probably closer to what the current The Box has become).

Its interesting that back in 2003 he was so frank with his ideas...and that these ideas have now become reality (Funny also that he didn’t mention anything about Southland Tales). But its also interesting because as I remember it, he mentioned also that all of his films would be connected. He probably meant that he considered himself an auteur, or that at the end of the day there would be a Kelly-Cannon…but I remember more literal speculation amongst some of my fellow arm-chair (or bar stool) Kelly fans - we used to speculate that his films would all be part of the same "Kellyverse".

Please note that I do think that this would be a terrible idea…but maybe that’s mostly because I’ve seen Southland Tales twice now, and I really don’t want it to be connected to Darko (and I can’t see how it could be connected). Also, the idea of a Kellyverse is virtually dead now anyway because how could the idea that vaguely became Knowing be at all related to a film that Kelly actually wrote and directed? But Kelly has shown himself to be very bombastic (Southland Tales again) and thus I’m left wondering...would he dare (COULD he dare) to connect The Box to Donnie Darko? It would be a big stretch, sure, but what if…? What if the consequence of pushing the button in The Box had a ripple in the Donnie Darko world? On one hand, it could explain some of the major events in Darko, but on the other hand, it would be so so lame.
I just wanted to share the idea of Kellyverse with you and wonder if you’d ever heard such speculation or if you have an opinion on it.

And finally…like you, Vance, Donnie Darko was enough to hook me indefinitely to Richard Kelly. Southland Tales and Domino made me regret this decision slightly, and it looks as if The Box will continue to make me question, but I want to believe. Kelly has a plethora of ideas and he’s spoken frankly and openly about them in the past. He seems a little to reliant on that basic morality play idea that is at the core of most Twilight Zone episodes and I think this dilutes some of the promise that he showed in his first feature. But speaking truthfully Donnie Darko may be all luck…its a perfect storm of newcomer’s bravado, astute soundtrack choices, creative casting, pseudo science, creative imagery and imagination-rattling storytelling. We should take it as a great achievement, but realize that it shouldn’t set the standard. Donnie Darko may very well be a one-off achievement, but I’m not so sure he doesn’t have some more great ideas buried down in there. I believe that we should support this guy. Kellyverse or not, he’s an idea-man and he’ll hopefully get back to something REALLY compelling soon.

Lets keep our fingers crossed.

Vancetastic said...

If I did hear about the Kellyverse, it was probably from you. For a person who is generally in mythic awe of the Richard Kelly we see in Donnie Darko, I really hadn't read up much on him before writing this post. Learned a few things.

I too will inevitably see The Box in the theater, and will keep my eyes wide open for links to the Darkoverse ...

Daddy Geek Boy said...

The idea of any Kellyverse was destroyed the moment somebody decided to make S. Darko.

And by the way, whatever you do DO NOT SEE S. DARKO!!!!

Don Handsome said...

DGB - too late...already sat through it. Ugh.

Vancetastic said...

And you can read my glowing review of it online ...