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English Media Study – Donnie Darko

Explore how Richard Kelly presents his ideas about the film “Donnie Darko” and the characters in the “school walk” scene. It would help if you referred closely to camera shot, lighting, sound, denotations (signs or symbols) and connotations. Relate your understanding of the scene to the film as a whole. The scene where Donnie arrives at school is a representation of a 1980’s MTV music video. Richard Kelly recalls seeing the video ‘Janie’s Got a Gun’ by Aerosmith. The person in ‘Janie’s Got a Gun’ has a vision in it, similar to Donnie knowing that the world is going to end. Donnie had an epiphany of what is going to happen in the tangent universe. Kelly said that ‘I had never seen a video that told a story. It was better crafted than most movies I had seen, and I was taken aback by it”. Significantly the school walk scene does resemble a music video as it has everything going on around a song being played in the background; the song is ‘Head Over Heels’ by Tears for Fears.

As the scene begins, we see the school bus at an ‘Oblique camera angle’; the bus is sideways on. On the back of the bus there is writing that say ‘Mongrels Rule’, this represents the cougar which is a mongrel. It shows somewhat pride for the school mascot. The school is in havoc after the statue is defaced by Donnie later in the film; you can see it means a lot to the school because it brings a sense of pride. Donnie is the first to get of the bus. You can see he uses the back exit which could be used as a sign of impatience or to state as if he is above the rest, as if he is ‘special’, so he deserves to go first. As Donnie exits the bus, the camera moves into ‘Tilted long-medium shot.’

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As Donnie and his friends walk towards the school the camera ‘Rotates to its normal position’ and ‘Moves into a long shot’, this is an ‘Establishing shot’ of the school so it sets the scene. While going towards the school, you can hear bells in the background, and the chime seems somewhat ‘fated’; it is similar to the fact that the world has a ‘fate,’ the ‘tangent universe’ has to be destroyed. It is Donnie’s destiny; he has a set path; it is similar to the way he can also see other people’s set path because he can see ‘ghosts’ emerging from their bodies at the party later on in the film, he knows he has his own set path. The camera represents a pupil walking around the school. We see whatever this pupil sees.

The students, most noticeable are the girls, have a very old-fashioned uniform. The uniform and the bells suggest a strict code at the school. We can establish that it is a Catholic school, and the bells at the beginning reveal that because it reminds you of a church. The surroundings outside the school give off a peaceful vibe. For example, the flowers are colourful, which could mean peace and solitude or even harmony. The outside is the complete opposite of what is happening inside the school. It resembles two different worlds. It is like the two worlds in the film. One is in mayhem, and the other is in its original state. There are patterns on the windows won the school door that resembles a bar, suggesting that the school is like a prison.

We can see that Donnie’s personality is free; this is because he has his top button undone as he walks into the school, and also you can see his expression is very ‘vacant.’ Once again Donnie is first to enter the school just like he was first to leave the bus. As Donnie and his friends enter, the camera is in ‘Medium close-up,’ then it moves backwards and ‘Dollies’ on them. The music ‘Head Over Heels’ starts playing in the background. Donnie is central in the shot. The camera then ‘Whip pans’ to Seth – the school bully, so he is now the main focus. The ‘Whip pan’ could resemble Donnie’s feeling towards Seth because they don’t see eye to eye; this is seen further on in the film when Seth is accused of flooding the school and defacing the cougar statue. Seth threatens Donnie with a knife in the toilets. At this point, the music becomes very high-pitched.

This is similar to the rock guitar, which could symbolize rebellion which resembles Seth; the high pitch sound could again signify the dislike between Donnie and Seth. Seth walks with a swagger through the corridor. He is very casual and laid back; he has in common with Donnie; he can think for himself. Seth is not institutionalized. Seth has a very rebellious haircut; the ‘Mullet’ was popular in the 1980s among rock stars. Everyone moves out of the way for Seth as he is walking, he has a very hostile presence. The girls who moved out of the way walk behind him as if they are in awe of him; power equals popularity in this instance, it is similar to a school hierarchy with the popular people, the ‘Jocks’ and the ‘Bullies’ near the top, then social outcasts such as Cherita and Donnie near the bottom because they are “different.”

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Seth is very grimace and as he walks along he gives a very intimidating but sarcastic smile at Ms. Farmer. From here, the camera ‘Whip pans’ from Seth to Ms. Farmer. We see a ‘Close up’ of her, Then it ‘Dollies’ on her. She is standing in front of a door which again makes the school look like a prison. Ms. Farmer is clutching the book ‘Attitudinal Beliefs’ by Jim Cunningham near her chest. This could mean that she loves his theories and is holding them near her heart, or she loves Jim Cunningham and is holding it near her heart because, after all, she is single. At this point the lyrics for ‘Head Over Heels’ say, “I wanted to be with you alone,” this is while she is clutching the book so this again suggests so has a bit of an infatuation with Jim Cunningham. Ms. Farmer raises her eyebrows; she is meeting Seth’s glare not with fear but with apprehension. It is like a battle of wits between teacher and student.

Ironically there are coats of arms on the windows behind Ms. Farmer; this is like in a war but resembling the mental battle between Ms. Farmer and Seth rather than a physical battle. The book acts as a barrier to protect her from Seth’s mind games. Ms. Farmer has her hair tied up, which shows order; Ms. Pommeroy is the opposite because she has her hair down, which shows freedom; this shows that she is very much like Donnie; rules do not bind them. She has a will of her own and does what she believes to be right. Rules do not bind Ms. Pommeroy because later on in the film, she is teaching the class ‘The Destructors’ even though this book is frowned upon by teachers such as Ms. Farmer, which in turn leads to her dismissal because her teaching the book was to blame for the vandalism of the school. The camera ‘Whip pans’ and ‘Speeds up’ from Ms. Farmer to the new student Gretchen.

It ‘Dollies’ on Gretchen. We see it is slightly in slow motion to emphasize the scene. We hear the lyrics “And talk about the weather”; this is trying to say because Gretchen is now she won’t really know what to say and when people in general don’t know what to say they talk about the weather. Also, we hear the lyrics, “But traditions I can trace against the child in your face”; this refers to Gretchen’s youth, innocence and naivety because she is new. We can see that Gretchen is very vain because she is looking in the mirror in her locker to see if she looks good. This is because she wants to make a good impression on her first day; she is also free because her hair is not tied up, so she has something in common with Donnie, which could show a possibility as to why she chose him when Ms. Pommeroy asked her ‘Sit next to the boy you think is cutest.’ This shows why they get on so well. As she walks the camera ‘Dollies’ on her side, she looks to the skies as if she is asking God for help because she is afraid.

The camera now ‘Whip pans’ again to Seth and a large-built and intimidating boy. We see that Seth has stickers on his locker that show he is rebellious because the stickers say, ‘G.B.H’ and ‘what would Satan do.’ We see Seth snort some form of drugs; at this point, the Principal walks past. It ‘Whip pans’ now to the Principal; although he doesn’t seem to notice Seth taking drugs, he just looks at him with a bewildered expression. We hear the lyrics ‘won’t escape my attention’; this means the Principal not noticing Seth’s drug abuse. G.B.H is grievous bodily harm – this is what Seth is doing by taking drugs; he is destroying his body. The camera ‘Speeds up’ as the Principal walks forward—the camera ‘Tracks’ him. We see him pat a student on the back and hear the lyrics, ‘You keep your distance through a system of touch.’ This suggests the Principal is not close to the pupils; he kept his distance from Seth.

As Principal Cole walks out of doors, we see a bright and intense light; it is like the school is a prison again and outside is the real world where you are free. The light is a representation of freedom. The scene after the light starts with the camera looking at the top of the cougar statue. We hear the lyrics ‘No no no have you no ambition,’ then the camera ‘Pans down,’ and we see Cherita sitting at the bottom of the cougar she is reading, which shows she clearly has ambitions and prospects about her future. We can see that Cherita is a social outcast because she is sitting on her own, then in the background on the other side of the cougar there is a group of children talking and enjoying themselves. On the other hand, Cherita is very intellectual.

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From Cherita, the camera ‘Swivels’ and ‘Zooms’ into Jim Cunningham and Ms. Farmer talking. Here we hear the lyrics ‘You keep your distance with a system of touch and gentle persuasion,’ suggesting that Jim Cunningham is far from what he seems. The Principal walks in from behind and Ms. Farmer encourages the Principal to shake hands with Jim Cunningham, this gesture is really warm. The principal walks around like he owns the school, which is much different from earlier when he walked past Seth. It is an act to try and impress Jim Cunningham. Ms. Farmer looks very prudish, and she is no longer clutching onto the book of Jim Cunningham because she has the real person there. As the Principal, Jim Cunningham, and Ms. Farmer walk away, we hear the lyrics ‘I’m lost in admiration could I need you this much, Oh you’re wasting my time, You’re just wasting my time”, at this moment Jim Cunningham seems almost God-like because he is giving off a glowing aura. Still, as we find out later on in the film, he is not what he seems; in fact, he is a pedophile.

He is wasting the Principal and Ms. Farmer’s time because his work is built on a foundation of lies. Hence, what he is ‘preaching is not true, so everything Ms. Farmer and Principal Cole have believed in is a lie, but Ms. Farmer is ‘Lost in Admiration,’ this is similar to later on in the film because when Jim Cunningham is arrested, she believes that he is not guilty because she believes in him too much, it is a ‘blind admiration.’ You can see that Ms. Farmer is still very tidy and disciplined, but that changes when she asks Donnie’s mother to take ‘Sparkle Motion’ to their competition in California. When this happens, she looks very untidy with simple clothes on, and she has her hair everywhere, showing a drastic change while trying to cling to very little of what is left of what she believes in.

We can see that politics are everywhere just like at the beginning of the film Donnie’s family were discussing politics. Politics appear again now at the school in the background. The camera ‘Tracks’ Jim Cunningham, The Principal and Ms. Farmer, then it ‘Swivels’ To Dr. Monitoff and Ms. Pommeroy. Then the scene is set with all of them in it. We hear the lyrics “something happens and I’m head over heels” when we first see Dr. Monitoff and Ms. Pommeroy in this scene. It shows they are “Head over heels” in love with each other. Their body language suggests intimacy. They are both very nonchalant. The Principal introduces Dr. Monitoff and Ms. Pommeroy to Jim Cunningham, but Ms. Farmer tries to hurry it up because she dislikes Dr. Monitoff and Ms. Pommeroy. Jim Cunningham hands Dr. Monitoff’s hand first because Dr. Monitoff is slightly cautious because he doesn’t trust Jim Cunningham. It is not a warm shake. It is formal.

The briefcase that Dr. Monitoff is holding and Ms. Pommeroy’s fast-food drink act as a barrier from Jim Cunningham. The fast-food drink symbolises a younger generation and Ms. Pommeroy is much younger the Ms. Farmer and the Principal that is why she has different views compared to them. Dr. Monitoff gives Jim Cunningham a collusive look. Jim Cunningham, The Principal and Ms. Farmer all have one foot in the past as for Dr. Monitoff and Ms. Pommeroy, they are more modern. Dr. Monitoff has his top button undone, which again suggests freedom but to the extent where he is not pushing the limit. In this scene, the ‘good’ teachers-Ms. Farmer and Principal Cole are on the right-hand side. The ‘bad’ teacher- Dr. Monitoff and Ms. Pommeroy, are on the left. The left has always been considered evil because the word ‘sinister meaning evil is derived from the Latin ‘sinister meaning left. Dr. Monitoff doesn’t like Jim Cunningham, and this you can clearly see by the way he is very wary around him.

Dr. Monitoff can’t say face to face with Jim Cunningham that he does not want to shake his hand. This is similar to the instance when he could not explain the theories of time travel because he would have to go into realms of religion; because he is an atheist, he could have lost his job, which would be the same if he spoke out of turn to Jim Cunningham, the Principal would fire him. Also talking about God and time travel at a church linked school would have been considered as a taboo. After Jim Cunningham, The Principal and Ms. Farmer walk away, the camera ‘Tracks’ Dr. Monitoff and Ms. Pommeroy, and they look at each other and shake their heads; this is similar to the connection they have in the staff room when they both are thinking about Donnie, and they start to laugh. The lyrics in the background say, ‘Ah don’t break my heart, don’t break my heart, don’t throw it away as Ms. Pommeroy walks away from Dr Monitoff. This suggesting how strong their relationship is because they won’t ‘Throw it away.

The camera now ‘Tracks’ Ms. Pommeroy; she stops to look at the dancers of ‘Sparkle Motion’ practise; she looks bemused because their dance is provocative. It is well-coordinated, so it looks very unnatural and fake. Ms. Farmer suggested that if they are sick at the actual performance, they should ‘swallow it’, suggesting it had to be perfect, not ruined. In comparison, at the talent show, Cherita’s dance is very free and natural. We see her dispose of her drink and then take a deep breath before going to teach. The last line of the song is ‘Time flies,’ which is similar to 28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes and 12 seconds left before the world ends in the film. It went really quickly. Richard Kelly compressed that time into a short period of big events in that time. It is strange when Gretchen waves to Donnie’s mum Rose, at the end of the film after Donnie’s death because it almost seems like deja-vu. It is as if Gretchen has already met Donnie’s mum. They have a connection again, which is being used by Kelly.

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Cherita is almost identical to Donnie because they are both outcasts. She fancies Donnie as revealed when he looks at her books when she drops them and catches her spying on him and Dr. Monitoff. He finds out that she is closer to him than he thinks. This is seen at the end when Donnie is lying in bed awaiting his ‘fate’; we also see Cherita lying in her bed; her expression says that she is also waiting, and it is as if she knows that Donnie is going to die, in a way she wanted to experience what he was going through. When Donnie puts on Cherita’s earmuffs, this can be interpreted as him wearing them to see what it’s like to step further into her world, but he doesn’t realize that he is already close to them.

The artifact: the plane engine ripped a hole in space that created the tangent universe. Kelly uses this hole to represent corruption because the tangent universe is corrupt, with people being revealed for who they truly are, such as Jim Cunningham being exposed to fraud. When Donnie says “Deus ex machina” to Seth in the toilets when he is being threatened, it means ‘God from the machine’; here, Donnie refers to Frank’s impending appearance and how Frank would end up hurting him, Seth. Frank is God-like because, along with him, only Donnie is the other person who can change the outcome of the future and change destiny, frank has the will to change everything, but by saving Donnie, he has put the universe into turmoil. Therefore, Donnie also can be considered as ‘God from the machine’ because he is, in fact, god-like.

Donnie is similar to Jesus; Donnie was sent to save the earth from certain destruction. Donnie died to save the world and its people, just as Jesus had died to save his people. When Roberta Sparrow whispers in Donnie’s ear she says, “Everyone on this earth dies alone,” this is how Donnie died. Alone in his bed, but it isn’t necessarily true. Cherita was with him spiritually. It is just like Jesus did not die alone; he had his disciples there with him. Similarly, Cherita is like Donnie’s disciple because she follows him and looks up to him. Donnie is antagonistic, so he believes in God but also in the realms of science as well. Jim Cunningham is like a ‘False saviour’; his initials are JC – Jesus Christ; this is ironic because he is portrayed as God-like and is like a ‘messiah’ to many people, but he is, in fact, a criminal, sort of like a false prophet because his message is not true. Frank is a manifested and real version of the dark side of Donnie’s mind.

So this is how Richard Kelly presented his ideas about the film “Donnie Darko” and the characters in the “school walk” scene. Richard Kelly had two different varieties of characters. First, he had the people who were free-Donnie, Gretchen, Dr. Monitoff, Ms. Pommeroy and even Frank. Then on the other side are Principal Cole’ Ms. Farmer, and Jim Cunningham. The characters all have a common factor that binds them together, for example, Frank and Donnie knowing the outcome of the tangent universe and knowing that it was destined to be Donnie to prevent the end of the world or when Dr. Monitoff and Ms. Pommeroy share a laugh in the staff room. The outcome is that Donnie loves Gretchen and the only way to save her is to give up his own life. It is all part of a series of events that would lead to the world’s end if Frank’s changes are not undone; Donnieonnie Darko does not restore balance. Richard Kelly has used a very deep meaning and psychological way of putting his views in to the film. It has to be overseen to grasp its hidden messages and meanings fully.

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English Media Study - Donnie Darko. (2021, Aug 28). Retrieved January 17, 2022, from