Becoming-democratic: Donnie Darko and Other Recent Suburban Utopias

Claire Perkins

[1] In February 1998, Sight and Sound reached the letter "U" in an "A-Z of Cinema" series and set out a catalogue of various cinematic utopias and dystopias. Although the figure of utopia is historically based in works of political philosophy – most notably Thomas More's Utopia (1516) – attention to the topics of utopianism and anti-utopianism in cinema studies has at least partly followed on from work done in contemporary literary studies and focused on the genre of science fiction. Accordingly, the futuristic "split-level utopia" is prominently included in the Sight and Sound catalogue: Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927), Bladerunner (Ridley Scott, 1982) and Gattaca (Andrew Niccol, 1997) are all cited as much-examined instances of a "pampered overclass [disporting] itself in luxury while the despised masses toil in subterranean squalor" (Kemp 24). Other cinematic utopias included are the "shining city on a hill" (The Wizard of Oz, Victor Fleming, 1939), the "socialist utopia" (Ealing's They Came to a City, Basil Dearden, 1945) and the "nostalgically lyrical version of childhood" (The Blue Lagoon, Frank Launder, 1949 / Randal Kleiser, 1980). Although including "smalltown America" as one location for the settled values of the "mini-utopia" that neutralises, expels or absorbs potentially disruptive forces, and citing Doc Hollywood (1991) as a representative example, this catalogue neglects the specifically suburban model of utopia or dystopia which, at the time of the article, had been animated by films including David Lynch's Blue Velvet (1986), Hal Hartley's The Unbelievable Truth (1989), and Richard Linklater's SubUrbia (1996). Ten years later, there remains limited sustained work done on the dialectics of the suburban cinematic utopia and dystopia. This is despite the fact that the topic – which has been of obvious interest to Hollywood since the 1950s – exploded during the 1990s to become a staple of contemporary Hollywood and of popular television – with films like The Truman Show (Peter Weir, 1998), Pleasantville (Gary Ross, 1998), American Beauty (Sam Mendes, 1999), The Stepford Wives remake (Frank Oz 2004) and TV shows including Six Feet Under (2001-2005), Desperate Housewives (2004- ) and Weeds (2005- ).

[2] A common critical response to works such as these is to lament the way that popular culture continues to peddle an overdetermined image of suburbia inherited from 1950s sitcoms such as Leave it to Beaver (1957-1963) and The Donna Reed Show (1958-1966). For critics such as Robert Beuka, films such as Weir's and Mendes' rely only on inverting the harmonious model depicted in these shows, and perpetuate a dysfunctional vision of community as a cliché of suburban life (10). This article is concerned with the way that the American "smart" film fits into and challenges this representational system. As a narrower and somewhat nebulous tendency within the popular field characterised by films such as Pleasantville, it can be argued that suburbia is the defining image of the entire cycle of commercial-independent films that Jeffrey Sconce has identified as "smart." [1] Within this cycle, though, the "suburban smart film" can be understood as a distinct entity, with a consistent network narrative structure and a characteristic set of thematic concerns. A key group of films that together perpetuate this impression and will be focused upon here are Todd Solondz' Happiness (1998), Neil LaBute's Your Friends and Neighbours (1998), Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia (1999), Rose Troche's The Safety of Objects (2001), Richard Kelly's Donnie Darko (2001), and Arie Posin's The Chumscrubber (2005). In these films, the family and the suburb are parallel models of "planned environments" that limit and control the action and identities of the characters. By focusing not on one family – as other smart films by Wes Anderson, Noah Baumbach, and Hal Hartley do – but on several, interconnected milieux, the foundation of anti-utopianism in this suburban sub-cycle lies in the way the characters are rendered as psychically as well as physically interchangeable. After discussing the extrapolation of this broad and reactionary anti-utopian vision in the films, the article will drawn on some of the utopian elements in the philosophy of Deleuze and Guattari, and in particular the concept of becoming-democratic, as a way of singling Donnie Darko out as a more properly utopian smart vision.

Suburban utopia; suburban anti-utopia

[3] The utopian impulse can be broadly described as the need to dream of a better life (Claeys and Sargent 2). In their introduction to The Utopia Reader, Gregory Claeys and Lyman Tower Sargent identify the utopian genre as something invented with More's Utopia in 1516. From this point on, they describe four main historical stages in the evolution of the tradition: the egalitarian schemes of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries linked to Spartan ideals and Christian monasticism that eventually gave rise to socialism in the nineteenth century; the debates over the virtues and vices of primitive peoples and their relation to the pagan and Christian traditions of an original age of innocence that emerged as a result of the sixteenth century's voyages of discovery; the promise of the human species' indefinite progress toward a longer and healthier life and the domination of nature borne out by scientific discovery and technological innovation from the seventeenth century on; and the aspirations for a society of greater virtue, equality, and social justice that emerged in the late eighteenth-century revolutionary movements of North American and France and in the transformation of socialism after 1848 (3-4). On the basis of these four stages, utopian thought is cast as the envisioning of a different form of society as an ideal-type or its negative inversion. As a specific literary – and cinematic – tradition, the utopian genre refers to "works that describe an imaginary society in some detail" (1). In this imaginative expression, the utopian impulse amounts to a political project insofar as it draws attention to issues in human social existence by way of a reflection on alternate systems. This reflection can take any number of forms – from travel writing to magical realism to ecotopias – but all will link broadly back to one of the four traditions outlined. As the mode of reflection most fully articulating the third tradition, twentieth century science fiction is, for Claeys and Sargent, "the characteristic genre expressing both the hopes and fears of our own era" (3).

[4] Fredric Jameson's book Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions is the most important recent work to consolidate this connection. Jameson's conception of science fiction as a characterisation of utopian imagination stems from Darko Suvin's own understanding of utopia as "the socio-political subgenre of science fiction" (Suvin 45). Jameson describes utopian form as "a representational meditation ... on the systemic nature of the social totality, to the point where one cannot imagine any fundamental change in our social existence which has not first thrown off Utopian visions like so many sparks from a comet" (Jameson xii). Science fiction is the genre that allow for the most explicit meditations on changes in our social existence insofar as it allows for the literal projection of worlds alternate to this one. Our inevitable reflection on our own situation by way of these texts brings out the comparative dimension of the discourse: most utopian theorists agree that utopia and dystopia are not finite visions but deal, respectively, with "a happier life" and "a more wretched kind of life" (Williams 196). Film theorists describe how it was the latter vision that dominated the cinematic science-fiction imagination in the twentieth century: films such as Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979) and Bladerunner (Ridley Scott, 1982) bear testament to the significant changes in social values and attitudes that the corruption of utopia entails, and demonstrate how "we have difficulty imagining our future other than in terms of some kind of catastrophe" (Ruppert 8). As Peter Ruppert acknowledges, these classical science-fiction films differ ideologically from both earlier and more recent examples in their unambiguous representation of the social conditions of late consumer capitalism: they depict worlds of mass advertisement and mass consumerism where technological corporate capital has commodified nature and human relationships. The overstated and fantastic images of these films are understood to evoke their period's anxieties about the amorality and aggression of the post-industrial era; they imagine scenarios of waste, decay and despair that locate hope only in the possibility of escape (8).

[5] Jameson describes the perspective offered by science-fiction as "a structurally unique method of apprehending the present as history" (Jameson 331). Discussions of cinematic utopias and dystopias have no doubt focused on science-fiction films because their overtly futuristic imagery makes this strategy highly visible. The particular stylisation of the suburban nightmare film can also be understood to enable this apprehension, though, and to project alternate worlds as a critical exposition of social fact. As with the anti-utopias of classical science-fiction, the suburban smart film is overtly concerned with the concrete representation of late capitalist culture: all the films in this cycle present their anti-utopian visions as the extrapolation of a society where commodity culture is negatively linked to social values, life patterns, and personal relationships (Ruppert 8). The projected worlds of the suburban smart film may not be as overtly futuristic as the anti-utopias of classical science-fiction, but their conspicuous and parodic stylisation clearly distinguishes them from a properly realist suburban paradigm. This aesthetic approach can be linked to the way that, in the fields of both cultural studies and urban planning, the ideals of suburbia are discussed in terms of an ideological dream of the perfect society, where efficient land use and architecture offers its residents privacy but also visual evidence of their similarity to their neighbours, evoking the communal values central to any idea of utopia (Beuka 5). Urban theorist Dolores Hayden alludes to the original ideals of suburbia when she describes it as "a landscape of the imagination where Americans situate ambitions for upward mobility and economic security, ideals about freedom and private property, and longings for social harmony and spiritual uplift" (4). Of course, the standardised nature of this dream was immediately vulnerable to castigation, and many sociologically critical works emerged at the very height of suburban expansion that positioned the suburb as a breeding-ground for emasculation, disaffection, and misogyny. Dana Cuff refers to the documentary Wonderland (John O'Hagan, 1997), where early residents of Levittown describe the uniform landscape as a veil for wife-swapping, racism, alcoholism, and general malaise (8). The prominence of the themes of gender, culture, power, and sexuality in the suburban smart films make them clear descendants of these earlier attitudes, as well as obviously politicised examples within the smart cycle as a whole. Given these considerations, the concept of utopia is a lens through which these films' commentaries can usefully be approached.

[6] In his discussion of urban dystopias, Andrew Milner draws on Raymond Williams' writing on science-fiction and utopia/dystopia, where Williams argues that science-fiction represents four characteristic types of each: "the paradise or hell, the positively or negatively externally-altered world, the positive or negative willed transformation and the positive or negative technological transformation" (Milner 263). Where the popular suburban nightmare films articulate their scenarios in terms of technology and fantasy – The Stepford Wives remake, The Truman Show, Pleasantville – the broadly realistic tone of the suburban smart films tends to preclude their articulation of technologically transformed worlds. Their visions, though, can clearly be understood as negatively willed transformations. These worlds – either suspended in the past (Donnie Darko) or located in an indistinct present unmarked by culture or history – are the extrapolation of materialistic will. Their satirically blank scenography depicts the suburb as a degraded social sphere where self-interest, greed, mass production, and mass consumption have inverted the utopian ideals of community and sub-urban nature. In each film, this anti-utopian vision is projected slightly differently.

[7] Happiness and Your Friends and Neighbours encode their depersonalised nightmares in their rigid and unlovely form. Solondz favours ugly and improbably lurid settings, unflattering costumes, flat and unsympathetic performances, objectionable music, and plain cinematography to present a distinctly robotic middle-class world. As a playwright and theatrical director, LaBute's naturally static style presents highly unnatural filmic worlds that appear hermetic and stunted. The rigid frames and long takes of Your Friends and Neighbours exemplify the blankest style of any smart film: here Solondz' plainness is exaggerated into a rigid window onto bland settings and inane conversations that demonstrate the self-obsession, lack of imagination, and cruelty of the upwardly mobile characters. Outside of the obviously fantastic dimension of Donnie Darko that will be considered next, Kelly's world is already unreal in its heightened evocation of a privileged but socially degraded 1980s – replete with references to the Smurfs, Stephen King, Michael Dukakis, Married with Children – and its polished scenography, which, captured in Steadicam, appears as fluid and heightened as LaBute's is rigid and flat. The Safety of Objects and Magnolia both present worlds whose details are for the most part rounded and life-like, but whose reality is burst by stylistic flourishes and hyperbolic moments: Troche's seamlessly incorporated talking Barbie dolls, and Anderson's rain of frogs and ensemble sing-a-long to Aimee Mann's Wise Up. In each example, suburbia is presented as an unnatural space: it is, as in science-fiction, a present that is bracketed off.

[8] Of all the films in the suburban cycle, The Chumscrubber is the most unambiguous in its vision of a denaturalised anti-utopia. In A Cinema of Loneliness, Robert Kolker suggests that the decline of the film noir cycle is most adequately indicated by the self-consciousness of late films such as Kiss Me Deadly (Robert Aldrich, 1955) and Touch of Evil (Orson Welles, 1958). The worlds of these films are, for Kolker, brutal and exaggerated: "their characters are bizarre to the point of madness and realize to an extraordinary pitch the hysteria inherent in most inhabitants of the noir universe" (23). In this way, Kolker suggests, these films are the climax of the genre, "or perhaps its coda" (23). The Chumscrubber can be approached as a similar marker in the trajectory of the smart cycle: the film raises the cycle's satire of suburbia to a hysterical pitch, and subsequently realises the other anti-utopian motifs in a highly self-conscious manner. Posin strips away any evidence of real-life popular culture, and builds his own singular example from the ground up in "The Chumscrubber" video game that is played by the film's teenagers throughout. The protagonist of this game is The Chumscrubber himself, who explains his existence like this:

I live in the city, in an apartment above the cloud left by the blast. I'm one of the lucky ones. One morning I awoke to discover that my head was no longer attached to my body. I'm not dead, but who could call this a life? So I did what I had to do, in a world of freaks and sub-human creatures. I became the Chumscrubber.

Depicted on television screens throughout the film wandering a dark and fiery animated landscape of suburban houses, head held aloft, the Chumscrubber is a clear science-fiction element: he embodies an alternate, post-apocalyptic suburbia. The animated suburb here fulfils the role that the city plays in typical anti-utopian visions, as the dystopian novum. In Metropolis and Bladerunner, Milner describes the cityscape as "a synecdoche for the wider catastrophe that has overcome their respective populations" (267). The catastrophe of The Chumscrubber video game – "the blast" – is not explained, but its shape is similarly encoded within the game's scorched suburban landscape and has refracted such that the Chumscrubber figure is one of the last humans – or post-humans – on earth. The game motif is Posin's most overstated smart gesture: it sketches a flip-side to the suburban surface community that is satirically described as "the best of all possible worlds." The game's nightmare vision makes explicit the fears that are reflected in the excessive scenography of the surface world: its scenario of violence and isolation is suggested as the negatively transformed result of the selfish and alienated attitudes apparent in the characters of Hillside (the fictional suburb). As the narrator of both game and film, The Chumscrubber figure is the individual mediating consciousness that anchors the film's anti-utopia: his wry attitude suggests an understanding of this transformation, and thereby of the paradox upon which the utopian happiness of the surface world is based. It is in their blinkered engagement with the game and its merchandise that the film situates the teenagers' own understanding of this paradox, and thereby, in the terms of the anti-utopian genre, identifies them as the "anti-heroes" and the adults as the naïve "Benefactors" of this imposed suburban world.

[9] It is as this enlightened figure that The Chumscrubber also anchors the film's take on the utopian type of the Apocalyptic myth, and can throw into relief the other suburban smart films' own interpretations. Throughout the course of the narrative, the juxtaposition of the game with the surface world enables Posin's articulation of some of the key characteristics of this paradigm; most obviously, its bipolar internal structure of positive and negative elements: Light vs Dark, Death vs Rebirth, Terror vs Hope (Fortunati 83). The game also organises the film in terms of the three basic elements of apocalyptic writing: Destruction, Judgement, and Regeneration. As narrator, the rhetoric of this organisation belongs to the animated figure: he, as Viva Fortunati writes in reference to this myth, "exudes awareness of his superiority, his worthiness to be spokesman for the elect, the chosen heir to the apocalyptic vision" (83). The nuance that the "end" takes on by way of the game and its knowing perspective can be understood to characterise the anti-utopian visions of all the suburban smart films discussed here. The "end" or "catastrophe" of The Chumscrubber is most obviously encoded within the game, in the undescribed "blast" that resulted in the Chumscrubber's existence. In his narration of his own story, the three dimensions of destruction, judgement, and regeneration make up his "becoming" the Chumscrubber. As suggested, though, this "regenerated" life – nomadic, fragmented – is unambiguously posited as a flip-side to the satirically utopian surface world: its destroyed society functions as a judgement on the corrupt attitudes and values that transformed it as such. In this way, the shallow collective will of the suburban community is posited as catastrophe and regeneration: it functions as both the cause of the fantastic fall that created the game, and the state of being that continues as the object of its metaphor.

[10] This circular orientation indicates how the anti-utopianism of The Chumscrubber, and the other suburban smart films, can be approached as an annihilative take on the Apocalyptic myth. The other films don't sketch their "catastrophes" quite so literally, but in all there is a violent or disjunctive event that triggers a type of regeneration: in Happiness the father Bill (Dylan Baker) is arrested after molesting his son's friends; in The Safety of Objects, Esther (Glenn Close) murders her comatose son; in Your Friends and Neighbours the character of Cary (Jason Patric) delivers a lengthy monologue detailing his part in a gang rape as a teenager. These examples all suggest how the suburban smart film tends to feed upon disaster and yearn for Apocalypse. As such, the myth is emptied of its cathartic powers and the possibility of true regeneration is discredited: the final scenarios are described in terms of satire, hyperbole, ambiguity, or emptiness. In many, including The Chumscrubber, Your Friends and Neighbours, and Happiness, the characters' lack of consciousness is highlighted by the straightforward restoration of the prevailing anti-utopian order. The Safety of Objects evokes the mock-transcendent ending of much science-fiction by abruptly shifting from critical exposition to utopian fantasy (Ruppert 8), with all the damaged families of the film gathered over a meal in a suburban backyard listening to a teenage girl sing a song written by the dead boy, her brother. The ending here is not as openly parodic as Posin's in The Chumscrubber or as emotionally nihilistic as Solondz' or LaBute's in Happiness or Your Friends and Neighbours, but its animation of the utopian dialectic – its glimpse of a better world – is highly ambiguous, and does little to counter the apocalyptic logic advanced by all the films, namely that "the end of our civilisation is ... inevitable because of qualities inherent in human nature" (Fortunati 88).

[11] It is in this sense that the supposedly inflammatory cycle of films can be understood, at least in the logic of utopianism, as conservative and reactionary: they appear to discredit the potential for transformation in human existence. The film that offers the most significant challenge to this position, perhaps, is Donnie Darko – itself widely received as a science-fiction film. Kelly's film offers an alternate and more radical take on the concept of transformation. By approaching this interpretation through the Deleuzean discourse of becoming, the film can be understood to animate a dialectic that is more properly utopian.

Becoming-democratic; becoming-animal

Donnie: Why do you wear that stupid bunny suit?

Frank: Why are you wearing that stupid man suit?

[12] In a recent article in the journal Deleuze Studies, Paul Patton casts Deleuze and Guattari's way of "doing philosophy" as a political project in which the aim is overtly utopian. Deleuze and Guattari understand philosophy as the creation of concepts, where these philosophical concepts are open-ended and a-systematic multiplicities. In What is Philosophy?, the utopianism of this project is made clear when they stipulate that "the creation of concepts in itself calls for a future form, for a new earth and people that do not yet exist" (108). Patton's concern in his article is with the shift in orientation between Deleuze and Guattari's early work – particularly in Anti-Oedipus and A Thousand Plateaus – and the later What is Philosophy?, as well as Deleuze's solo thought in works such as Negotiations and Essays Critical and Clinical. Patton's suggestion is that the later works imply an awareness of normative political issues that is less prominent in the earlier books: as he describes, Anti-Oedipus and A Thousand Plateaus "do not set out to provide normative standards for the justification or critique of political institutions and processes. Instead, they outline a political ontology that enables us to conceptualise and describe transformative or creative forces and movements" (42). Nonetheless, there is a normative dimension to this ontology in the systematic priority of "minoritarian becomings" over "majoritarian being," to "lines of flight" over "forms of capture," and to "planes of consistency" over "planes of organisation" (42). When Deleuze does later engage with the political values and concepts that inform basic liberal democracy, it is the normativity that founds these earlier concepts – and particularly the concept of becoming – that enables Deleuze's suggestion that philosophy can respond to the present.

[13] This normative reference is best exemplified in the phrases that Patton focuses on: "becoming-revolutionary" and "becoming-democratic." In the context of What is Philosophy?, the concept of becoming-revolutionary implies "forms of individual and collective self-transformation in response to what is intolerable or shameful in the present" (Patton 47). The concept is defined not in terms of these forms themselves, but in terms of the transformation that remains irreducible to its historical manifestations. Here, as Patton describes, becoming is a pure event: "an 'unhistorical element' that is necessary in order for new forms of life to emerge" (47). As the normative dimension of the transformative process, the concept of becoming means that the political vocation of becoming-revolutionary is focused on the forces and processes that produce or inhibit changes to the character of individual or social life. Patton reads the concept as utopian insofar as it doesn't simply posit an ideal future or a blueprint for new social arrangements. Instead, it aims to connect up with those forces that are present in but stifled by the present milieu. Deleuze and Guattari suggest that utopia stands for absolute deterritorialization, "but always at the critical point at which it is connected with the present relative milieu" (What is Philosophy? 99). The concept of becoming-democratic expresses the potential for extending processes of relative deterritorialization that already exist in a social milieu – so, resistant political forces and the ideals or opinions that motivate them – to the limits of what is possible under present conditions. It "points to ways of criticising the workings of actually existing democracies in the name of the egalitarian principles that are supposed to inform their institutions and political practices" (Patton 50).

[14] As has been suggested, the anti-utopian visions of the suburban smart films all embody their own critiques of liberal democratic culture: in these films the suburb replaces the city of classical dystopian science-fiction as a site magnifying the commodification of social values and human relationships. The films focused on so far principally achieve this critique in terms of satire. Although Kelly has suggested that, first and foremost, Donnie Darko functions as a piece of social satire, [2] the terms in which this satire is elaborated can be understood in relation to the concept of becoming-democratic. In this way, Donnie Darko is utopian in a way that the other films are not.

[15] The narrative of Donnie Darko is structured by an atypically literal deployment of what Sconce describes as the third characteristic of the smart film: a formal and thematic interest in issues of coincidence and random fate (358). At the beginning of the film, the teenage Donnie's (Jake Gyllenhaal) house is struck by a stray airliner engine. We see this accident twice: once at the beginning and once at the end of the film. In the first version of events Donnie lives, in the second he is killed. The space between the two accidents is structured as a twenty-eight day countdown to the end of the world that is predicted by the vision that saves Donnie the first time: Frank (James Duval), the figure dressed in a rabbit suit with a demonic, skull-like mask. Over the twenty-eight days Donnie, diagnosed as a borderline schizophrenic, struggles to comprehend his visions of Frank and the awareness of the world they seem to impel in him. Increasingly disturbed by Frank's prophecy, Donnie turns to the philosophy of time travel as a means of understanding his situation.

[16] Like the other suburban smart films, Donnie Darko can be linked to the anti-utopian genre by its depiction of the suburb as a veritable totalitarian state that denies individuality and represses freedom through its institutions of work, school, and family. The comfortable, educated life that suburban-utopianism imagined is here represented as stultifying and destructive, leading only to violence, unhappiness, abuse, and, in Donnie's words, "mental problems." As in some of the other films, Donnie Darko's critique of this culture is partially contained in a semantic device lifted from the teen-film, where the adults are cast as naïve and the teenagers as cynically enlightened. Donnie – the teen anti-hero – is pitted directly against the adult supporters of an overtly utopian guide to happiness created by life coach Jim Cunningham (Patrick Swayze) and taught in Donnie's polished suburban school. In a typical classroom sequence, Donnie exposes the false assumptions of the model. When asked to complete a lifeline exercise based on the premise that "fear" equates to negative energy and "love" equates to positive energy, he confronts his teacher with an anti-reductionist argument, describing how the model ignores the spectrum of human emotion. Here, as in The Chumscrubber, the adults are caricatured Benefactors; their concern with the question of their teenagers' happiness is reduced to naive terms that the younger people refuse to subscribe to.

[17] Kelly confuses the model, though, with other characters: both Donnie and some of the sympathetic adults (the science and English teachers, his parents) are depicted with an earnestness that is unusual for both the smart and teen cycles. It is not either cycle's favourite constraint of family that emerges as Donnie's "problem"; far more limiting are those other bureaucratic powers that operate behind and around the family: Jim Cunningham reduces life to attitudes of either love or fear; Donnie's therapist twists his fears and compulsions into a search for God. Against both powers, Kelly transforms the teen film by exaggerating the device of the "wise" teenager: Donnie is the literally visionary youth who rejects his teachers and psychiatrist. The real distinction of the film, though, can be located in the way that this rejection is enabled by the figure of Frank, whose presence anchors a narrative ambiguity that remains definitively open. Typical interpretations of the film understand it in one of two ways: as a science-fiction piece, or as a portrait of paranoid schizophrenia. If we take the science-fiction line, Frank's appearance signals the point where the Tangent universe opens up and the film diverges from realism: thematically, Donnie becomes the super hero that his girlfriend Gretchen (Jena Malone) comments his name suggests – the "Living Receiver" chosen to keep the Primary and Tangent universes separate. If we take the schizophrenia line, Frank's appearance is the first of Donnie's hallucinations. In this interpretation, the narrative doesn't diverge from realism for we simply understand Frank as "not real," and the film as an unusually sensitive teen film. A third possibility is that we take the appearance of Frank – the man-animal – as Donnie's act of what Deleuze and Guattari conceptualise as becoming-animal. In this possibility, Frank is neither a symbol nor a symptom but an active force forging Donnie's escape: he is the intensity that disrupts the film.

[18] Becoming-animal is one example of the type of minoritarian becoming that Patton suggests can fill out the concept of becoming-democratic. For Deleuze and Guattari, becoming-animal is one way of overcoming the transcendental logic of being, and affirming an order of immanence from which being is organised. In practice, this manifests as an attempt to expand the concept of reality from the parameters of what is (what is actual) to what is also becoming (what is virtual). In this schema, any positive form is expanded by a plane of virtual tendencies. Deleuze and Guattari's project can be cast as a non-reductive ontology in that it contests those claims to primacy of any pre-given positivity that directs and controls these tendencies. This project does not claim that there is no actuality, but that there is always more than the actual. Fixed identities of form or function are always expanded by a virtual plane of potential that subtracts from them the unique or the characteristic. Animality, for Deleuze and Guattari, is aligned with this virtual, subtractive force: the mode of animality they privilege is not that of the individuated, domestic pet but of the roaming, anonymous pack. They refer throughout their work to rats, fleas, and wolves – privileging the mode of existence which consists not of identities and representations but of intensities. Animality expresses the composite of virtual tendencies at the heart of any actual perception, as a real multiplicity without uniqueness. Becoming-animal describes the attempt to perceive this order of pure difference as an escape; it is an attempt at not-being: at not being-animal, but also at not being-human. One does not imitate or represent the animal, but creates a new molecular mode of individuation. Instances of becoming-animal identified by Deleuze and Guattari include those in Kafka's "The Metamorphosis" and Melville's Moby Dick. In these stories, they write, "the animal is the object par excellence of the story: (it is) to try to find a way out, to trace a line of escape" (Kafka 34).

[19] Understanding Frank as symptomatic of a virtual mode of individuation in this way goes against dominant readings of Donnie Darko, where the "disruption" of Frank is absorbed into the register of theme: he is the "Manipulated Dead" in the elaborate time-travel schema or that standard mental illness icon, the vision compelling Donnie to destroy. In either instance, he is identified as representational. But, against the exaggerated anti-utopian suburb, Frank's emergence can also be taken more literally. Against the limits of school, family, and therapy, Frank transpires as Donnie's act of becoming-animal: he is an active alternative, a refusal, and a means of transforming these limits. I can do whatever I want, Frank explains to Donnie, and so can you. In this way, Frank is the form Donnie's self-transformation takes in response to what he finds intolerable in the present: he signals Donnie's perception of difference beyond the actualised forms of his suburban, middle-class life. As an "imaginary" friend, though, Frank indicates Donnie's becoming-animal as a state escaping those binaries representing the limitations around him: love/fear, truth/falsity, god/chaos, real/imaginary. "Imaginary" is here a third term, not a second. This orientation aligns the film as a whole, where the satirical bent relies upon an implicit questioning of binaries. By throwing into relief respectively overstated attitudes on topics from Graham Greene's The Destructors to emotional dysfunction, the film questions, in classic teen-film style, the affirmation of one over the other.

[20] The figure of animality fills out this mode of questioning, insofar as it is deployed practically: as a means of challenging the literal. When Frank first appears and starts the countdown to the end of the world it seems like a linear timeline set out by a mysterious, visionary being. Encouraged by the film's titles we anticipate the end point with some conviction: we believe, as Donnie does, that Frank knows more than we do. After the twenty-eight days, though, we are abruptly diverted back to the film's starting point: October 2, 1988. Frank's vision is not actualised into a real, apocalyptic event but dissolves into another take on an earlier event. One jet engine accident is virtual, but it's not clear which. The timeline doesn't indicate a beginning and end point but suggests infinite "middleness" as the ceaseless movement of forms in time and space. Donnie's becoming-animal animates a utopian dialectic in Donnie Darko by framing this vision as a glimpse of a genuinely transcendent world. The vision directly opposes the utopian order of happiness that is satirised in the surface world of this film and of the other suburban smart films discussed: Donnie's transformation amounts to an awareness of himself not as a unique origin for a perceived world (as the adults see themselves) but as one more form itself becoming-different. For Donnie, this is not a positive recognition that fleshes out an existing system of understanding but is the subtraction of everything that he does "know." The relative forces and processes of deterritorialization that the narrative connects up with here can be interpreted as the symptoms of schizophrenia, but also as the more ordinary emotional confusion of youth. These conditions are rendered as "desirable" insofar as they prompt the deterritorialization of an actual world: Donnie's "insights" amount to a virtual awareness of the immanence of life that may or may not destroy him. The ambiguity that Donnie Darko leaves suspended is whether this recognition of life does propose a greater self-awareness or not. The utopianism of its action lies in the possibility of resistance and transformation: a possibility that it locates, as do the other films, in the figure of the teenager.

[21] In his book Deleuze, Cinema and National Identity: Narrative Time in National Contexts, David Martin-Jones draws on Deleuze's philosophy of time to describe how a recent group of films manipulate narrative time to construct national identity. For Martin-Jones, Run Lola Run (Tom Tykwer, 1998), Memento (Christopher Nolan, 2000) and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004) are "hybrid" films insofar as they employ a non-linear or labyrinthine model of time that evokes the time-image within a more broadly classical, linear movement-image structure (2). As a contemporary popular American film with a time-loop structure and a specific interest in issues of synchronicity, Donnie Darko can also be understood to fit into this "hybrid" category. This article has drawn upon some Deleuzian concepts that can be understood in utopian terms – becoming-democratic, becoming-animal – as a way of exploring Kelly's film in a way that disrupts a linear genre interpretation: as an encounter between a movement-image model of suburban anti-utopianism and a time-image model of transformation. To understand this film as either a time travel story or a portrait of schizophrenia reduces the film to the binary logic it satirises, making the story reliant upon the explanatory oppositions of The Philosophy of Time Travel or the fundamental opposition of sane/mad. The logic of becoming-animal is a third way of approaching the film because it is a refusal of binary reason on two fronts. Internally, Frank forges Donnie's line of escape from its oppressive structures. Externally, Donnie's becoming-animal is the becoming-molecular of the dominant, molar forms of interpretation because it overwhelms their own dyad of "real" (science fiction) or "not real" (schizophrenia). As in Martin-Jones's study, the use of Deleuzian concepts has provided a range of new contexts within which to apply the terms (2), as well as opened up the sub-cycle of the suburban smart film as a form which questions: How should we live? Must our lives, as one adult character in Donnie Darko insists, be simply righteous? Should we be more "like" Donnie, in the sense that he is "like" Frank, and strive to perceive beyond our actual conditions, or will this realisation overwhelm us? This ambiguity signals how the utopianism of the suburban smart film is ultimately embedded not in the paradigm of science-fiction but in the liminal terms of the teen film: it connects up with that tense, overwrought moment between: the moment, in Adrian Martin's description, "between yesterday and tomorrow, between childhood and adulthood, between being a nobody and a somebody, when everything is in question, and anything is possible" (68).


[1] Sconce discusses the recent American films which, as he sees it, exist at the "intersection" of commercial, independent, and art cinema. Influenced by all three modes of filmmaking, the "smart" film synthesises their formal and thematic strategies to offer what is, for Sconce, a new critical voice in contemporary American cinema. In Sconce's description, there are five characteristics of form and theme that constitute the "signs" of smartness: blank style, synchronous structure, random fate, family dysfunction, and consumerism. Sconce suggests an initial, disparate filmography including works by Wes Anderson, Todd Solondz, Paul Thomas Anderson, Spike Jonze, and Alexander Payne. See Sconce (2002).

[2] Kelly has commented in one interview, "Maybe it's the story of Holden Caulfield, resurrected in 1988 by the spirit of Phillip K. Dick, who was always spinning yarns about schizophrenia and drug abuse breaking the barriers of space and time. Or it's a black comedy foreshadowing the impact of the 1988 presidential election, which is really the best way to explain it. But first and foremost, I wanted the film to be a piece of social satire that needs to be experienced and digested several times" («»).

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