Audition, Donnie Darko, and Primer: Movies that make you go hmm

Two movie interpretations to put out there to see what people think (and a review of another mind bender of a movie that's a real brain tickle)...

The first movie interpretation is from my old roommate Scott about the Japanese horror flick Audition, directed by Takashi Mîke. I first saw Audition last Christmas break while in Temecula, even though I'd owned it for years. My dad shares my stomach for disturbing movies, and I wanted to watch it with him. We stayed up late one night to screen it after everyone else had fallen asleep. If you thought Michael Douglas had a tough time in Fatal Attraction...

I'll have to test out Scott's theory with a repeat viewing, but maybe some Audition and Mîke fans out there have something else to add. Those who haven't seen it and can stomach some graphic, disturbing, and horrific imagery (I'll never see piano wire again without curling into a fetal position and whimpering) will be treated to a very smart and thought-provoking horror movie about male insecurities about women and the loneliness of urban life (especially in Japan). Mîke's movies are always provocative, often disturbing, but seldom meaningless.

Excerpts from Scott's e-mail (minor plot spoilers):

It seems pretty clear to me that all the horrible things that happen in the last third of the movie are taking place in Aoyama's head (the last scene in which Asami accepts his marriage proposal is the final "real" scene), brought on by issues he has over his fear, mistrust, and guilt with women. There are "revelations" he sees that he could not possibly know, and the end, in which his son does not die, suggests to me there are limits to the torture he dare imagine for himself. Yet, I've yet to see this thought discussed in any meaningful way by people who've seen the movie, which strikes me as potentially missing most of the interesting aspects of the movie similar to a person who doesn't realize the first 90% of Mulholland Drive took place in Diane's (Betty's?) head.

Audition never struck me as having compromised with its ending, and the idea that Aoyama is "dreaming" a nightmare scenario for himself seems the most logistically and artistically satisfying of all possible conclusions.

First of all, Aoyama is f***ed up with women. His wife dies, oh, seven years before the true beginning of this story, and he hasn't really dated since? His teenage son is so much more wise about women that the son needs to give his father advice? His friend needs to fabricate a movie just so Aoyama can have the opportunity to talk to women? He fixates on one particular woman after seeing her picture and resume? This guy is screwed up! In the beginning we're introduced to a creepy secretary who suggests a Japanese Glenn Close, but by the end it seems obvious that Aoyama and her have had an affair in the past. It's actually Aoyama whose public indifference and inability to address the affair who seems ultimately troubled. He materializes his guilt into the form of his wife in at least two hallucinations, and he's all messed about about sexuality in general. Asami's dominatrix gear at the end seems to summarize Aoyama's overriding views of sex: he doesn't understand it, and he fears how it controls him. It's not clear whether Aoyama is even all that secure with the twin aspect of atavistic life: eating and f***ing. He doesn't seem able to even eat in the company of women (he just seems to drink a lot), and I thought it was particularly intriguing that he won't let his son's girlfriend make him dinner, but later on he envisions sleeping with her. It was just dinner, dude!

As for all the typical craziness that follows, well, I'm just going to call that "Miike-ness" for convenience. Remember when his friend tells him not to call Asami, and there's a scene where she's just waiting next to the phone (with a big burlap bag ominously in the background)? That's more Miike-ness. This is the thing: taken upon themselves, the Miike-ness just doesn't have any logical consistency. If we were to assume that the end was REAL, and the moment where he falls unconscious the only hallucination he has, we must wonder how he knew certain things. For instance, he clearly visualizes the same house we see earlier in the film (where Asami is waiting for him to call), but hey, how's that possible? Was he dreaming that earlier scene as well? There are several details that don't add up, including how he could possibly know Asami's fondness for wire before she gets to work on his ankle. The only logical explanation is if we discount as imaginary EVERY SCENE Aoyama is not in.

Asami's dialogue before they sleep together is admittedly a little odd, but doesn't it stretch suspension of disbelief to the limit when she disappears entirely for a couple days, and then re-appears to "gimp" Aoyama? Did she need to Fed-Ex some needles her way? Aside from wearing unusually frou-frou clothing, and looking like she only eats on days that start with "T", is there ever any real hint that Asami might have a crazy psycho hiding inside? While we're talking about characters, doesn't everyone seem really strange after Aoyama and Asami sleep together? A tenant sounds gleeful describing the body parts in the bar below, and a dance instructor (who barricaded himself inside by nailing planks to the OUTSIDE) spends his days heating pokers for, I guess, the unlikely scenario he gets another pupil.

So, I guess my very simplistic psychobabble explanation for why Aoyama dreams this really terrible nightmare is that he has large feelings of guilt for his wife, secretary, and Asami; he's fearful of the sex, openness, and commitment Asami requests of him; and perhaps after losing his wife he just expects something else terrible to befall him. He fixates on some careless words from his friend Yoshikawa (who probably said that because he saw Aoyama getting way too serious way too fast... and possibly with a little envy), and bolsters a subconscious mistrust he has of Asami. He's also startled by the depths of her devotion before they sleep together, and that plays into his Misery-on-crack hobbling delusion. The montage of nightmare elements in his "poisoning dream" are carelessly interwoven with all the women in his life, suggesting, at a minimum, this is really about more than his relationship with just Asami.

In doing some further research, I found this thread at IMDb that tries to distinguish dream from reality. It mentions an audio commentary by Mîke, but it's not on the DVD I own. Apparently Mîke's commentary states that all the torture scenes are reality. He would say that. I

Over Christmas break I also watched Donnie Darko again. Alan and Karen were seeing it for the first time. After watching it, Alan had an interesting interpretation, the details of which I've forgotten. One thought remains: he saw Roberta Sparrow/Grandma Death as a John the Baptist figure. She synthesizes both a pure scientific view, as represented by Noah Wylie, Most people regard her as a loon, but Donnie sees her as a prophet of sorts. Her writings train Donnie to harness his abilities. In the end, Donnie sacrifices himself in a Christ-like fashion by going back in time to die in the jet engine accident (a deleted scene shows Donnie impaled like Christ among the accident debris). In doing so, Donnie saves many others, like Gretchen, and also prevents the end of the Universe.

I should note that I have not seen the Director's Cut of Donnie Darko. So painful when a second and more deluxe DVD of a movie is issued after fans already purchased the original. The new DVD includes a documentary on the meaning of Donnie Darko as interpreted by some British fans. Sometime I'll have to check that out. Another resource is the Donnie Darko FAQ.

A few weeks back I rented Primer from Netflix. A low-budget indie movie shot for $7,000 [1], it took the Grand Jury Prize at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival. A beautifully clever movie, it inspired an almost immediate second viewing with the director's commentary on just so I could try to untangle the plot timeline, no small feat because the movie is about time travel [2]. A couple young garage inventors stumble into the creation of a time machine. How each of them reacts to this and how they each use the mechanism is the story. The writer Shane Carruth also directed and stars as Aaron, one of the main characters along with his fellow inventor Abe (David Sullivan).

The second time watching it, much more became clear to me, especially with some hints from the director's commentary. I'm happy to trade theories with folks, but the forums at the movie's official website should answer most people's questions.

The acting is stylized, with both Aaron and Abe rattling off science speak like a couple of traders discussing derivatives. Some may find the acting flat, but I much prefer the stylized deadpan delivery in independent movies than over-emoting from actors not up to the task. This movie is not about the acting, and the acting doesn't distract. The sound mix is muddy, but the director acknowledges it in his commentary and vows to do better next time. The director was on such a budget that he had to use film frames in which he is visibly saying "cut" (he simply cuts the audio out on that sequence). Films shot on a low budget can be forgiven for many flaws, but not a lack of originality. This movie is emotionally cool but intellectually rich, and what remains after one viewing is a pleasant lactic acid burn in the brain.

[1] Attend enough film festivals and you'll realize that no indie director ever reveals how much it cost to make his or her film unless the number is astoundingly low. This makes sense. If the figure is extremely low, that becomes a story in and of itself, portraying the director as a heroic artist, able to leap massive obstacles armed only with a credit card and passion-fueled ingenuity. If the movie looks lousy, the low budget is a built-in excuse. On the other hand, if the budget wasn't low, it serves no PR purpose to reveal the cost and in fact can work against you if the movie still doesn't look all that impressive despite an adequate budget.

[2] MIT recently hosted a Time Travelers' conference, though no one from the future showed up as the conference organizers had hoped. The idea was that if someone in the future had invented time travel, the conference would serve as a target in history.