What Looks Like Chaos

“As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain, and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.”
-Albert Einstein

I am an orderly person, but I don’t love order for its own sake. I find beauty and happiness in chaos as well, although I think one of the things chaos theory has shown us is that much of what we think of as chaos is simply order on a scale too intricate, vast, or slow for us to grasp it. In a really good epic adventure or a comedy of errors, the characters’ experience is of a series of unexpected events but the audience has enough of a bird’s eye view to see the structure and understand how it all fits together. And then there are films like Donnie Darko, where causality loops back on itself and creates that sense of unpredictability for the audience as well.

Very few people create stories about actual chaos theory, in part I think because it would be kind of terrifying and depressing. It’s not very comforting to think that some tiny, apparently irrelevant or unnoticeable thing that just happened to occur at a particular moment is the reason why your life went in one direction rather than another, even if it happens all the time. The smallest variation at the right moment can eventually cause a crisis point that dissolves into true chaos, but in complex systems there are always a myriad of potential reasons for things to go off the rails, some of which are sheer randomness and many of which might actually be quite predictable if we had insight into enough of the factors involved.

Many narratives remind me more of a Rube Goldberg machine, where the author devises a complex series of events that interact in creative ways to drive the outcome. I’ve been thinking about that while re-watching the Lord of the Rings movies with my son, particularly when it comes to Merry and Pippin. For example, how Frodo and Sam end up being chased by the farmer Merry and Pip have stolen vegetables from and they all pile up and tumble down the hill together, landing right next to a tasty crop of mushrooms by the side of the road where the Nazgul are searching for the Ring. Or when Pip reaches out to touch a suit of armor in the halls of the Dwarven mine of Moria sending it and everything attached to it tumbling down a seemingly endless pit, drawing hordes of goblins to them and ultimately forcing them into the deeps of the mine where the Balrog drags Gandalf into the abyss.

The characters, and in particular the hobbits, are often heading in one direction doing one thing and are unexpectedly picked up and swept off in another (sometimes literally) by something else, like orcs, or walking trees, or wizards. In my head I see it all fitting together like a candle burning a rope that releases a tire which rolls down a ramp and lands on a board, flinging a potted begonia through the air and frightening the cat, which flees through the cat door and triggers some other bizarre series of events ending in me getting to eat a piece of pie. In short, I love it when I can see how all of the pieces of a story are designed to work together in clever ways even if they appear at first glance to be insignificant or unrelated.

Early physical comedy like The Marx Brothers or Harold Lloyd is another example of something that looks like chaos up close but is clearly connected from a distance. Part of the joy of watching them is seeing each piece of the chain set in place, knowing that somehow it will all come together in a hilarious way when Groucho reaches for a canape or Harold bends over to pick up a penny. They’re like tiny Rube Goldberg machines that employ a very complicated system to perform the simple task of making you laugh. Although to be fair to comedians, it’s probably fair to say that the task making people laugh isn’t all that simple.

Watching Donnie Darko is a whole other experience though. It’s clearly intricately designed and everything does fit together, but in unexpected and circular ways with minor variations that cause major shifts. Donnie’s entire journey from when the movie starts seems to be leading him through all of the events that occur from the moment an engine from a jet plane falls through the roof and lands on his bed while he’s not in it, ending up back around in an alternate version of that exact same moment where he is in his bed at the time. On every other night of his life so far, whether he was in bed or not at a specific moment probably did not have any significant or unexpected consequences, but the ripple effects of this specific moment affect almost every person in the movie in some large or small way.

It doesn’t seem like a machine to me at all – I can’t really figure out how all of the pieces fit together, and the random appearance of a guy in a creepy bunny costume and Donnie’s apparent mental health issues blur the lines between reality and quantum physics. The audience doesn’t have enough distance or information to predict how actions or events will impact each other, and being given events from Donnie’s perspective doesn’t help with that. It feels like there are two parallel versions of reality running side by side through the film. In one, Donnie is hallucinating and everyone else is experiencing their lives in a regular world linear way and having existential crises in the face of events that seem random and tragic. In the other, Donnie is experiencing time in a non-linear way which but lets him see just enough of the connections to lead him in a spiral back to a slightly different version of the initial event. In the end, it seems like somehow one version of reality caused the engine to fall into the other version, where no one can figure out where it came from. Even having watched it multiple times I’m still not entirely sure how that works.

What I take out of chaos theory is that the reason for some things happening is invisible to us, and even if we knew what it was, it wouldn’t really mean anything beyond the understanding that sometimes one thing we can’t see causes another thing we can’t control to happen to us. Many systems are actually pretty predictable and experience tells me that planning will, in fact, result in some things going as planned, but I think one of the cornerstones of happiness and success is being adaptable and able to change direction when things go off the rails. Reach out for what you’re trying to get, but don’t be so surprised if what you get is a big ol’ handful of something else!


alex MacFadyen apologizes for all the havoc he has wreaked in your life by flapping his wings.

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