Thursday, November 22, 2007

11/21: Southland Tales

Fourteen thoughts on Richard Kelly's Southland Tales...

I. The accusations from all quarters that Southland is "a mess" have been greatly exaggerated. Yes, I was totally mystified at more than a few points. Yes, the film is elliptical in the extreme and has so many different characters floating through its orbit that it's practically impossible to keep track of them all. Yes, Kelly is deliberately obscure about who's on which side, or how many sides there actually are, or what these sides might stand for. Despite all this, the basic plotline isn't all that difficult to follow, although it has some convoluted twists and turns and several key pieces of the puzzle aren't revealed until quite late in the film. Even watching it for the first time in its adulterated cut with 20 minutes missing, the film has a basic narrative drive and a sense, at its epic ending, that the pieces all fit together, even if not all of them are entirely apparent at the moment. At least several of the major plot components, like the disappearance of Boxer Santaros (Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson) and the relationship between Iraq War veterans Roland Taverner (Seann William Scott) and Pilot Abilene (Justin Timberlake), are fully resolved within the narrative. As for being a mess in other ways, the film undoubtedly smears the screen with a tremendous number of ideas and images, not all of which work or are fully developed (or developed at all), and it's easy to get overwhelmed by the overload. But it's equally clear that this is intentional on Kelly's part. More on that later.

II. This lasted barely a week in suburban America, after nearly a year in which it sat in limbo without distribution following its disastrous Cannes showing. It arrived here last week, playing at a few theaters, and when I finally got a chance to see it tonight, it was the last showing at the last lonely theater still playing it. Even so, the mid-size audience of mostly teenagers seemed surprisingly appreciative of Kelly's weirdo opus, suggesting that maybe suburban America is ready for this film, if only they'd heard about it — and heard about it from more sympathetic critics than Ebert.

III. The film has some things to say about sex through the character of Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar), a porn star who's in the process of reinventing herself as a multimedia mogul with a talk show, pop music career, movie script, fashion line, and energy drink. Gellar's performance totally skewers the way in which this sexuality-promoting lifestyle presents itself as an icon of liberality and liberation: "your legislation can't stop teens' masturbation," goes the lyrics to her newest hit single. But in fact, Krysta's shallow chatter and half-baked philosophy ("deep down, everyone wants to be a porn star") cheapens sex, removes its magic and its radical potential. The way her TV show groups together war, abortion, and "teen horniness" as relevant social issues dilutes the importance or seriousness of all of them. At another point, when the corrupt and homicidal cop Bart Bookman (Jon Lovitz) is trying to seduce radical leftist Zora (Cheri Oteri), he gruffly asks her, "do you want to fuck or watch a movie?" — suggesting that the two experiences have become roughly interchangeable, both forms of mass-market entertainment with no deeper content or importance.

IV. Who would have thought that the Rock could carry a picture? He plays Boxer Santaros, an obvious Arnold Schwarzenegger pastiche, a movie star turned politician married to the ditsy daughter (Mandy Moore) of a conservative senator (Holmes Osborne). In the film's central role, he turns in a surprisingly sharp, nuanced performance, admirably playing Santaros mostly with broad, comic strokes but retreating inward when needed.

V. Late in the film, a porn star friend of Krysta Now remarks, while making a reality TV show, that digital production values have allowed them to become just like a movie — "which is just like TV anyway," she adds. Kelly's film reverses that equation, making a movie which mirrors the aesthetics, attitudes, and even stars of TV. Not only is the film awash in Saturday Night Live and Mad TV cast members and teen idols of the MTV generation, but it frequently takes on the quality of CNN infotainment, panning across tightly packed and poorly designed screens overloaded with ads, shocking headlines, and multiple images, alternating debauchery with terror and violence. Kelly's TV pastiche is frequently hilarious, and constantly dense, crowding screens with so many jokes and references that it's nearly impossible to unpack everything. One already imagines getting the DVD just to be able to pause frequently and soak in the multiple jokes and long texts and images crowded into these TV-ified screens, and on DVD the film will have made its complete cycle, a film parodying the TV aesthetic being played back, of course, on TVs.

VI. There's a great few minutes when the film turns into a musical, when Justin Timberlake's Pilot takes a mysterious drug called "bleed" and heads off to a hallucinatory bowling alley where he lip-syncs through an impromptu music video of the Killers' "All These Things That I've Done." The blood-stained, scarred-up Timberlake is an Iraq veteran, stumbling through an MTV landscape, drinking Budweisers and pouring them over his head in a hideous parody of product placement, as leggy dancing girls cavort around him. He increasingly looks stoned and shell-shocked, ending the sequence with a shot of Timberlake staring blank-faced straight into the camera as the girls complete slow motion twirls around him.

VII. This is something of a modular review because I couldn't really think of any better way to address the sprawling, elliptical structure of Kelly's film. Its indebtedness to TV narratives and the aesthetics of channel-surfing make it a perfect film to address in terms of its component parts rather than as a whole. It's hard to see the whole, anyway, at least for me after my one viewing so far.

VIII. For a film that purports to be a study of post-millennial tensions, and which sets its climactic sequences amid riots in Los Angeles, Kelly's treatment of race is remarkably cursory, limited to a single sequence in which some Neo-Marxist SNL regulars try to discredit conservatives by staging a film with a fake racist cop committing fake murders.

IX. A lot of people have mentioned Kelly's aping of David Lynch in this film, and it's not hard to see why. Rebekah Del Rio is the most obvious connection between the two directors, singing an emotionally fraught "Star Spangled Banner" at the climax of Southland's third act, backed by dissonant strings which play in interesting ways off her resonant voice. The scene plays a similar role to the way Lynch used her in Mulholland Drive, where her Spanish cover of Roy Orbison's "Crying" also served as an emotional backbone to the film's climax. More superficially, Kelly places midgets conspicuously into several scenes without explanation or apparent justification, a rather unfortunate choice indicative of the way that Kelly's style sometimes descends into mere tics and gestures without much thought. There's also an unmistakable Lynchian influence on several key scenes, most notably one in which a gnomish old lady holds a glowing blue crystal ball and prophecies. In another scene, reminiscent of the diner sequence from Mulholland Drive, Boxer and Taverner meet at a diner where Taverner is distracted by two thugs, one bare-chested with a red, white, and blue mohawk, and Boxer is led off on a surreal chase by the enigmatic Serpentine (Ling Bai). Finally, the sinister Baron Von Westphalen (Wallace Shawn) is played like a cross between the Joker and Robert Blake's mysterious character from Lynch's Lost Highway.

X. Lynch may be the popular reference, but Grant Morrison is a much more apposite name in relation to Southland Tales. The film draws tremendously on Lynch's cinematic influence, and it also just outright steals from him at times, but the Morrison of The Invisibles and The Filth provides deeper thematic touchstones for Kelly's work. Morrison's visions of a sci-fi future in which pop culture and artificial sex are used to subjugate an ignorant populace is clearly a precursor for Kelly's near-future depiction of political chaos and social upheaval. Morrison's extra-dimensional evil has become the Republican Party in Kelly's version, but the sense of an apocalypse on the way — and the further sense that this may even be a good, necessary transformation — is straight out of Morrison. In the final book of The Invisibles, the apocalypse comes in the form of a total world transformation led by the forces of anarchic revolt, and the final moments of Southland Tales, with Taverner's rebirth as a new messiah and the destruction of the conservative regime, suggest a similar apocalypse to come.

XI. Another comics reference occurred to me upon leafing through the graphic novels which form the first part of Kelly's story. The film starts, without explanation, with a chapter heading numbered IV, and chapters I-III of the story are contained within a series of three comic novels. I haven't read them yet, and maybe they explain a few of the film's missing pieces, though the film felt pretty complete to me already. But the art, by Brett Weldele, reminded me of a more minimalist (and less talented) Ashley Wood, and that connection naturally led me to the underrated Automatic Kafka, written by Joe Casey with art by Wood. That book is also about a futuristic world where sex and game shows dominate the cultural landscape, and in one issue, Wood's constantly inventive art takes on a TV show aesthetic with ads cluttering every page.

XII. So what is Southland Tales about anyway? Television. The Patriot Act and a paranoid fantasy of what its extension might look like. The way sex loses its power when it becomes just another commodity. The bankruptcy of talk, on both sides of the political aisle, and the importance of concrete action. The power of movies and the media to replace reality with their own altered version of it (and Boxer turns the tides when his movie script turns out to actually reflect reality). The way the Rock teepees his hands and twitches his fingers together when he's nervous. The metaphysics of time travel and the effect on the soul. The Bible. The Bible re-imagined as left-wing prophecy. Drugs. Bazookas. Zeppelins. Sexy dancing. I don't know, all of this, in some way or another. Not all of this fits together, not all of it is fully fleshed out, not all of it is entirely earnest or serious. But it's all there, somewhere, and so much more besides.

XIII. It's also about Robert Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly, which is shown on a TV screen (of course!) early on in Southland Tales, with the piano score from the film recurring later on. That film's harbinger of nuclear devastation is the starting point for Kelly's film, linking sex and A-bombs through the hyperventilating panting of Cloris Leachman, which opened Aldrich's film and which Kelly re-purposes here, inserting it into the background of his own film's opening.

XIV. It's probably worth pointing out that this is a very funny movie. Even when there wasn't an overt joke, I was watching it with a smile perpetually on my face, enjoying Kelly's schizophrenic accumulation of characters, images, and half-formed ideas. So it's not necessarily a film that encourages thought until it's over. While it's on, it works, ironically, much like the TV aesthetic it's parodying, which is probably inevitable since Kelly has crammed so much of TV culture into the film. The fact that Kelly's film works on its primary level as a grandiose entertainment isn't a fatal blow to its credibility, though. After the film is over, its images and ideas linger on, encouraging one to unpack what actually happened in the film and what it might've been trying to say. Such reflection inevitably exposes quite a few under-developed ideas, and I doubt even the restored 20 minutes will fix that problem, but considering the tremendous scope of Kelly's ambitions, the fact that he only hits the mark maybe a quarter of the time means that there's still an extraordinary amount of good stuff to sift through.

1 comment:

jim emerson said...

Really good piece, Ed -- and I enjoyed it much more than I did the movie. You inspired me to add a couple clarifying comments to my own (brief) piece -- including changing my headline, which was a bad choice I came up with at 2 in the morning when I couldn't think of anything else.

I didn't laugh at all watching "Southland Tales," but I did smile a few times, and Lovitz's line was one of those times.

I actually agree with you about the critics who have called the movie a "mess" (fans and detractors). I think that's almost irrelevant, because it's designed to mimic "information overload." What's on the screen is, I think, exactly what Kelly wants. I just think it's nothing we haven't seen done much more effectively before -- in "RoboCop" and "Starship Troopers," for example.

-- jim emerson (scanners::blog)