Southland Tales

Roundly booed in Cannes and worked and reworked in the editing room by Donnie Darko auteur Richard Kelly, Southland Tales might find it’s real home on DVD where conspiracy crackpots, Darko fanatics and those with lots of time on their hands can freeze frame and repeat the chapters over and over, sinking into the movie’s vast abyss of info-dumping. I’ll try my best to give you my impression of what the film is about. You may want to keep a bottle of Advil handy. It seems that some terrorist group set off a bomb in Texas that, while killing hundreds, has also created a parallel universe unbeknownst to the general population.(Isn’t this also what happens in Darko when the airplane engine falls from the sky?) Not unlike the parralel dimension of our own world, Neo-con Republicans have used the attack to take over everything under the threat of generalized fear while the Democrats have crumbled under the pressure of not being clever enough to be underhanded. The entire country is under the watchful eye of a criminal justice organization called the UBU2 which collapses local police and FBI into one unimpeachable security force. Cameras are everywhere, including the bathrooms at LAX which are monitored 24 hours a day by a Cheetos eating staffer. Meanwhile, action superstar Boxer Santaros played by action superstar Dwayne "The Rock” Johnson has gone missing, or rather has just been found wandering out of the desert. He walks around twiddling his fingers like one of the comical butlers in 1930s old dark house mysteries because he can't remember what has happened to him or why it seems as though people are following him. What’s most disturbing is that these events seem eeriely simliar to those in a script he’s written with his lover, porn queen Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar) called “The Power”. Oh, did I mention that he’s also married to the daughter (Mandy Moore) of the man who would be President, Bobby Frost (Holmes Osborne)?

That’s not even 1/10th of the plot to come. That’s just the first 10 minutes! As the film develops, we learn that Boxer is apparently preparing for his role in “The Power” by riding along with confused cop Taverner (Seann William Scott) who is looking for his twin brother and is a veteran of Fallujah where he may or may not have disfigured his best friend Pilot Abilene (Justin Timberlake) with “friendly fire”. Toss in Wallace Shawn as the Baron von Westphalen, inventor of the new energy source called “Instant Karma”, John Larroquette, and a whole slew of Saturday Night Live regulars past and present. These include Cheri Oteri as a radical left wing terrorist, Amy Poehler as “Dream” a poet-actress of the underground, and a blonde and angry Jon Lovitz as a thuggish cop. Not to be forgotten is Christopher Lambert playing some kind of ice cream salesman involved in underground activities. All of this stuff is presented to us via voiceover by Pilot Abilene, who remains outside the story for the most part, telling us all about what happened to the people of Southland, like a shaggy dog story that finally ends on a zeppelin being circled in the air by Lambert’s ice cream truck. Which apparently flies...or something. It’s all very Repo Man without being good.

On one of the DVD extras, actor Curtis Armstrong (Moonlighting, Better Off Dead) describes the script as “impenetrable”. This is echoed by many others working on the production including Lovitz who says he had no idea of who he was playing or why his character was even part of the story. What he did understand was what he had to accomplish scene by scene - something true of the film as a whole. Moment to moment, the film makes a random kind of sense, but after about 30 minutes of this, you begin to realise that the author has no clue how it’s all supposed to go together.

The gold standard for the modern political satire has to be Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove. What filmmakers always fail to grasp is that Kubrick and co-writer Terry Southern never lost control of their narrative while seeming to be as madcap as possible. Strangelove is held together by cross-cutting between three inter-related locations and sets of characters as well as driven by one of the oldest tricks in the book, the ticking clock. Despite the best efforts of Peter Sellers in all his incarnations, Slim Pickens and his crew keep heading inside Russian airspace to drop the bomb.Southland Tales, on the other hand, has none of this sense of forward movement or suspense and so feels like a bunch of mildly amusing sketches inspired by writers like Sellers himself, Phillip K. Dick and William Burroughs just tossed together haphazardly in a pop culture blender. Whatever it’s satirizing is so obvious that humor need not be used to reveal it anymore. Patriot act sucks, check. Environment falling apart, check. Celebrity driven culture, check! It just seems like one idea led to another without any real filter. “Oh, we’ve got Justin Timberlake in the picture, well, lets have him lip synch to the Killers’ “All These Things That I’ve Done” in a musical fantasy inside an arcade!” How about parallels to The Book of Revelations like the whore of Babylon and pale horses? There’s enough ideas in here for at least 10 movies.

Kelly remains for me a very intriging filmmaker even though he seems unable to avoid the same pitfalls every time at bat. With

[[ darko ]] Kelly appeared at first to be the little-league version of David Lynch, but upon closer inspection there was something else going on within it, something boiling under the narrative surface which seemed to hint at a broader need for mythmaking and cryptology rather than small town surrealism. That film established Kelly as a talent to watch but instead of quickly following up, the director spent time working as a screenwriter for Tony Scott’s nearly incomprehensible Domino and toiling on a “Director’s Cut” of Darko itself, both revealing that the filmmaker, like the storied Emperor, wore some really threadbare clothes. The “Director’s Cut” in particular took all the wonderful suggestions and ambiguities of the original film and provided maddening and absurd explanations that cast a harsh light on all the tantalizing shadows of the story, rendering Darko as nothing more than a third rate Twilight Zone. Kind of like what 2010 did to the great unanswered questions in 2001. Besides, what filmmaker would want his audience reading all these weird captions, footnotes and intertitles throughout, culling exposition outside the body of dramatic storytelling? This is artless work. It doesn’t take much skill to just hand out notes before the show that tells everyone the basic gist of the plot and characters so that the story can skip over those niceties.

Southland takes this technique to patience breaking limits, placing images in windows onscreen as though being watched via the internet with text scrolling all about and random snatches of conversations overhead. It replaces storytelling with a never-ending stream of artificial exposition. It’s all annoying and regrettable, rather than inspiring and original. Perhaps the longer cut shown at Cannes played differently but this one just doesn’t work as a movie or even several movies. Southland Tales is presented in anamorphic widescreen and is enhanced for 16x9 televisions. The special features include a 30-minute making of featurette called “USIDent TV: Surveilling the Southland” and the 9-minute “This is the Way the World Ends” animated film that is as depressing as it is boring. A bunch of trailers for other Sony releases accompany the film, but unfortunately no trailer for Southland itself. It’s always amusing to see how the studio tries to market something as unmarketable as this film, so it’s a shame that they left it out.

The making of featurette is obviously designed to be another USIDent TV report and continues Kelly’s annoying technique of framing the images in a set of inlaid screens. The best part of this featurette is the baffled attempts by everyone to explain just what the hell they’re trying to make. Even Kelly himself stumbles over trying explain his own film, taking refuge in talking about mixing genres without explaining just why those genres are worth mixing. Everyone also strains to say that the movie is funny. Which it is not.

Kelly clearly designed the film to be a cult movie from the outset, with an accompanying graphic novel without which the story is supposedly hard to understand. Since the DVD I watched had no such graphic novel, I might have to agree that maybe it would’ve helped. But why should I have to do research in order to appreciate a movie? The graphic novel should enhance the experience rather than explicate it. If a cult does indeed build around the film, I’m sure we’ll get the “Special Edition Director’s Cut The Version You Never Saw That Was Booed in Cannes” release later in the year. Maybe with some time away from it, Kelly can pull together a more coherent cut of the film. In the meantime, I’m looking forward to his next film, The Box which sounds much more promising.