Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Apocalypse Now- In Defense of Southland Tales

It's taken two viewings now, but I understand a little more of Richard Kelly's aggressive, glorious mess of a movie called "Southland Tales". Part satire, part science-fiction time travel, but mostly just trippy, it's certainly not an easy film to admire. Reading interviews with Kelly, I begin to doubt even he fully understands the cinematic baby he patched together in the editing room (going on, 2 or 3 different versions now based on the initial Cannes reaction?), so that makes things a little easier when I doze off into blank stares at the assaulting images throughout the film's 2 and 1/2 hour run time. But regardless, "Southland Tales" fascinated me with its overlapping themes of doppelgangers, Marxist separation groups, porn stars who cross-market themselves as popular day time talk show hosts, corrupt police officers and demented industrialists. If it doesn't fully come together as a whole, then its various parts never fail to engross and cause the viewer to re-assess their memories about ANY previous film depicting society hitting its social and moral collapse. "Southland Tales" is one of a kind in that regard.

Tagged with an all star cast (and about half the cast of Saturday Night Live), "Southland Tales" is certainly ambitious, at times exceeding its grasp on forming a cohesive narrative. The outrage against the current administration is clear, but beyond that, Kelly's apocalypse dream is muddled between several different groups carrying out their New Year's resolutions. There's Dwayne The Rock Johnson as the guy stuck in the middle of neo-Marxist groups, his important political family and wife (an incredibly sexy Mandy Moore), porn star Krystal Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and the body double of the film's key character played by Seann William Scott. And did I mention that The Rock has amnesia and isn't sure exactly which side he's on? Bottom line, the plot synopsis could go on for six more paragraphs and I'm sure the interpretation for each narrative strand could be heavily disputed. My interest in "Southland Tales" is its almost nouvelle vague approach to such heavy material. In between the crass political posturing (which is surely meant as satire since Kelly employed Nora Dunn, Sherri Oteri and Amy Poehler as key speaking heads of the various Marxist factions), there's a playful sense. Some of the humorous diversions include Justin Timberlake lip syncing to The Killer's marvelous song "All These Things I've Done" as red-wigged chorus girls flock around him, or the smoothly constructed long Steadicam take as each character is introduced at the film's party finale. These diversions add little to the overall story besides a "cinematic look at me" equivalent to a small child's tantrum, but they work. If anything, "Southland Tales" plays like a film director who may not get the chance to work again, so everything and anything goes. There are so many ideas crammed into the framework of "Southland Tales" that if you blink, you most certainly might miss something and for me, I love that type of go-for-broke attitude every now and then. Much like Wim Wender's extraordinary "Until the End of the World" (another epic and maligned heady sc-fi effort), "Southland Tales" is brimming with creative ideas that trample on one another. Both films excel in mood, not straight forward storytelling and I can appreciate both.

While I'm not a full-on Kelly apologist, I will defend "Southland Tales". While "Donnie Darko" certainly has its admirers, there are those who fail to understand the cult appeal of Kelly's debut feature. "Southland Tales" has seemingly signed up as the next film where dividing lines are being crossed. There's no middle ground with "Southland Tales". It's either love or hate. And while I stated earlier that its taken two viewings before some semblance has formed within "Southland Tales", I'm ready to give it yet another try. Once one understands where the characters are headed, its much easier to fill in the gaps early on. It's that type of compulsion to understand "Southland Tales" that probably drove Kelly to write and film such a maddening trip- or you could fall into the group of people who feel Kelly wrote both films while high on shrooms and the audience is highly encouraged to view the finished product in the same state of mind. Either way, "Southland Tales" needs to be seen for its adulterated attempt to say something about the quagmire of our current situation, both politically and morally. Instead of creating a documentary, he chose to express himself with porn stars, amnesiacs, troubled war veterans and wiretappers. I find that more interesting any day of the week.


Chris Allen Gaubatz said...

When you say, "quagmire" and "our current situation", do you mean the Iraq war? Is this another leftist rhetoric piece on peace, or is it worth viewing based solely on it's cinematic merits? Choose your words carefully. If I see this film based on your recommendation, and I don't like it, then I'll be sending you a bill! Keep up the good work JB!

Joseph B. said...

Hmm... it IS a mess at times, but it's a mess I thoroughly enjoyed. It's certainly not a call for peace, but the outrage about some of our liberites being quietly stripped away (i.e. Patriot Act) and the flat headedness of the current administration is abundant. And how could you resist seeing Mandy Moore when she looks that fuckin hot?

patrick said...

Dwayne Johnson and J.Timberlake are surprisingly talented actors; but i'm still trying to figure out what Southland Tales was about... maybe it's really obvious, i.e. life in Los Angeles is blurred, cluttered, flashy and not always meaningful.

Joseph B. said...


I think it may be about life in crazy Los Angeles, but more than that, I think it's just Kelly's over-anxious imagination to transplant a sci-fi flick with one too many ideas against the backdrop of a challenging time in our nation's history. But above all, I read "Southland Tales" as a completely playful attempt at pretty much every genre possible. And then there's the possibility that Kelly was on mushrooms most of the time and it's a big fat joke on us, the audience. Whatever it is, I enjoyed it immensely and rolled with it.