Post Millennial Malaise 07: Southland Tales

In Which Teen Horniness is Not a Crime

How much should prescience be worth in a movie, is something successful because it can call shots, even if the story falls short in a meaningful manner? It’s a question that I think will come up quite frequently as we discuss films that approach important anniversaries. There is a whole world of film, especially genre work, that attracts a cult because of the ability to perceive through what is normally expected of the world and hit on ideas not usually gleaned by standard studio fare. It’s why stuff like Starship Troopers or Josie and the Pussycats frequently get reappraisals. These are projects that were quite literally too much for the general populace at their release, the import of which went over many a viewer’s head.

So could the same thing be said of Richard Kelly’s manic sophomore feature Southland Tales? A disorienting sci-fi crime epic that charts the imminent decline and destruction of American life through the intersection of pop culture, politics, and the war machine. Certainly from the angle of prophecy Kelly has bonafides here. With the emphasis on infotainment, energy crisis, a resurgence in voting restrictions, the policing of the internet life, and the greater of importance of celebrity in the world of politics one might wonder if Kelly had access to a crystal ball. Yes the details are off, but there’s definitely a sense that Kelly could have just been ten years ahead of the curve. What was bewildering in 2006 made perfect sense in 2016.

Yet despite these trenchant observations Southland Tales is still an undeniable mess of a movie. A film that overflows with ideas, so much that it can’t actually figure out a good way to dole them out. For all the insight that Kelly might have, he didn’t find a proper vessel for communicating said ideas to an audience. So in result we get what I like to call a “better on paper” picture. Something that sounds interesting when you’re pitching, is interesting when you write or talk about, but isn’t a particular engaging watch in and of itself. For as much as the detail in Southland Tales is indeed fascinating, while working through the nearly 150 minute theatrical cut you’ll feel like you’re sifting for insight. So much comes both too quickly and too slowly, and the work to parse only makes any sense once credits have rolled.

So what actually happens in the film. I’ll try my best to lay it out. After a nuclear attack in Texas in 2005 the whole country kind of falls apart. The current War on Terror is upgraded to WW3, the draft is reinstated, the government controls the internet now (through a program called USIdent), you need fingerprints to vote, and everyone is looking for an alternative fuel source as the war sucks resources.  The 2008 election is swiftly approaching and it’s all coming down to California (which is a whiff on predictions from Kelly’s part). The Republican VP candidate’s daughter is in a relationship with Boxer Santaros (Dwayne Johnson), a movie star who mysteriously vanished into the desert only to return with amnesia and a prophetic screenplay. Boxer is working with porn star Krysta Now (Sara Michelle Gellar) to get his work out.

Along the way he stumbles upon the machinations of the Neo-Marxists. Who have kidnapped a cop and his brother (both played by Sean William Scott), and plan to use them to take down the Republican ticket. On top of all that is the menacing free energy company run by an eccentric baron (Wallace Shawn) who has seemingly solved the energy crisis. And all that is topped off with a droning narration from scarred Iraq war veteran Pilot Abilene (Justin Timberlake) who constantly informs the viewer that the world will end with a bang, not a whimper. If this sounds confusing, just wait until the time travel and alternate dimensions come into play.  

In many ways Southland Tales reminds me a lot of another near future, pre-apocalyptic, sci-fi crime epic in the form of Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days. Both center around the decline of American life through the lens of LA, both feature variations of at the time current technology, and both have their crystal ball bonafides. But here is where the difference comes in, for all of it’s problems, Strange Days is a thoroughly coherent and consistent piece of production. One with a thought out tone that it executes upon with an incredible level of technical skill. Southland Tales, with all its wild details and imagery, is simply not that. Some time in the mid 2000’s Kelly seemingly lost his talent for fully setting the tone of his work.

It’s obvious that Kelly has plenty of technical skill behind the camera. There are myriad of impressive images, a couple of intricate tracking shots, and a knack for framing to highlight an idea or joke. But the whole thing feels misapplied here. Like he’s searching for something on which to hang his fantastic world, and never finding the proper hook. Southland Tales, with its grandiose statements and wild world, is a shockingly sleepy film. The exaggerated setting constantly clashing with a rather languid pace. 

I can’t figure out why Kelly struggles so much here when you consider that he avoided many of the pitfalls present in Southland Tales in his debut feature Donnie Darko. Like Tales, Darko is an overstuffed and befuddling narrative experience that leaves the viewers with not a lot to grasp on to, but it was a near immediate cult sensation, while Tales still has to linger on the fringes of interest and respectability. This goes back to the issue of tone and style. Much like Strange Days, Donnie Darko is a total aesthetic package. A film that perfectly balances its style – visually, sonically, and performance – to hit upon a specific mood that is entrancing to watch. More than it’s plot Darko thrives on its tone, the ability to create a world through specific images and needle drops. An impressive feat, and one that Kelly can’t replicate with Tales.

I think it’s because Kelly just decided to do too much with this particular story. For all the staggering guesses that it nails about our inane future it comes at the expense of something that draws a viewer in. It lacks that sense of self that made Darko so special, even with its own brand of WTF. Take the infamous sequence of Justin Timberlake lip syncing to The Killers in the drug fueled dream of one of our characters. As presented it’s a pretty striking piece of filmmaking, swirling together Busby Berkley-esque dance numbers with mid 00’s garish aesthetics. All caught with elaborate tracking shots. But it doesn’t hit in the way that you can feel Kelly wants it too. In the course of the story it kind of just happens, and whatever narrative flow exists is interrupted for dazzle that may lead one to scratch their head.

Of course this could be argued to be completely intentional on Kelly’s part, but I think it hits upon Southland Tales greatest weakness. For all the intricate world building, the story feels haphazardly thrown together and held by the merest work of Justin Timberlake narrating over substantial sections of the story. There’s no sense of flow to what is being presented. And that’s what makes this a tough in the moment watch. Afterwards one can isolate scenes and observe and analyze the merits, but they don’t sit comfortably next to each other in the film proper. It’s a bunch of discrete scenes that keep causing friction with one another.

What’s frustrating is that there is obvious merit to be found here. Beyond the previously stated trenchant insight there a delights to be mined. Johnson is still early enough in his career to be funny and self effacing about his persona. You rarely see him perform this high strung and tetchy anymore. He’s a person who’s on the back heel for most of the runtime, and it is exciting to watch him work through that persona. Same goes for Gellar, who gets to land some excellent punchlines. Or consider the delightful ham of Shawn, who amps up everyone moment to a wacky and entertaining degree.

And I can’t deny the prescience. How brands have incorporated themselves perfectly into the live-streaming of wars. How conservative coalitions will work to hijack media to promulgate the ideas that are important to them to the detriment of others. How many will party through the apocalypse, setting off fireworks while LA burns to the ground. All of this feels like things pulled from the headlines now and not from the past.

Still the minutes of watching Southland Tales are quite lugubrious. Sliding from concept to concept without a strong pull between them. I think there is quite a wealth of interest to be mined from this film, and other like it, and I’ll continue to enjoy talking about, but it’s always a toss up if I’ll actually enjoy watching it. 

Odds and Ends

  • An important part of this story is ballot proposition with the number 69. Nice.
  • The arc of Donnie Darko’s success led to a wild and stacked cast for this film. Not just the aforementioned players but people like Mandy Moore, Kevin Smith, Amy Poehler, Zelda Rubinstein and Jon Lovitz. Just a cavalcade of recognizable faces both big and small.
  • While the soundtrack doesn’t stack up to Kelly’s debut, it does include a few notable tunes. Lots of Moby, some Jane’s Addiction, Elbow, Blur, Radiohead, and of course The Killers.
  • This film had an infamous premiere at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival. Where, under a time crunch, Kelly submitted a cut with unfinished effects and near three hour run time. This movie is divisive without leftover workprint elements, so I can easily imagine a group of critics booing the thing.
  • Ebert even claimed it was the worst fest debut since The Brown Bunny, which I think is unwarranted here. 
  • Because it’s out of our time frame now feels like a good time to mention Kelly third, and to this point, final film The Box. Which, shockingly, is even more out there and bizarre than his first two films. I don’t know if he got tired of being burned by the general audience, but I do hope that we see him behind the camera again some day.

Next Week: We’ll begin a miniseries of sorts on spy movies, and how they changed dramatically over a short period of time so plan accordingly for these films: Die Another Day, xXx, The Bourne Supremacy, Munich, and Casino Royale.