Friday, February 10, 2012

Southland Tales

What does that represent? There was never any question in plastic art, in poetry, in music, of representing anything. It is a matter of making something beautiful, moving, or dramatic - this is by no means the same thing. -- Fernand Léger
Don't look so scared, Mr. Santaros. The future is just like you imagined. -- Serpentine

The Rock, like the audience, has no idea what's going on.
When Richard Kelly's Southland Tales first premiered at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival, the response was, to put it kindly, mixed. One reviewer called it "the biggest, ugliest mess I've ever seen"* while another claimed that "[Southland Tales] may be one of the worst films ever presented in [Cannes] competition." After some serious re-editing (cutting nearly 20 minutes), frenzied rearranging and after refinishing some of the effects shots, Kelly's alternative catastrophic vision of present-day America was released to little acclaim and less notice in a few scattered theaters before fading quietly and quickly into obscurity. As senseless as it is messy and as ambitious as it is just plain wacky, it's easy to see how this convoluted picture never caught on with critics or audiences.

To describe the plot is almost so futile as to be pointless, but the general thrust of the story is this: In 2005, a pair of nuclear bombs are detonated in Abilene and El Paso, Texas, unspeakable tragedies which usher the United States into World War III--a series of entanglements with numerous Middle Eastern countries + North Korea--and also enable the Republican dominated Congress (let it never be said that this movie is subtle) to extend the authority of the Patriot Act. This allows the newly authoritarian government to create an agency called US-IDent, which oversees access to and actively censors the content of the Internet.

Sound familiar?
Oil is scarce and peace is scarcer. A mysterious and potentially underhanded German family has discovered how to harness the perpetual motion of the ocean to create a seemingly limitless energy source (resulting in a substance called Fluid Karma).This allows them to wield considerable, undue influence within the upper echelons of the American government. The disaffected and indifferent litter the Southern Californian landscape, a vacuous hell-hole where Southland Tales is set. Movie stars serve as politicians whilst porn stars double as newscasters and, all the while, leftist, "Neo-Marxist" extremists plot the downfall of the new American police state. And so, with this as its background, the film Southland Tales begins circa 2008 on the eve of a presidential election. Boxer Santaros (yes, that is his real name), played by master thespian Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, is a famous action movie star/son-in-law to the Republican vice-presidential candidate. While his family believes he has been kidnapped by Neo-Marxists, Boxer is struggling with a bout of amnesia while shacked up on the beach with famous porn-star/talk show host Krysta "Krysta Now" Kapowski (Sarah Michelle Gellar)--yes, that is her real name too--who is helping him co-author a screenplay about the end of the world. Little do they know it, but their outlandish screenplay is about to start coming true.

Meanwhile, Roland Taverner (a bedraggled Seann William Scott), a Hermosa Beach police officer (or a twin posing as his brother Ronald Taverner who is a police officer, or... something), is working with the Neo-Marxists on a scheme of blackmail and murder which is meant to entrap Boxer and destroy the Republican's hopes for the Presidency. 

All the while, the actions of the various characters who navigate this surreal landscape are watched over and narrated by the apparently omniscient Pilot Abilene--I think you get the idea about the names by now--played by Justin Timberlake. Pilot's an injured veteran of the war in Iraq who is stationed at a gun turret watching over the Santa Monica beach. He injects himself regularly with Fluid Karma (which serves as a drug as well as a limitless energy source), hallucinates musical sequences and reads from the Book of Revelations. 

You know.... just like the real Justin Timberlake
Kelly assembles such an odd myriad of characters that Southland Tales is reminiscent of an Altman film on acid. There are the various Neo-Marxists (their numbers include Cheri Oteri, Nora Dunn, Amy Poehler and Jon Lovitz in some sort of bizarro SNL reunion) who each seem to have their own ideology and agenda. There's the toad-like Baron von Westphalen (Wallace Shawn) and his merry band of mad scientists who are the insidious brain trust behind Fluid Karma--the life saving, and perhaps world ending, energy source. Christopher Lambert swaggers his way through a couple of scenes as a weapons-dealer who hawks his goods from an ice-cream truck. Even Kevin Smith makes a brief appearance as the Baron's bewigged computer expert. 

However, to keep describing the rabbit hole which serves as Southland Tales' plot and the mental patients who are its characters would only exhaust me and further confuse you dear readers. Honestly the only way to truly understand this movie and what it's "about" is to watch it. Even then, this film is bound to confuse and perhaps even frustrate its viewers, because really, this movie tries to be about nothing and everything at the same time. 

So why is it--given that I've acknowledged that this film is a total mess, seeing how respected critics like Richard Roeper claim it's "one of the most confusing, ridiculous, pretentious and disastrous cinematic train wrecks I've ever seen*" (which would make for one hell of a poster tagline) and considering the cast (which includes Mandy Moore, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, Justin Timberlake and Seann William Scott) looks more like the guest list at the Teen Choice Awards than an all-star cast--that I give this movie 4 stars out of five? 

In spite of all it's flaws, which are many and despite the fact that the performances range from being merely inoffensive (Wallace Shawn has built a career on saying ridiculous lines, so he looks right at home here) to being outright terrible (I'm looking at you, "The Rock"), I can't help but admire Richard Kelly's ambition and be seduced by his vision. Anyone who saw his debut film Donnie Darko already knows how Kelly loves playing with the perceptions of reality and time while having little regard for the integrity of his characters. Southland Tales merely amplifies that many times over. 

Not shown: fashion sense, self-respect
But then, this movie is less about the plot or its characters than it is about the three-dimensional world Kelly creates. It's one that's absurd in many ways, but in several others it eerily mirrors our own. With Congress now passing laws that accord the military the right to detain any American citizen indefinitely and attempting to pass laws that would allow the government to turn the internet into its own cyber fiefdom, how can Kelly's America where marines police our beaches with machine turrets and where people can only vote or access the internet with a thumb print (one scene shows the Neo-Marxists collecting thumbs in order to alter the course of an election) remain so laughably implausible? Is this film a mess? Absolutely... but perhaps messy times require messy allegories.

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Kelly's America is the fate of the media. Throughout the course of the film we are treated to the smorgasbord of sex, ultra-violence and shameless consumerism that it has become (again... is news in the real world so different?). One scene shows a snippet of Krysta "Now"'s talk show, where she and other great feminist minds of the age (among them are young blondes with names like Shoshanna Cox and Deena Gee) discuss "penetrating issues" like, and I'm not making this up, "abortion, terrorism, crime, poverty, social reform, quantum teleportation, teen horniness and war". Mainly though, they trade stories about their sordid pasts in porn... apparently 'teen horniness' was the one issue really worth discussing. This obsession with sex, definitely a trait of the real American media as well, is taken to a different sort of extreme in a car commercial, which hardly seems out of place in a world so blown out of proportion:

The quote at the top of the review comes from Fernand Léger--an avant garde full time painter and part-time film-maker from the 1910s and 20s. After seeing an abstract work by early director Abel Gance he opined on the importance of a narrative within a film... something that today we take as a given. It has become natural for us to ask of every movie "What does that represent?", i.e, what's the plot, what's going on, how will this all resolve? For Southland Tales, these seems to be secondary concerns to creating an atmophere that is alternately beautiful, moving and dramatic and, when this film is at its zenith, one that effortlessly encapsulates all three. Indeed, no matter what you think of the first two hours, the final 15 minutes of this movie are quite breathtaking.

So, while the movie's many contrivances, the characters' banal pseudo-philosophical musings and the countless unresolved subplots may frustrate many viewers, Kelly's infectious child-in-a-sandbox-like energy can't help but entertain. It's rare that a director with such an eclectic and unique vision is given complete control over a film and--from the script, to the cast, to the atmospheric score by Moby--this is Richard Kelly's brainchild, unfiltered and uncut. For better or for worse, that fact alone makes this a film worth cherishing... or at least watching just once. Chances are you're not going to see anything like it ever again.


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