Redux: Richard Kelly's Southland Tales 08/02/2010
Kicking off a new continuing series of mine, where I take a second look at a film I had previously written off, I’ll be revisiting Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales.
A lot of people, critics, cinephiles and casual moviegoers alike, make up their mind about a film on their first viewing, or even quicker than that, before the credits even roll. However, in many cases, a film is subversive, complex and/or for whatever reason, misunderstood. Often it is the context in which the viewer consumes a film that can fuel the experience and subsequent opinion of it. For myself, re-watches occasionally reveal to me that it isn’t always the film itself, but the the way the viewer watches it that can shape it’s critical standing.
After the slow-burning cult success of the surprisingly effective Donnie Darko, American filmmaker Richard Kelly set out to make one of the most complex and ambitious Hollywood productions in years. The film was Southland Tales, a sci-fi epic serio-satire in response to the climate of post-9/11 America. With an absolutely bizarre cast and considerable hype, the film debuted to an angry, booing Cannes Film Festival audience in one the most disastrous screenings in the fest’s history. With all the press working against him, Kelly was forced to edit down his supposed “bloated mess”, ultimately sacrificing a considerable amount of footage. So, before it’s wide release, critics had already given up on the film, as had the studio, and Kelly himself had even fueled the negative perception of the film being a disaster by resulting to working within another medium beforehand to convey integral sections of the film (Kelly released the first three chapters of “Southland Tales” in a series of 3 graphic novels). For the record, I have not read the comic books. This is not out of the belief it wouldn’t help clarify Kelly’s vision; I’m sure it would. This is more out of respect to a work of art initially intended to unfold entirely on the silver screen.
I actually had the fortune to meet Richard Kelly at San Diego Comic-Con in between the disastrous Cannes debut, and it’s wide North American release. The exchange between us was pleasant but brief. Curious and hopeful about his upcoming film, yet fully aware of the negative responses, I cautiously asked Kelly to sell me on the film. He asked if I liked Donnie Darko, and at the time I did love that film (while I value it less now, I am still very fond of it), he told me to expect a similar style but with more humour. He gave me this quick pitch with no enthusiasm, and no smile. Before me was a man defeated by a reach that had exceeded his grasp. His lack of confidence clearly barred him from noting any of the film’s true ambitions. He kindly signed a Southland Tales poster for me, which nearly lost all of its value to me when I saw the film, which upon my first viewing confirmed all my worst fears of the film. Now, I am proud to say, that poster has regained its initial sentimental value and more.
Southland Tales remains messy and flawed, which I originally considered to keep a bad film from being a good film, whereas now this hindrance keeps a very good film from being a great one (masterpiece?). The film’s thematic concerns fortunately merit a level of messiness, although not to the extent of the severe lack of content the film is faced with. A response to the post-9/11 world should be messy, albeit within reason. Kelly’s vision of America is sheer genius; an oft-ugly pastiche of pop-culture icons, brand names, pop music, and hyperbolic Fox News-esque media tangents. Essentially we are presented with the figureheads of American culture, which all interact with each other in an apocalyptic-plot narrated by Justin Timberlake. How the boldness of the film first struck me as blandness is a critical misfire on my part I can regrettably chock up to naiveté, and narrow-mindedness; an admission of guilt I’ll hope to hear from other critics in the future.
The bizarre ensemble of icons, comedians, quasi-celebs & b-listers once put me off, if for no other reason than it’s causation of me to be hyper-conscious of the cast member’s real personas and famous roles. Now, I realize this to be Kelly’s very intention. The Rock, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Stifler, Highlander, numerous Saturday Night Live alumni, Kevin Smith, the psychic from Poltergeist, the voice of “Rex” in the Toy Story films, Mandy Moore and the aforementioned Justin Timberlake are all in this to at once anchor it in our reality but also to depict a condensed not-as-demented-as-you-might-think version of the USA. The viewer’s suspension of disbelief is violently disrupted by the intensity of this pop-culture assault.
Another major shift in my perception of the film comes from the silliness of many set pieces, characters and stretches of dialogue. This time around, I always regarded the film as very serious, that while containing silliness, never gives into it nor abandons it’s tone in service of it. Looming behind every comic scene is a genuine emotion or a frightening satirical note, or the film’s atmospheric musical score, which may be the best indication of the film’s true colours. This realization allows one genuine emotional responses to Jon Lovitz as a manic assassin. That’ll never happen again.
Southland Tales is one of those films so authentically American that it’s a wonder it is actually made by an American. Then again, the film feels less like it’s made with an overhead view of the States and more like something made by someone in the thick of it, gasping for air. So many of Kelly’s images are alternately poignant and biting. One of the most memorable takes place in an office, wherein all the uniformed employees follow yoga steps from their boss (whom has some sort of role within the political goings-on in the film that I wont attempt to articulate). Even better is the sequence where Timberlake’s character lazily lip-synchs to “All These Things I’ve Done” by The Killers. All the anxieties of the film seem to come out in that scene, and perhaps even in one single gesture when Timberlake stops lip-synching while the song still plays, and crushes a beer can with a look of pure regret on his face.
Southland Tales is a brilliant satire that contains such a wealth of ideas it almost collapses under them. While the film would probably be strengthened were it more refined, its inherent chaos allows forgiveness of its messiness and occasional incoherence. The film bombed at the box office (costing over $15 million, and making less than half a million back) and faired just as poorly amongst critics. For a film so abrasive and, admittedly, ugly, this isn’t surprising. Also not surprising is that the film has it’s champions, such as critics Nathan Lee, J. Hoberman, and Manhola Dargis who all recognize genius comes in unexpected forms, and isn’t always convenient, but if perceived openly, is always enriching.