Monday, April 14, 2008

In Defense of Southland Tales

I'm going to go far out on a limb here--I liked Richard Kelly's much-maligned new film Southland Tales, recently released on DVD.

The negative reviews of this film began when an earlier cut debuted at Cannes in 2006. That bad press seems to have colored most responses to the film, getting to the point that most reviewers seem to have dismissed it outright before even seeing it, and other viewers who might be drawn to less mainstream films reject it outright as damaged goods. Andrew O'Hehir's review at Salon probably comes closest to my feelings about the film. However, in this and other borderline positive reviews, critics seem almost apologetic for liking Southland Tales, as if the overwhelming weight of critical peer pressure causes them to question their appreciation of it. Or, more likely, the movie defies so many basic conventions of narrative storytelling and filmmaking that one feels automatically compelled to not like it.

But I'm not one of those closure-loving coherence-Nazis who need their movies to make sense. I embrace this movie's unpredictability, and I enjoy the ride it takes me on. This is not simply a movie about the end of the world--a subject Kelly also covered in Donnie Darko--it is, instead, an end-of-the-world film. That is, the film is made with such reckless abandon and jammed with multiple genres and wild swirling ideas that it feels like Kelly was trying to jam in every idea he had in anticipation of this being his final film before the apocalypse. It's an apocalyptic film that duplicates the chaos and madness of the end of the world.

The preview gives us some clues as to how to read the movie. It starts out looking like a pretty conventional trailer for an action movie, perhaps a buddy cop flick with Seann William Scott as the cop and Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson as an actor on a ride-along. However, the preview gets progressively less coherent as other elements of the film are added, culminating in the final line by Cheri Oteri's character, about how violence would decrease if people would just do more cardio. This line effectively undermines the action movie conventions from the beginning.

It may be fruitless to try summarize the movie's plot, and I freely admit that most of the film does not make any sense. The film opens with an enormous amount of exposition narrated by Justin Timberlake's character, Pilot Abilene. Nuclear terrorism in Texas has caused an escalation of the war in Iraq into World War III, and conservatives have further tightened national security by ramping up the Patriot Act and requiring Interstate Travel Permits.

Southland Tales seems to focus on politically connected action star Boxer Santoros (The Rock), who has gone missing in the desert and has resurfaced in the Venice Beach apartment of porn-star-turned-pop-star-turned-chat-show-host (whose most famous movie is "Cockchuggers 2: Cockchuggin'") Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Geller), where the couple have completed an action-movie screenplay entitled "The Power." That movie tells the story of an LA cop named Jericho Kane, who discovers the earth's rotation is slowing down, causing a change to humans' chemical structure that results in a massive crime spree. It turns out the screenplay is remarkably prescient and ties in to a new alternative energy source called "Fluid Karma" developed by Baron von Westphalen (Wallace Shawn). Boxer is also being used as a pawn by the Neo-Marxist Underground, and he's being sought by his father-in-law, Republican Vice-Presidential candidate Bobby Frost (who constantly quotes lines from the poetry of his namesake) in order to head off a possible scandal.

However, the movie may also focuses on Ronald and Roland Taverner, apparent twin brothers played by Seann William Scott: one is a police officer taken hostage by the Neo-Marxist Underground, and the other is impersonating him. The twins' importance, however, does not become clear until near the film's conclusion. Certainly, the lack of a central character appears to be one of the causes for critical frustration here.

The movie is very funny, which many critics don't seem to get, but the funny moments spring up suddenly, without much build-up or sense of comic timing, though I would not say that is necessarily a failing. Southland Tales is, in fact, funnier than Donnie Darko, though the humor is similar in both films. There are, in fact, seveal lines worthy of "I question your commitment to Sparkle Motion" here. In explaining "The Power," Krysta Now states, "Scientists are saying the future is going to be far more futuristic than they originally predicted." She says this with such utter sincerity, in a way that much of the film's quasi-scientific explanations are delivered by other characters, that it takes a couple of beats to realize this is a funny line. Later in the movie, when Boxer is confronted with the cause of his memory loss, Boxer delivers, with full-on Rock charisma, the film's best line: "I'm a pimp, and pimps don't commit suicide." This line, in fact, becomes very important by the film's end.

In addition to comedy and sci-fi, Kelly throws in a bunch of other genre conventions and elements, including this musical number, featuring Justin Timberlake lip-syncing to The Killers' "All These Things that I've Done":

More than any other scene in the film, this one signifies for me what Kelly is trying to do with Southland Tales: there is a sense of freedom and excess here that can be liberating as long as the audience abandons their expectations.

Favorable reviews compare Southland Tales to David Lynch's recent work, most notably Mulholland Drive, and I have to say that I don't understand how critics might malign Kelly's film and praise Lynch's, unless one were making the case for Kelly being overly derivative. Southland Tales, though, does not follow the kind of dream logic that Lynch utilizes. Kelly's technique seems to involve taking something familiar, like a genre convention or an action movie line or a well-known actor, and using it in a way that resists expectations. It's difficult to tell, therefore, if The Rock is playing an action star who is thoroughly confused by the events around him, or if The Rock is an action star who is thoroughly confused by the events around him. (The interviews with actors on the DVD's making-of documentary are interestingly frank on this score. No one, with the possible exception of Sarah Michelle Geller, seems to have a grasp on what is going on in the film.)

I also get the sense that Kelly anticipates his critics through the character of Vice-Presidential candidate Bobby Frost, who often voices a kind of hostile confusion and befuddlement at the events that surround him. In one scene, Baron von Westphalen shares a new commercial for a "fluid karma"-powered vehicle, in which one SUV mounts another and proceeds to hump it. When the ad ends, Frost asks, "Did I just see two SUV's porking?" to which his advisor (John Laroquette) explains that the commercial is the European version. One can imagine many viewers responding in similar ways to most of the movie. Frost's neo-conservatism is clearly a target of Kelly's satire (two elephants are shown humping in a similar way to symbolize the Republican congressional victory following the terrorist attacks), so it's makes for an interesting reading of the film if one envisions Frost to also be the confused and critical audience as well.

There is a lot more going on in this film, and there's a lot more that I enjoyed. However, this is also a film that defies conventional criticism by resisting easy summary or explanation. I've watched the film twice now, just to see if my original reaction had more to do with the compelling sense of mystery and confusion I was feeling in my initial viewing, or perhaps was due to some unique, subjective experience during that first time. However, my opinion held up to the second viewing. I don't know if I understood the film any better after the second look, but I did find myself anticipating certain moments with some pleasure. I know that the vast majority of viewers who saw this movie strongly disliked it, and I'd be curious to get reactions from those who felt that way, though I'm also wondering if there is a core of Southland Tales fans out there who champion the film.


Anonymous said...

To Quote Milhouse,

"So this is what it sounds like when Doves cry."

Aside from the annoying ripoff of Repo Man at the end I kind of sort of really liked this movie.

It's taken awhile to admit that but there you go.

Will Pfeifer said...

I liked it, too -- and coincidentally, my review of the DVD ran in today's paper. Here's a link:

And you're right -- that musical number is amazing.

Anonymous said...

Indeed, Noble Dr. K, there are some of us out here championing this film. YOU summed up the many reasons why very eloquently, so I don't have to. For this I thank you.

I think it's brilliant.

Jason said...

You know, I really wanted to like this film, but it was just a mess. Rather than making his last film before the Apocalypse, it felt like Kelly suspected that no one would give him the money to make another movie so he threw every good idea he had into one film and it ended up being completely incoherent.

I thought the acting of everybody but the Rock ( and perhaps JT) was just awful and there were far to many actors put in the film just because they were reconizable rather than for their ability. I mean, why throw Kevin Smith in tons of old-man latex for anything other than for people to say "Hey, it's Kevin Smith". Same for half ot the cast of 90's SNL that was in the movie. Same for Wallace Shawn, I mean there's got to be a deleted scene of his character shouting "inconcievable!" somewhere, because he's just playing his Princess Bride character as a scientist.

There is a lot to like in this movie, but unfortuantely, it's all piled on top of itself making it an incredible mess.

Dr. K said...


I think Wallace Shawn is playing Wallace Shawn as a scientist.

And that's what I like about the casting. Each major role played by a recognizable star seems to be cast with an eye to that particular performer's past work, but only to twist our expectations about the actors. (The one exception I would concede is Mandy Moore, who seems the most ill-equipped for this movie). This is most notable in The Rock's performance, but it's even there in someone like Zelda Rubenstein, who is basically the creepy Poltergeist lady again, or Bai Ling, who is doing whatever it is that Bai Ling does in every one of her movies.

Jason said...

I guess it's a "tomatoe/toma-toh" thing. Your "casting with an eye to that particular performer's past work" fells to me like lazy stunt casting that allows him to not have to create an actual character for the actors to play.

That said, I wouldn't mind watching an entire movie of whatever Bai Ling does on any given day. I'm sure it would be fascinating, and wierder than this movie.

Also, once agin, about the Rock, he was really good in this. I do think he's a break-out movie away from being absolutely huge and I gie him credit for taking a lot of risky roles.

Mike V. Scholtz said...

I just watched Southland Tales last night. (Thank you, Andy, for reminding me to do that.) I love any film that's so jam-packed full of ideas it nearly falls apart under the strain.

Which is just one of the many reasons I loved Southland Tales.

I've never seen Band of Outsiders. Apparently, I'm going to have to watch that now. (While I'm at the video store, can you give me any hints about what movies you might be covering in the next few weeks so I'm better prepared?)

Jason said...

Dr. K (or anyone else), have you read any of the prequel graphic novels? I think there were three and they led up to Boxer Santoros waking up in the desert (some of the art was used in the opening narration).

Even though I was unhappy with the movie's execution, there were some good ideas there and I wonder if these books flesh them out better.

Intruder_W said...

I watched the movie after seeing The Fourth Dimension clip on POEtv, and somewhere along the way, got the impression it was a Phillip K. Dick movie.

So going into it expecting the Revelation quoting, and the dialog flowing like Dr. Bloodmoney, Jon Lovitz's "Flow my Tears" line, the Marxists (I seem to recall them being a whipping boy in Transmigration), hell, even the PKD look-alike, in seemed to make sense.

Then I read the IMDB FAQ, and PKD was quoted as an "influence" and the movie wasn't from his writings. So, I like the movie, but now I have to re-watch it , now that I don't understand it anymore.

I hope we see a director's cut at some point, as I'd like to see the Gen. MacArthur (Janeane Garofalo) deleted scene discussing "Serpentine Dream".