Southland Tales and Prophetic Insanity

Note: This blog post is an expanded form of a piece originally published on my tumblr, for the very brief period when I was trying to blog on tumblr. The original can be found here: 

Have you heard of Richard Kelly? If the name sounds familiar, it’s because he’s the director of the 2001 cult classic film Donnie Darko. It was a low-budget sci-fi horror flick that played around with ideas like determinism, psychosis, time travel, and the Lynchian horrors behind suburban doors. It became an underground hit, with fans debating its puzzles and theorizing about its ultimate meaning; Richard Kelly eventually became enough of a household name that Samuel Goldwyn Films gave him license to do whatever he wanted as a followup. And so Kelly made Southland Tales

I can’t really concisely explain the plot of Southland Tales. Part of its problem was that it took so many ideas and crammed them so wildly together that all the coherence got squeezed out. Suffice to say, it is a partial adaptation of the Book of Revelations; leaping off from horrific nuclear bombings of two Texas cities in 2005, it depicts a nightmarish version of future Los Angeles careening towards an apocalypse that nobody really understands. It stars Dwayne Johnson as an amnesiac messiah, Sean William Scott in a dual role as twin police officers, Sarah Michelle Gellar as a philosophical porn star, and Justin Timberlake as the scarred Iraq War vet narrator. The sentence “I’m a pimp, and pimps don’t commit suicide” is a significant coda for the last third of the film. Kevin Smith makes a cameo, covered in age makeup. It actually takes more effort to try to explain the film than it does to write a whole new screenplay from scratch.

It’s no surprise that Southland Tales flopped spectacularly; it had a budget of $17 million, but it made roughly $1 million at the box office. Critics blasted the film for the seriousness with which Kelly framed the complete nonsense on display. Why was Jon Lovitz playing a racist cop? Why were Amy Poehler and Avon from The Wire trying to fake a race crime by using fake noses and afro wigs? Why was Christopher Lambert driving an ice cream truck filled with automatic weapons? Why was Wallace Shawn gleefully screening a commercial in which two animated SUVs had graphic sex? These questions and more were never, ever answered.

If you haven’t seen the film, you probably think I’m kidding, but I’m not. Every single thing I just listed actually happens in Southland Tales, and more. Somewhere in the middle of act 2, Justin Timberlake’s character takes a drug hit and lip-syncs to The Killers’ ‘All These Things That I’ve Done’ as sexy nurses dance around him. Why? Because it Has Significant Meaning. What does it mean? Beats the hell outta me.

So yes, Southland Tales is a mess–but despite all of that, I love it. I watch the above trailer and I can’t help but see glimpses of the film that could have been: a postmodern apocalyptic swan song where Bush-era politics and celebrity obsession collided head-on to spell inevitable, awesome doom for the human race. An apocalypse film where humanity wasn’t so much condemned as it was celebrated for bringing itself to such a permanent end, where American exceptionalism and Tea Party paranoia were taken to their most nihilistic extremes. Southland Tales could have been a film about filmmaking, connecting the act of storytelling with the creation and destruction of worlds. But the film itself falls short of that—very short. While it has the bombast, it utterly lacks the coherence.

Nonetheless, I love Southland Tales, and in a way that is entirely different from other bad movies. I look at it and feel the same way as I do when I watch Peter Greenaway’s A Zed and Two Noughts or David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive: I sense that this is a film which has a completely consistent internal logic, but which takes place in a universe where the basic rules of reasoning are slightly different from our own. The characters’ actions and reactions don’t make any damn sense, but not because they’re breaking logical rules; it’s because we don’t understand the rules themselves. It’s one of the most provocative things one can do as a filmmaker, and speaks to the nature of film language itself. We are used to being told the rules of the world within a film; usually they’re spelled out for us, and in most speculative fiction pieces these rules are fairly arbitrary changes to the logic of real life. But film presents us with an opportunity to observe vastly different universes; it takes a lot of guts (and skill) to drop any pretenses of hand-holding and present a world on film that challenges our core understanding of cause and effect.

A Zed and Two Noughts is probably the best example I’ve seen of this fundamental alteration of reality. Greenaway presents us with a universe shaped by taxonomy and postmodern notions of decay. The characters do not react to situations in a way that makes sense, at least not at first; however, one gets the sense that we’re experiencing a language that we’ve never heard before. We recognize the sounds and shapes of a story, but have limited translation capabilities.

There’s something about Southland Tales which taps into the same logical alterations, but nowhere near as artfully. It is a vision of the future, but it is a future that we struggle to reconcile with our present. The setup explains how the PATRIOT Act ran rampant after twin nuclear attacks on US cities in 2005, and how global warfare has caused a worldwide fuel shortage and prompted the development of the technology which eventually causes doom to humanity. Kelly is reaching for relevance, but his view of the future is so far off the beaten path that it careens into absurdity. This can be because Kelly dropped the ball when it came to basic storytelling, but it could also be that he was making a film which was decades ahead of the audiences who could appreciate it.

I honestly believe that Southland Tales may be taught in film theory classes someday, many years from now. It has flashes of brilliance, and those flashes are absolutely stunning. They’re loony and absurd and sometimes just immature, but they’re stunning nonetheless; watching the film is an exercise in being immersed in chaos. If it’d been angrier, we could have called it a modern Dada masterpiece; an avant-garde push back against early 2000s Americana. As it stands, Southland Tales is a train wreck, but I don’t believe it’s necessarily because Kelly completely failed; I have a feeling it’s because we aren’t ready for it yet. I wouldn’t be surprised if, in the future, film scholars will be praising Kelly for having more foresight than we could have realized. That foresight will still be absurd, of course; I don’t think that we’ll have floating zeppelins or endless energy that slows down the moon. But the allusions and symbols in Southland Tales still draw from a very well-known source–the Book of Revelations–and it’s an adaptation that throws itself wholeheartedly into its premise with an impressive amount of courage. There’s no doubt on display, and it’s actually almost refreshing to see a filmmaker so passionately attached to his project. There’s something crazily prophetic about Southland Tales, and that notion tickles my film nerd brain in a way that causes the film to be one of the most endearing things to come out of the 2000s.

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