Southland Tales (2006) (part 1 of 10)
Before we start, I feel I should make a confession: even after first seeing this movie on DVD in March of 2008, and watching it again a few more times, and reading the graphic novel prequels, and buying the soundtrack, and cruising the web/blogosphere for reviews, analyses, discussions and whatnot, and finally proposing, writing and editing a full-blown 39,000+ word Mega Recap dissecting it in minute detail, I still do not know what the hell Southland Tales is.
If I had to compare it to any movie on the Agony Booth, I could only dare describe it as an unholy amalgam of Zardoz and Myra Breckinridge. Like Zardoz, Southland Tales presents a whistle-stop tour of a strange and alien future, where characters are metaphors for the issues of the day, and reality and fantasy intermingle. And like Myra Breckinridge, the movie satirizes the tropes and obsessions of pop culture, commenting acerbically on the state of Hollywood and on life in modern-day America. Finally, like both of these movies, Southland Tales does not know what it’s doing, so it does everything.
This is a movie where government-funded think-tanks employ midgets wearing translucent raincoats to spy on the internet. This is a movie where good old-fashioned Marxism has spawned a massive underground movement. This is a movie where people speak in song lyrics, and the Republican candidate for vice president quotes the poetry of Robert Frost in his everyday speech for no reason.
This is a movie where Wallace Shawn is supposed to be German.
To understand—well, not “understand” so much as “become aware of”—how this apocalyptic crock-pot of insanity came to be, we need to go back about seven years, to look at the man responsible for Southland Tales: writer-director Richard Kelly.
Back in 2001, Kelly first caught the public’s eye with the release of Donnie Darko, a touching film about a young man, his imaginary rabbit-demon friend, and the end of the world. Initially, the film did rather poorly at the box office, with many critics complaining about the obtuse plot, sketchy characterization, and poorly-structured dialogue. However, once the DVD came out, it gained a cult following among those who appreciated Kelly’s construction of mood, his pop culture-based humor, and his sensitive depiction of teenage isolation.
Of course, this cult wasn’t much help to Kelly in the immediate aftermath. For the next few years after Darko‘s release, he had to fall back on his scriptwriting career to make ends meet. Being a writer-director with a “vision”, Kelly’s scripts tended to focus more on his own idiosyncratic interests than their potential marketability. One of his most infamous projects was an adaptation of Louis Sachar’s young-adult novel Holes. Originally a straightforward, somewhat silly story about a camp for juvenile delinquents and buried treasure, Kelly’s script reworked it into a coming-of-age story set in Texas during the aftermath of a nuclear attack, which featured sexual awakenings, the sheriff from Cool Hand Luke, and a plot to unearth a working deus ex machina. Strangely, the script was rejected by Disney.
In fact, Kelly’s only major sale before making Southland Tales was the script for a postmodern pop-savvy biopic of model-turned-bounty hunter Domino Harvey, daughter of actor Laurence Harvey. 2005 saw the release of Domino, directed by Tony Scott, and starring Kiera Knightley in the title role, for some unfathomable reason. I took the liberty of seeing Domino a few months ago as part of my research for this Mega Recap, and it certainly left an lasting impression on me. After all, while any idiot can write a movie that sneers at comprehension, makes your eyeballs itch, and has a surprise cameo by a guy who looks like the ambisexual pimp from Blue Velvet, it takes a rare genius to do all this and make you pine for the nuanced characterization and underplayed humor of Joe Eszterhas movies.
Meanwhile, the events of 9/11 and the subsequent policies of the Bush administration (which I have no desire to talk about here) left their mark on Kelly. Being a good outraged left-winger, he began to work various political themes into his next screenplay. Unfortunately, while some writers can successfully create a comedy with political overtones and still create likable characters and amusing situations, Richard Kelly is a man that prefers to let the ideas speak for themselves. Preferably through a stadium sound system.
On top of that, post-9/11 religious debate led Kelly to take a renewed interest in the Bible, specifically the Book of Revelations. Unfortunately, it seems Kelly’s response to Revelations was not one of religious enlightenment, but rather, “Ooo! Dragons! Neat! I’m gonna put this in a screenplay!”
The screenplay in question was one of Kelly’s unfinished projects, a Hollywood satire about a blackmail scheme, a hooker, and two beat cops in downtown Los Angeles. Through successive rewrites, the script grew and grew, latching onto themes, images, and references, and devouring them like Marlon Brando at a breakfast buffet. Kelly’s script gorged itself on reality TV, modernist poetry, classic films, the Patriot Act, the Iraq War, and race relations. And by 2004, when Sony Pictures came around looking for a project to appeal to the audience that made Donnie Darko a success, Kelly had a script ready for them: a dark comedy set in an alternate-history future version of 2008 that would encapsulate all the hopes and fears of the post-9/11 world in a nutshell as wide as the sky.
Rather than relying on old pros, Kelly’s cast came from the bubbliest fringes of pop culture: WWE champion Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, pop singer Justin Timberlake, TV maven Sarah Michelle Gellar, and fine ale connoisseur Seann William Scott were the actors Kelly specifically wanted for the lead roles. The casts of Saturday Night Live, past and present, were ransacked to provide performers for the second tier characters, with Nora Dunn, Cheri Oteri, Amy Poehler, Janeane Garofalo, and Jon Lovitz making the final cut.
And this wasn’t going to be just a movie, either. Rather, it would be a multimedia experience. When Southland Tales was initially announced in the trades, Kelly promised it would have the most elaborate, immersive websites ever made for a motion picture. And there would be not one, not two, but three graphic novel prequels (pared down from the original six [!]), to add depth to the story and explore the world of Southland Tales.
Finally, after two years and 15 million dollars (plus an extra $10-15 million for marketing), Kelly’s baby premiered at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival. Prior to the initial screening, it was a hot contender for the coveted Palme d’Or. But as the assembled critics and festivalgoers sat through all 160 minutes of film, something strange happened. There was no laughter. Not even quiet chuckles at the film’s intricate private jokes. And at the end, there was no applause from the crowd.
Instead, they grumbled. They talked amongst themselves the whole time. They snickered at all the wrong places. They hurled abuse at the screen. They booed. They walked out. In short, they entered that state of irate bewilderment that filmgoers (and armchair internet critics) all over the world know simply as W. T. F.
Almost every critic who attended the Cannes screening panned the movie, their pens bloated with acid. Sony quickly realized it had a disaster on its hands, and demanded that Kelly rework his masterpiece.
And so, over the next several months, Kelly played with the footage, adding an opening prologue to explain the film’s universe, and splicing in more visual effects shots, and finally trimming the movie down to an austere 144 minutes. By then, however, the damage was done. Due in no small part to the initial savaging, the movie was completely ignored. The graphic novel prequels came and went without a sound. The tie-in websites were quickly abandoned, with many of the domain names now being occupied by squatters.
The refurbished Southland Tales finally premiered in North America in November of 2007, on a paltry 63 screens continent-wide. Two weeks later, after earning a grand total of $356,408 worldwide, it was gone. In March of 2008, a bare-bones DVD was released. In the much-abused words of T. S. Elliot, Southland Tales ended, not with the bang Kelly prayed for, but with a sad, sad little whimper.
And that brings us to the reason we’re all here today. I originally heard of Southland Tales, not from any news story or marketing campaign, but from an entry in the Onion AV Club’s “My Year of Flops” column. Being a fan of the occasional head-trip movie, it seemed like a film I would enjoy, or one I could at least mock with vigor. As befits my life as a conscientious eccentric, I also took the liberty of reading the prequel comics, so I could make better headway through the movie than most reviewers and theatergoers.
It didn’t help. Even with all the explanations and background, Southland Tales is a movie that defies understanding. And while elliptical storytelling can sometimes help a film plumb the depths of terror or soar to the heights of wonder, all Southland Tales does is leave you sitting in front of the screen, confused and angry that people paid good money to make this, this thing, this shell of a movie, this creature that crawls into your head, fills it with words and images, only to say precisely nothing at all.
Kelly once said that in writing Southland Tales, he wanted to create a movie that would be a cathartic release for his thoughts and feelings about the world today. In much the same way, I organized this Mega Recap as my own act of catharsis, as a way to expunge Kelly’s thoughts and feeling from my own brain. To do this, I conscriptedenlisted the help of seven other recappers to make sense of this sprawling mess of a film.
The roster of recappers for Mega Recap VII is:
Page 2: Albert
Page 3: Jordon Davis
Page 4: Jessica Ritchey
Page 5: Me, Ivan Druzhkov
Page 6: Michael A. Novelli (to whom I must give special credit for having written out his section on paper, and later typed it into an email message)
Page 7: Jake Cremins
Page 8: LaShawn Wanak
Page 9: Sillstaw
Page 10: Me, Ivan Druzhkov, yet again
Now that we’ve got all the preliminaries out of the way, let’s start things off with Albert, the state of Texas, and the infodump to end all infodumps.