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Until the End of the World: Richard Kelly?s Southland Tales

The Stop Smiling Film Review

(Sony/Samuel Goldwyn)

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Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Southland Tales
Directed by Richard Kelly
(Sony/Samuel Goldwyn)

Reviewed by Mark Asch

Then-FCC Chairman Newton Minow’s characterization of television as a “vast wasteland” has been much quoted since its 1961 utterance, but Richard Kelly is the first person to assume that Minow was referring to T.S. Eliot. A channel-surfing feverdreamscape, Southland Tales stars The Rock, Stifler and Buffy the Vampire Slayer as, respectively, Boxer Santaros, amnesiac action star and son-in-law of the Republican candidate for Vice President; Roland and Ronald Taverner, talismanic twins; and Krysta Now, porn star and rising cable pundit. The film also features The Princess Bride’s Vizzini, Booger from Revenge of the Nerds; Justin Timberlake and Mandy Moore; John Larroquette; and a cluster bomb of SNL alums playing members of a SoCal revolutionary cell. All group and regroup throughout a miasmic rendering of, we’re told early on, “the way the world ends: not with a whimper, but a bang.” Already the year’s biggest critical flop, this lowbrow apocalypse is also its grandest folly.

Donnie Darko, Kelly’s first feature, is a cult movie, in the sense that there’s at least one DVD of it on every floor of every dorm room in America at any time. Its suburban-kitsch milieu and lived-in Eighties signifiers are part of its appeal to a generation born in the Reagan-Bush years. It’s also part of its poignancy: a story of transcendence achieved via ear-infection-warped understanding of religious myth and genre fiction (along with time travel, weight-of-the-world sacrifice and teen horniness) Donnie Darko was adolescent yearning, articulated and embodied in roughly equal proportion. Its occasional banalities were as authentic as acne.

Southland Tales, too, is a story of time travel, martyrdom and horniness, but catapulted from Darko’s timeline (the shadow of 1988’s Bush-Dukakis showdown) to July 2008, with the campaign between the (Democratic) Clinton/Lieberman and (Republican) Eliot/Frost tickets in full swing. In the intervening years, according to Southland Tales’ prologue (encapsulating a backstory so exhaustive it’ll be published separately, as three graphic novels), Texas was dirty-bombed, and the draft was reinstated to cover America’s cloaking presence throughout the Middle East. A Big Brother called USIDent monitors everything, including the “neo-Marxists” plotting its overthrow, and a cabal of mad scientists with Old World accents has developed a mysterious alternative fuel.

Since Southland’s 2006 debut at Cannes, the consensus (save for a few stubborn cool-kid critics) has been that Kelly isn’t really equipped to deal with the zeitgeist he’s loosed. They’re probably right. Southland Tales is scatological (it’s laden with toilet gags) when not relying for yuks on sub-Strangelovian silly character-names and a sophomoric understanding of women’s sexuality. For all its headline-ripping, its political sophistication is roughly equivalent the kind you’d find in, well, a late-night discussion in a dorm room in possession of a Donnie Darko DVD. (As we learned in Black Book, “We don’t negotiate with terrorists” is a simpleminded characterization of the conservative mindset when it’s used in an allegorical context, let alone literally.)

And, at around 140 minutes, it’s incoherent. Not a “mindfuck” like the eventually explicable Darko, but jumbled with allegiances, intersections, twists, switchbacks and characters whose presence in the scene seems a matter of contrivance for some uncertain purpose. It’s as ultimately (and superfluously) sloppy as some Shaw Brothers adaptation of a wuxia novel.

Kelly opens his mouth wide to reveal his undigested references: Aside from his in-syndication cast and his soundtrack choices (a score by Moby, with crossover hits from Blur and the Pixies), he blurts out name-drops to Elton John, Philip K. Dick, Kiss Me Deadly and The Big Lebowski. Given the transparency of his borrowings and the frequent sketch-comedy tone, it’s clear Kelly is consciously going straight for pop culture’s lowest common denominators, or at least for a frame of reference equivalent to his own — that is, a self-described “frat boy” born in 1975. Several critics have already pointed out, not unfairly, that the prefab music of the Killers is ill equipped to bear the philosophical weight Kelly places on its shoulders. It’s time, in other words, for Donnie Darko to grow up.

But what other filmmaker would soak up so much American idiocy in an attempt to transcend it? As with Darko, a mood of rapturous portentousness pervades: Kelly’s favorite scenes stretch out in slo-mo, timed to the trancelike rhythm of pop songs, across multiple locations simultaneously, all suggesting a cosmic sense of connection. Southland Tales is a mess, of course, but it’s a mess because Kelly strains to imbue everything in it — sketch comics and porn stars, bathrooms and ice cream trucks — with metaphysical significance.

A more on-point title for the movie would have been Apocalypse Now, not just for literal reasons (or because both movies brandish dog-eared pages of “The Hollow Man” whenever their intellectual bona fides are questioned), but because both movies beg to sprawl: The woollier and more undisciplined things get, the more profound the driving sense of spiraling chaos becomes. Southland Tales has been cut by a reel from the version hooted at Cannes last spring, subplots dropped and the narrative sutured together with narration and added visual effects. (The expository reliance on F/X recalls, unpleasantly, Darko’s misguided Director’s Cut.) It’s hard to imagine how anyone could think that the excision of twenty minutes could render the movie miraculously palatable. As in Kelly’s previous film, Southland’s flaws, and its scope, are magnificently earnest; the guy is in way over his head, but his flailing is extravagant.

 

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