Case File # 91: Southland Tales

Case File # 91: Southland Tales

Here at My Year Of Flops Incorporated, we are forever on the lookout for new and innovative ways to disappoint our loyal readership. So today I'm going to do something a little different. No, I'm not going to write a sober, well-reasoned critique that eschews cheap shots, labored jokes, and smug pop-culture references. That's just not how I get down. Instead, I'm going to write about a film that's still playing in theaters. Then again the film, or rather quasi-experimental avant-garde mind-fuck of the first order, that I'm writing about today isn't so much "playing" in theaters so much as it's dying a quick, painful, largely unmourned death in a handful of nearly empty theaters throughout our great land.

What movie could I be talking about? Am I finally going to give This Christmas the smartass 2,000-word evisceration it so richly warrants? Do I have Fred Claus in my sights? Nope I'll be writing today about a world-class disaster called Southland Tales, a film I've been eying greedily since I first learned of its existence.

Like many members of my generation, I have a soft spot in my heart for Donnie Darko, a critical and commercial dud at the time of its release that went on to win a sizable cult following on DVD. According ot the commenters at the Internet Movie Database, Donnie Darko is the 119th greatest film ever made (suck it It Happened One Night! You're a whole 15 spots behind Kelly). Not bad for a film that was barely released theatrically. And if you can't trust the judgment of anonymous internet armchair critics, then who can you trust? Politicians? Lawyers? Dwayne Hoover?

Kelly's fortunes rose with Donnie Darko's. Kelly was being hailed as the David Lynch of Generation X. Disastrously enough, Kelly appears to have believed the hype. The five-year gap between Donnie Darko and its follow-up only raised expectations for Southland Tales. But would the film represent a grand evolutionary leap forward or a huge step back? Would it be his career-making Boogie Nights or a bloated, overreaching sophomore slump?

With Southland Tales, Kelly offers not just a movie but a mind-melting multi-media experience, a vast, sprawling, absurd universe to get lost in, complete with three, count 'em three, graphic novel prequels (Part One: Two Roads Diverge, Part Two: Fingerprints, Part Three: The Mechanicals). I suspect that the film will probably make more sense to people who've read the graphic novels, though I imagine that complete comprehension of something as wiggy and abstract as Southland Tales is pretty much impossible, even to Kelly himself. Such is the mystery of art. And mind-boggling self-indulgence.

So if Southland Tales feels unnervingly like a third sequel to something that didn't make much sense in the first place, that's probably because that's just what it is. So exactly how did pop culture's other mad-genius R. Kelly fill the years between Darko and Tales? He worked on screenplays that unfortunately didn't get produced (a nixed adaptation of Holes) and screenplays that unfortunately did get produced (the headache-inducing post-modern nightmare that is Domino). On the basis of Southland Tales, however, it seems safe to assume that R. Kelly also spent the intervening years smoking pot, reading The Progressive, and steadily going insane. I've said it before and I'll say it again: politics and good intentions have ruined more filmmakers than drugs and money combined. A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. That goes double if the knowledge involved is political in nature.

Southland Tales opens with a nuclear blast in Texas in an alternate-universe 2005 and an endless orgy of voice-over narration from Justin Timberlake that explains and explains and explains without really explaining anything. The U.S., it seems, responded to a nuclear attack on July 4th, 2005 by taking a fierce rightward turn. World War III brought the pain to Iran, North Korea, and various other supporters of evildoers and a sinister entity called US-IDENT spies on the American populace and polices the world-wide webernet with an iron fist.

A revolutionary group known as the neo-Marxists populated disproportionately by distaff Saturday Night Live alums (Amy Poehler, Nora Dunn, Cheri Oteri) has brainwashed an Iraq War veteran played by Seann William Scott as a way of faking a Rodney King-like videotape exposing police brutality in hopes of instigating a revolt against the repressive new social order.

Meanwhile, an amnesiac action star with ties to the Republican party (Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, a real-life action star with ties to the Republican party) has written "a screenplay that foretold the tale of our destruction" yet is ignored, no doubt due to serious third-act problems and weak characterization, along with his girlfriend, a porn-star/current-events-chat-show-host and one-woman media empire played by Sarah Michelle Gellar, whose most recent release is a pop single called "Teen Horniness Is Not A Crime." Got all that? Good. Also involved: Booger from Revenge of the Nerds, monkeys traveling through a rift in the space-time continuum, that weird old woman from Poltergeist, an enigmatic billionaire with three spit-curls played by Wallace Shawn, and an arms dealer who operates out of an ice cream truck (Christopher Lambert). Oh, and Bai Ling doing some weird snake-hipped dance aboard a mega-zeppelin and Kevin Smith with a wizardly beard and (intentionally?) unconvincing old-man make-up that makes him look like the bastard offspring of Gandalf the Grey, Santa Claus, and ZZ Top. And a magical new energy source and crazy new hallucinogenic drug. Oh and the whole thing might just be an elaborate religious allegory. Or not.

Southland Tales is many things: a pop art glimpse into a looming apocalypse, a dark sci-fi comedy, pop-culture-damaged surrealism, and a passionate plea for the de-criminalization of teen horniness. It's a film of rare courage and audacity, a one-of-a-kind trip through the looking glass and a surreal meditation on uncertain times and the sins of the Bush administration. It's also a bloated, gargantuan mess–disjointed, leadenly paced, and filled with half-baked, undernourished ideas.

It's as if Kelly jotted down every surreal image and crackpot idea he could think of, combined it with his dream journal, then decided that they were strong enough that he could simply film his dreams and notes without going through the trouble of channeling them into a coherent, lucid narrative with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Watching Southland Tales is like invading someone else's dream, with all the good, bad, and disorientation that entails. The film wears its influences proudly: Andy Warhol, Kiss Me, Deadly, and Strange Days just for starters. But it's the warped spirit of Philip K. Dick that dominates the film. Dick at least came about his craziness organically, through decades of drug abuse and schizophrenia; Kelly's psychosis seems almost exclusively fame and pop-culture induced.

Southland Tales debuted at Cannes in 2006 in a nearly three-hour long version and was pretty much booed out of the continent. Kelly trimmed the film to a still-endless 144 minutes, but it still couldn't save his weird little Eraserhead-looking baby from a quick commercial death. Kelly's ambitious multi-media plan didn't seem so grand when the first of the graphic-novels was released well over a year before the release of the endlessly delayed film and failed to make much of an impact.

Just a few weeks after its release, Southland Tales was playing on exactly one screen in my city. Then again, I live and work in a Podunk one-horse town called Chicago, so it's possible it's playing more extensively elsewhere. There were exactly three other people in the theater when the film began. 40 minutes later, a full fourth of the audience (i.e. one dude) walked out never to return, a cloud of confusion and disappointment visible above his head. You could cut the lunacy with a knife: I literally could have stripped off all my clothes and somersaulted down the aisle screeching the lyrics to "Umbrella" while watching Southland Tales, secure in the knowledge that my actions would constitute merely the second craziest thing happening in the theater at any given moment.

I suspect that if I'd seen Southland Tales before it came out, I'd be a little more bowled over by its ambition. But I am currently neck-deep into that glorious time of year known as screener season, the closest thing a card-carrying member of the tribe like myself will ever come to Christmas. During screener season, I get sent DVDs of the year's top films, many of which haven't been released, in hopes that I'll put them on my top ten list or vote for them for the various critic groups I belong to.

In the last week or so, I've seen Atonement, Sweeney Todd, Before The Devil Knows You're Dead, Charlie Wilson's War, The Hoax, The Lookout, No Country For Old Men, Ratatouille, No End In Sight, Juno, There Will Be Blood, The Savages, The Great World Of Sound, and Margot At The Wedding. Have I mentioned that I love my job? They weren't all winners, but when you're inundated with movies that largely realize their Herculean ambitions, a wildly ambitious misfire like Southland Tales doesn't seem quite so impressive.

That said, there are a lot of things I liked about Southland Tales, from the loopy brilliance of throwaway lines like "Scientists are predicting the future will be much more futuristic than originally predicted" and "Pimps don't commit suicide" to set-pieces that are breath-taking in their audacity. Deep into the film, Kelly indulges in a stand-alone music video sequence where a scarred and sinister Justin Timberlake, decked out in a bloody shirt, stares at the camera and lip-synchs to The Killers' "All The Things I've Done" while drinking a can of Budweiser as dancers in sexy nurse costume writhe lasciviously in the background. Why? Why the fuck not? Does it really make any more or less sense than anything else in the film?

As the guiding principle behind the film, "Why the fuck not?" can be exhilarating in small, concentrated doses. But it becomes exhausting over the course of 144 shapeless, leadenly paced minutes. Speaking of exhaustion, I was impressed that the film ends with "Tender," one of those glorious Blur songs where Damon Albarn drops the theatrical role-playing and thick layers of irony, and the exquisite world-weariness in his voice becomes enormously poignant and touching. It's the perfect soundtrack to the end of the world and the end of a movie like this.

Some of the stunt casting here pays huge dividends, like Jon Lovitz's bizarre turn as a silver-haired raspy-voiced psycho cop and Johnson's agreeable deranged performance. Johnson generally oozes self-assurance onscreen: that's a big part of what makes him such a convincing action hero. But here he's as lost and confused as a scared little boy. In that respect, his bravely bizarre, unselfconscious performance reminds me of Mark Wahlberg in I Heart Huckabees. They're both exemplars of macho certainty playing lost, lonely, scared characters that have no idea what they're doing, where they're headed, or how they fit into the big picture. I especially liked the way Johnson nervously tents his hands together and lets his fingers flutter nervously, even girlishly. If he can only say no to his handlers, giant-ass paychecks, and the demands of his loyal fans, Johnson could develop into a terrific character actor (see also his wonderful comic turn in the otherwise dreadful Be Cool).

Kelly unleashes such an endless, dizzying torrent of ideas, pop culture references, and surreal juxtapositions that statistically speaking, some are bound to register. A fuzzy social satire, surrealistic tour de force, half-assed political treatise, and vanity project all rolled into one, Southland Tales only hits its targets about five to ten percent of the time, but when it does it makes a huge impact. I can't say I enjoyed Southland Tales, but I can't stop thinking about it and isolated moments and images–like a man atop a floating ice cream truck filled with heavenly light shooting a mega-zeppelin with a shoulder-mounted missile–will stay with me long after better, more coherent films have faded from memory.

"This is the way the world ends" goes the film's baroque tag-line. Eh, no, not really but it sure as shit feels like the way Kelly's career ends. It hasn't, thank God (he's currently working on a much more conventional-looking Richard Matheson adaptation), and I, for one, can't wait for this profoundly gifted, profoundly flawed filmmaker's professional resurrection.

Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Fiasco

Filed Under: Film

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