Richard Kelly’s (kind of) post-apocalyptic smorgasbord of science-fiction, politics, music and musing was memorably lambasted at Cannes in its unexpurgated three-hour form and subsequently mauled by critics and shunned by audiences. Check its IMDB score for confirmation that most are not on board with recognising it as a misunderstood classic. And that’s fair. A classic Southland Tales is not. On top of which, it’s certainly unrefined in some of its targets (Jonathan Ross labelled it “a bad, overlong student film” and there’s something of that messy over eagerness in its scattershot approach). This is, undoubtedly, an instant cult movie; indeed, Kelly could be argued to have self-consciously made a cult movie, always a dangerous intent. A cult movie which simply has too much going on to be rebuffed as “bad”, for all the hit-and-miss, slipshod structure and motive that even an insistently expositional narration fails to remedy. A mess, definitely, but an intermittently dazzling one.
Kelly was, of course, the bright young thing who made instant classic (and cult classic) Donnie Darko at only twenty-five years of age. Such achievement – one hesitates to burden it with Orson-ian comparisons – tends to beget a brutal downfall. It took five years for follow-up Southland Tales to arrive, during which time a director’s cut of Donnie Darko surfaced that managed to make most of us seriously question whether they were wrong about the writer-director, so wrong-headed and misconceived was it with regard to all the right-headed and strongly conceived choices in the theatrical version.
Southland Tales seemed to compound that, emphasising that Kelly was geared to indulge himself, fostering too much of too much, lacking the wherewithal to refine, filter and condense his ideas. The result was a confusion of them, rather than an embarrassment of riches (you can see this in his expansive multimedia designs for Southland Tales and the inclusion of The Philosophy of Time Travel in the Donnie Darko Director’s Cut). Perhaps that’s why he seemed to go in the reverse direction with The Box, adapting fairly straightforward Richard Matheson story Button, Button, which had already been turned into a succinct Twilight Zone episode. I liked that movie, but many did not, for whom it confirmed Kelly as a hubristic one-hit wonder, duly deserving to be cast out into the wilderness, never to come near a film camera again.
As such, his evident talents have frequently been written off; I have hopes he may yet – Richard Stanley-like, only hopefully with a worthier movie – return. There are a several significant problems with the version of Southland Tales we have, even if neither is ultimately a deal breaker. The first is the worst, because when it’s at the forefront of the narrative, it’s inescapable and rather irksome. This is the aspect that makes Ross’ “student film” charge seem justified: Kelly’s shameless politicking. Apparently, he completed the first draft in 1999 (which would make him only just an ex-student, pretty much) but rewrote in the light of 9/11. Accordingly, it brings in such motifs and themes as police state/Homeland Security and alternative fuel, along with celebrity and its links with politics: “It’s political and it’s aggressive and it’s confrontational”. Which is exactly what a student would say.
Some of these ideas are quite cogent, and while OTT then, now seem entirely plausible, such as the UPU2 lookout tower/ gun emplacements bearing down on what is otherwise a business-as-usual Venice Beach. The garish crossover of celebrity and politics – although the porn star business may be a lurid step too far – is closer to The Running Man than anything that has come to pass, but Kelly’s thinking in the right direction with the blurring of media lines. And if he misses the commoditisation of the “green” movement, that’s generally the case with his getting caught up in the immediacy of current events rather than extrapolating the broader machinations behind them. Instead, he offers the extravagant Fluid Karma energy source, an organic compound found beneath the Earth’s mantle (I’ve seen it suggested this idea is Tesla-ish, but I’m struggling there). Fluid karma is the creation of your classic mad scientist, one who wants to cause the end of the world by slowing the Earth’s rotation (and opening rifts in the space-time continuum). And also experiment on soldiers along the way (such as with, say, anthrax vaccines).
In other words, Kelly’s future global situation is quite compartmentalised. He can see an alternative technology making it to the public without suppression. Like Kubrick, he focuses on the potential terrors of a nuclear disaster rather than its use as a (then) sixty-year operation for instilling and propagating fear. He features some greedy, objectionable politicians, but the buck rather stops there. Worse, he makes a cardinal error of precise topicality, one Robert Zemeckis already succumbed to – for CGI-fiddly reasons mainly – in Contact: inserting a then-present President into his SF fantasy. There’s much concomitant commentary on Iraq and Middle Eastern conflict, but with hindsight, it seems little different to the kind of trendy concern all of Hollywood was showing (look at George Clooney, one of the most witless lackeys of the NWO ever, going all out). USIDent monitors the Internet, there are homegrown Neo-Marxists (now, this might have been resonant had Kelly identified them as government-created) and an election that seems, on some level, to believe party lines actually matter.
On the other hand, Kelly has created a wilfully dense, opaque narrative that requires considerable additional research to gain head or tail of. Much of the conversation revolves around the screenplay for The Power, a true story of the end of the world written by psychic porn star space case Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar). In this screenplay, Kelly is mapping out The Book of Revelation, which Southland Tales the movie is also doing. So what’s the significance of this? There isn’t any. It’s just clever. And neat. And possibly – probably, since there’s a hefty dose of A Scanner Darkly in here, and Jon Lovitz’ policeman says “Flow my tears” at one point – highly indebted to Philip K Dick, for whom the barriers between created literature and reality were very, very blurred (I’m still wading through his Exegesis. I may be some time). That, and the retroactive time travel.
Then there’s the ice cream truck taking to the skies, an obvious homage to the peerless Repo Man – another movie heavily into nuke riffs, although much more wittily – and the character in Krysta’s screenplay being called Jericho Cane (entirely coincidentally, or was it, I watched End of Days the day before revisiting Southland Tales), the TS Elliot-quoting Pilot Abilene, and USIDent employee protective clothing that is straight out of Gilliam. It is possible to be over-referential. Jesus wins in the end, apparently – as signified by Boxer’s bleeding tattoo – which makes me wonder if Ronald/Roland, as Christ figures, represent Rudolf Steiner’s two Jesuses.
I mentioned two problems. The second is that Southland Tales, in its ramshackle, uncoordinated way, needed to be a lot looser and irreverent to land successfully: an heir to the likes of The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension and Big Trouble in Little China. I’d say it’s closer to something like Wrong is Right/The Man with the Deadly Lens, itself a Dr. Strangelove imitator and extremely scrappy; Southland Tales is much better directed, but it takes pot shots in every which direction and only some of them get anywhere near their targets. And yet, you can see how tightly Kelly controls his vision on every level, which means that, while it doesn’t get there on its own terms, Southland Tales is often an entrancing film simply to watch.
There’s a quote that Kelly wanted to cast actors to showcase their “undiscovered talents”, but I find that very hard to believe for the most part. I’ll grant you Seann William Scott, who’s a standout in his twin roles and never once reminds you of the more comedic roles for which he’d been typecast. And Mandy Moore is a convincingly bitchy senator’s daughter. But Sarah Michelle Gellar as a porn star just shows her range ain’t all that, while Dwayne Johnson has repeatedly shown that his is meagre (I’d put Dave Bautista, John Cena and Jesse Ventura ahead of him; hell, even Roddy Piper, in the wrestler turned actor stakes). Johnson does some “innocent” shtick he recently used again in Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, but he isn’t fooling anyone.
Justin Timberlake, I’ll grant you, is pretty good, although his role is mostly voiceover (and miming to The Killers). As an ex Mouseketeer, he knows what it’s like to be MKUltra’d, so perhaps Pilot Abilene was close to his heart. I’ve too often been aware of Timberlake rather than an actual character in his performances, but this is something of an exception. Jon Lovitz also plays up his sinister side, always there in his comic performances, to good effect. But the likes of the great and diminutive Wallace Shawn – he even exclaims “Preposterous!” at one point – Bai Ling, John Larroquette, Curtis Armstrong, Nora Dunn and Zelda Rubeinstein are delivering exactly what you’d expect. As is Christopher Lambert as an arms dealer in an ice-cream truck. Miranda Richardson is also exactly what you’d expect by being really good, while Eli Roth gets killed on a toilet. Which is inevitable someday. Oh, and Kevin Smith in prosthetics. With a beard.
Perhaps if Southland Tales’ heavy emphasis on reacting to the world around it had led to real prescience, it might have been re-evaluated by this point. Unfortunately, it largely feels stuck in the groove of whatever it was ruminating on back then, a decade and a half ago. Yes, the police state mentality has gone through the roof, but Kelly is strangely too unwilling to slay sacred cows, or even to try tipping them. Nevertheless, Southland Tales is unique, and even the fact that it’s pseudishly setting out to be can’t get away from the fact that Kelly is a first-rate filmmaker. I’d like to see his director’s cut of this one.