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Southland Tales

Last night I sat round and watched Richard Kelly's Southland Tales, a film that gained some notice a while back for being an ambitiously flawed mess that, if I recall rightly, polarised opinions to its overall merit.

To begin with, that reputation of the film is deserving. It is an ambitious, flawed mess, and to me, that is its greatest attraction. I would rather spend my time with a film--or, in fact, with any art--that pushes to be something different, that is reaching, and fails, that with something that has no ambition and succeeds. I often find that the lines, 'It tells a good story, and story is what's important here,' are connected to the latter, and I've grown wary of anyone who supports such belief as the primary goal of any fictional based art. To me, such an opinion is one that is based on a limited appreciation of what an artist can do, be it through stylistic devices, thematic content, experimentation, and so on and so forth. It's not always the case, but 'I just want a good story' is more often than not code for something that has all the style of a bank manager, no thematics, and a phobia of anything that might be challenging. I could go on, of course, but I would argue that the sheer apathy that can be felt towards the work produced out of a lot of mediums of late in fictional mediums is due to a lack of ambition.

Southland Tales, then, is a nice break in that. It offers an alternate reality--perhaps, indeed, the fourth dimension, where doubles exist, though this point is never made as strongly in the film as you would like--where an Orwellian world has sprung up in America, and oil prices rise, and soldiers with rifles sit on stands above you. Alternate fuels are rising, there's a draft, communist cell groups are in existence, and Christopher Lambert is driving an ice cream truck, selling weapons out of the back. In this world, celebrity and husband to Presidential candidates daughter, Boxer Santaros (Dwayne Jonhson), wakes up in the desert with no memory, and ends, shortly after that, living with porn star Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar), who plans to use him for an ambitious plan to make herself a cultural identity. How, exactly, Boxer goes from amnesia to living with Krysta is never explained and someone difficult to figure, but if you can deal with it, you'll be preparing yourself for a lot of other moments where you'll have to skip over something that is not fully explained. At the same time that Boxer is walking around with a new screen play that explains how the world ends, Roland Taverner (Sean William Scott) is staring at his delayed image in a mirror, dressed in the police uniform he has stolen from his twin brother. He is part of a underground Marxist cell, having been dragged into a ridiculous plan to place Boxer in a fake racially motivated killing, as he researches the role of the Police Officer for his new film. At this point, you can throw in a mad scientist called the Baron, Bai Ling and her cool cigarette, and the narrator, Justin Timberlake, as Pilot Abilene, who seems intent on quoting from Revelations throughout the entire film, because, hey, the film is about the end of the world.

Sort've.

Still, Timberlake has a neat scene where he mimes to a Killers song, and he's not at all as objectionable as I thought he would be. Which, actually, can be said for a lot of actors in the film playing against their type: Sean William Scott is nicely understated in his role, Gellar pulls out a nice fragility at times, and people like Jon Lovitz, who appear in small cameos, are doing a fine job. The film is held together by Johnson, of course, but in truth, despite his nervous twitch of finger tapping, I didn't feel that he was stretching himself overly--he's a charismatic guy, however, and has a good screen presence, so there's nothing wrong about what he's doing.

However, the sheer number of people in the film, and the sheer number of plot lines, results in Southland Tales being very scattered. The Baron's plans for world domination are so odd that, if not for Timberlake's voice over explaining it to me, I simply would not be able to tell you why he was chopping off the hand of the Japanese Prime Minister. Since, after that, his evil seems confined to being with Bai Ling--whose character is called Serpentine--so I can't really tell you the point of it (and why use Boxer? It seems silly to do so, given his celebrity). Likewise, the whole fourth dimension stuff at the end never feels as if it is given any time to reach its full potential, and instead falls into a neat little resolution for one character and a rocket launcher for another. Likewise, the influence of the film script, which at times feels like it is influencing Boxer and others, and yet at other times feels like it is doing nothing, never amounts to more than the vague annoyance of people calling Boxer by a different name and him answering to it. Also, Sarah Michelle Gellar's pornstar character gets sidelined in the second half of the film, which I felt was a bit of a shame, given that what seemed to take her place was a character whose entire purpose was plot as a plot device. Oh, and occasionally, the film's references to Robert Frost and occasional 'insights' by characters made it feel as if the entire logic behind the film was sixteen, and was making a grand, High School loving film. But fortunately there's enough stuff in there that you can overlook it.

In fact, it might sound as if I didn't like the film based off what I've written, but the strange thing is, with the exception of the insights and frost, I liked all these ingredients. I especially like the way that televisions were used to seed information about the world to you. I liked the humour, I liked the weird, and I liked the crazy Baron, Teen Horniness is Not a Crime song, and all the other little bits of it.

It's just that none of them come together in the end.

Still, worth watching if you've never seen it.

Also, I decided no post would be complete without my favourite scene in the film:

Comments

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buymeaclue
May. 28th, 2008 01:44 am (UTC)
I think this is a very fair handling of the film, which is to say that I agree. My post-film response was mostly, "WTF?" but in kind of an admiring way...I'm not sure I'd bother to watch it again, but I'm glad to have seen it once.

The moment I remember most strongly, though, was the bit during the credits when I realized that I'd just put myself in the hands of not just the director of Donnie Darko (which I loved) but the director of the Donnie Darko director's cut (which I thought was absurd). It was a moment of blinding clarity and deep horror.

(This is my favorite scene, too.)
benpeek
May. 28th, 2008 02:40 am (UTC)
you know, i've never seen donnie darko (director's cut or otherwise). i should track it down after this--it's not like i've been avoiding it, i just... well, never got round to it.

i think it would probably watch SOUTHLAND TALES again, just to tease out what plots were never fully formed. if for nothing, maybe i'd just be stealing them ;)
lucius_t
May. 28th, 2008 03:35 am (UTC)
I felt more or less as you did about the movie, but I wouldn't waste my time on it again. It's really an inept, unfinished film, terribly edited, and one reason, I wager, the Timberlake is your favorite scene, it's almost the only complete scene in the movie (having its own internal consistency, though it seems to have nothing to do with the movie), and that makes it stand out. There are flashes of intelligence throughout, but those are counteracted by the lame-ass comedic presence of the SNL contingent, the annoying Wallace Shawn, et all. It's like a series of Youtube clips. I think after its reception at Cannes ,Kelly just gave up, chopped some bits out, got it to a serviceable length to get it a release, and let it go. Now if they released the entire uncut thing that was shown at Cannes, I'd be interested--but otherwise I'll wait for Kelly's next one, which has finished post-production already, based on a Richard Matheson story, the Box.
benpeek
May. 28th, 2008 11:52 pm (UTC)
you know, i never gave much thought to the SNL thing, but after you mentioned it, i can kinda see how you could view the film as an extended SNL flick. weird. though i reckon that's more due to wanting to create a film with an ensemble cast that ends up coming back on one plot strand. but maybe that's just me looking at how it didn't work, really.

i'd probably be more interested in seeing the entire, uncut thing, too.

and yeah, the timberlake scene has no real point with the movie as a whole.
mastadge
May. 28th, 2008 12:01 pm (UTC)
I agree with buymeaclue: Donnie Darko is a lovely movie, well worth your time to seek out, but I'd recommend avoiding the Director's Cut. I've long thought that Donnie Darko came together as well as it did by happy accident, despite the director's vision.

Several of the ideas that don't really make much sense in Southland Tales are expanded from things touched on in Donnie Darko.

As far as Southland Tales, if you want to tease out plots: remember that the movie comprises chapters 4-6 of the story. Chapters 1-3 ("Two Roads Diverge", "Fingerprints" and "The Mechanicals") can be found individually or in this collected graphic novel: http://www.amazon.com/Southland-Tales-Prequel-Richard-Kelly/dp/0936211806/ They were released before the movie came out and are the source of the sketchy comic frames used in the backstory narrative in the movie.
benpeek
May. 28th, 2008 11:54 pm (UTC)
yeah, i know bout the comic. for some reason though, i'm not so eager to go and drop cash on it. maybe i just think i paid what i paid for the flick and it all should've been there?

maybe one day i'll find it cheap and go the cash, tho. who knows.
king_espresso
May. 28th, 2008 03:09 am (UTC)
From what I hear, there are comic book additions to Soutland Tales that flesh out the back story, completing the narrative partly because the studio cut out some footage and subplots.

But I enjoyed it for the same reason you did. Ambitious failures are much more interesting than by-the-numbers successes.
benpeek
May. 28th, 2008 03:25 am (UTC)
yeah, i've heard there is a comic. i don't know that i'm moved to track it down, though.
strangedave
May. 28th, 2008 03:18 am (UTC)
I don't know, sometimes I feel like "I just want a good story" because I've seen too much with not even that. I'm happy with stuff that doesn't have much story but has other virtues, but most of them time a good story is the main way for something to lift itself out of dire into at least bearable.
benpeek
May. 28th, 2008 03:27 am (UTC)
yeah, that's cool. me, i'm not against good stories--ultimately, i think the failure of southland tales is the story, for example, but still. guess it's all preference in the end.
strangedave
May. 28th, 2008 07:28 am (UTC)
And I'm actually fine with work that deliberately eschews conventional narrative by choice - I'm a fan of the Michael Winterbottom films like Nine Songs and A Cock and Bull Story, for example - but simple incompetent storytelling, wanting to have a conventional narrative but simply doing a really poor job of it, is probably the most common and most irritating major flaw in film and tv.

Its actually pretty unusual to find film or tv that manages to have a good solid story but otherwise is poor.
angriest
May. 28th, 2008 05:08 am (UTC)
Story is, I think, the hardest part of making a film to get right, which is possibly why filmmakers in general are very quick to gloss over a poor story, keep shooting and just hope they can cover the turd in enough glitter.

But you know this already, of course.
benpeek
May. 28th, 2008 11:56 pm (UTC)
i don't reckon story is the hardest part, myself, but maybe that's just my own approach to shit influencing me.
box_in_the_box
May. 28th, 2008 04:27 am (UTC)
Not seen Southland Tales, but a comment on "ambitious failures:"

Most of the time nowadays, I don't think things that are described as "ambitious failures" are actually that, because from where I stand, it seems like most of the "ambitious failures" that have followed in the wake of David Lynch's critical and commercial successes have been a bunch of people saying to themselves, "Well, shit, he created an aimlessly wandering narrative that makes almost no sense, so I can do that, too!"

As frustrated as I can be with Lynch's inscrutability and apparent randomness at times, I think this is an unfairly inaccurate view of his work, but unfortunately, I also think it's the one shared by most of the filmmakers who have been influenced by him, in much the same way that 99.9999 percent of the superhero comics creators who read Watchmen didn't learn a single goddamned thing from it, aside from OMG SEX AND VIOLENCE IN SPANDEX ARE AWESUM!!!111

Basically, for every one filmmaker like Lynch, whose failures I would still rate as genuinely ambitious, there are eighty baskrillion lazy, smug, self-satisfied fuckholes like Greg Araki, who are the cinematic equivalent of emo teen girls who post shitty poems about their parents' divorces on their LiveJournals, and then proceed to whine like little bitches when people attempt to offer constructive criticism on their technique, justifying their hackneyed amateurish "visions" on the grounds that OMG U GUYZ THIS COMES FROM TEH HEART AND I AM A BEAUTIFUL UNIQUE SNOWFLAKE WHOSE CREATIVITY MUST BE ALLOWED TO RUN FREE LIKE A WYLD STALLYN!!!111

That being said, I absolutely agree with you about the formulaic McDonald's nature of a lot of "good stories," and I will now consider checking out Southland Tales.
angriest
May. 28th, 2008 04:53 am (UTC)
I dunno, I thought Mysterious Skin and The Doom Generation were both worthwhile films. I didn't love 'em or anything, but Araki has perhaps a bit more talent that you're suggesting IMO.
box_in_the_box
May. 28th, 2008 05:01 am (UTC)
I watched The Doom Generation from beginning to end because it featured Rose McGowan, whom I only knew at that point as WHO THE FUCK IS THIS CHICK HOLY SHIT SHE'S HOT, but as soon as I realized that a) the three characters' last names were actually "Red," "White" and "Blue," and b) the number 666 was going to appear in place of every number in the script, I immediately thought, "Oh, I get it; this film is being made by an inexcusably pretentious fucktard." I wouldn't forgive that shit even as a short story in a high school lit mag, so why the fuck should I excuse it in a goddamned grown-up movie?

YMMV, of course. ;)
angriest
May. 28th, 2008 05:03 am (UTC)
It does indeed, but at least we can agree on the fact that Rose McGowan is indeed hot.
box_in_the_box
May. 28th, 2008 05:08 am (UTC)
I cannot condemn Araki entirely, since he brought her to my attention.

True story: I was at the Defense Information School in Maryland when I saw that film, and one of my classmates was a young female Marine who, I shit you fucking not, looked like McGowan's goddamn twin sister, right down to the hairstyle, to the point that, when we all watched The Doom Generation on the VCR, every last guy there said, "Wow, that girl looks just like Aimee." You'd better believe that EVERYONE was trying to get a piece of that.
ninebelow
May. 28th, 2008 07:43 am (UTC)
Yeah, Araki is definitely a nob end but Mysterious Skin is pretty good.

As for Southland Tales you can admire its audacity (or is that hubris) but you can't really admire its actuality.
lyndarama
May. 28th, 2008 05:44 am (UTC)
Your vent against Araki and emo-poems is hysterical. I just laffed aloud in my office. Thanks!
box_in_the_box
May. 28th, 2008 05:48 am (UTC)
*Bows*
lyndarama
May. 28th, 2008 05:42 am (UTC)
This scene reminds me of the Gutterballs sequence from The Big Lebowksi. I'll post it on my blog. Justin Timberlake is hawt, for what it's worth.
benpeek
May. 28th, 2008 11:56 pm (UTC)
yeah, that's true. it reminded me of the big lebowski scene as well. that scene was better, of course--i mean, who could argue with saddam as a bowling alley employee?
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