Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Time slips, the world ends, The Rock sees double, and Southland Tales slouches toward DVD shelves, one coma-inducing chapter at a time

Before we get started, let me just say that it's useful to remind oneself every now and then that there are countless ways in which movies can turn out lousy. When you consider all the factors that come into account when putting together a feature film —the diverse contributors, conflicting visions, constraints financial or physical, accidents happy or otherwise, disasters natural or manmade—it’s kind of a wonder that any of them turn out good. And if you throw a young, reckless, giddily adventurous auteur into the mix, things can get only more precarious.

I want to talk about Southland Tales, writer/director Richard Kelly’s much anticipated follow-up to his 2001 debut Donnie Darko, which must be the most beloved non-theatrically released American movie of the century. A long, unwieldy, virtually incomprehensible satire about the American apocalypse, featuring a wildly bloated cast half-comprised of has-beens most popular during Kelly’s childhood—John Lovitz, Christopher Lambert, John Larroquette, Curtis Armstrong—it debuted as a work-in-progress at Cannes 2006 to a chorus of boos and loathing reviews from all but a small band of US critics. (Most of them, incidentally, quite good critics.) Whether because of Kelly’s protracted re-cutting schedule or an understandably pessimistic marketing team, Southland Tales slouched back into the ether until, having shed 20 minutes, several characters and a few subplots, it was finally granted a limited release last November before vanishing without a trace. In Canada it never even opened. It finally arrived on DVD shelves last month.

Having very much admired Donnie Darko, and putting little faith in the judgment of noisy festival naysayers, I eagerly looked forward to Southland Tales, making a point of reading as little about it as possible so as to come at it fresh. Ready for whatever, I popped it in the player and within two minutes realized I needn’t bother to continue my initial jolt of frenzied note-taking—the exposition was being hurled around like a cafeteria food fight. Texas has been nuked; oil is drying up; the US is at war with at least five counties; a neo-Marxist resistance is emerging from somewhere in Venice Beach; Americans are being monitored everywhere and all the time; an action star gets amnesia and teams up with a “cock-chugging” porn star developing an apocalyptic action movie and an all-porn star talk show. I got that much. But the problem wasn’t so much what was being relayed as how. Screens within screens resembling drearily cheesy video games (or, I guess, Fox News) slam into place and slide around. Between the near-constant, impossibly flat voice-over, courtesy of Justin Timberlake, and the soft electro-wall paper score, courtesy of Moby, I felt the film was actually designed to help me slip into a coma. Little did I realize that much of the two-and-a-half-hour movie would be more of the same. I started taking pee breaks when I didn’t even need to pee.

The central players in Southland Tales don’t help matters. I guess the trio of Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, Sarah Michelle Gellar and Seann William Scott is some sicko’s idea of a dream team, but their collective dearth of charisma or even ability with coherent line readings makes their perversely vapid characters that much less engaging. Of course they’re supposed to be funny. “All the pilgrims did was ruin the Indian orgy of freedom,” Gellar’s nattering “cockchugger” complains. “The fourth dimension’s going to collapse on itself, you stupid bitch!” imparts Johnson in his bizarrely spaced, over emphatic sub-Shatner speak. Those are some of the best, or at least most memorable lines, but they look better on paper than they play in the movie. Admittedly they play far, far better than the astoundingly lame insertions of Jane’s Addiction lyrics, Philip K. Dick book titles or T.S. Eliot poetry into the dialogue. This unimaginative flaunting of influences reaches its nadir early on, when we get to watch a good chunk of the opening of the classic nuclear noir Kiss Me Deadly on Gellar’s TV. In his Village Voice review, J. Hoberman writes that “Kelly’s movie may not be entirely coherent, but that’s because there’s so much it wants to say.” I genuinely appreciate Hoberman’s championing of Kelly’s bravura messiness—I am, after all, a huge fan of Inland Empire—but it seemed to me like most of what he had to say was “Look at how many movies/books/music I’ve seen/read/listened to!”

Maybe Kelly really just wanted to make a cult phenomenon, a rather odd choice when that’s exactly what his first movie already accomplished. Maybe it was meant to be something else altogether. In trying to figure out what Southland Tales is, it might be worthwhile to establish what it isn’t. Southland Tales is neither a Heaven’s Gate nor a Battlefield Earth, which is to say it isn’t an overly ambitious maybe-masterpiece completely overshadowed by its expense and extravagant production, nor is it a mega-budgeted lemon full of dialogue, costumes, performances (I’ll stop here) so risible as to be pure camp and infused with elements that allow for some fun extra-filmic readings (ie: the Scientologist movie star fronting a story written by the father of Scientology). I don’t know that Southland Tales’ long gestation period captured the public’s imagination all that much. I don’t know that there’s been much of an effort yet to canonize it in any so-bad-it’s-good category. Outside of a sometimes-fevered critical debate that I suspect was of interest only to other critics, I don’t know that the film has thus far met anything but near-total indifference. Whether or not this will change will probably depend on whether or not the above appraisal reads to you like a clear warning to steer clear or a disguised encouragement to see the greatest cheesed-out, conspiracy theorist/stoner epic since El Topo.


Paul Matwychuk said...


I contend this movie might have worked if only Kelly hadn't tried to make it into a comedy. The only thing more embarrassing than Kelly's juvenile sense of humour (full of coarse insults and scatalogical insults) are his inept attempts at political satire. I like DONNIE DARKO too, but it's as if Kelly set out to reject everything that made that earlier film so evocative: the melancholy, doom-laden mood, his evocation of the eeriness of nighttime suburbia, and traded it all in for this sun-drenched, ugly-looking satire where almost every performance seems like a stuntcasting gamble that didn't pay off.

All I can say in its favour is that I like The Rock, I like the musical numbers, and it's not as bad as DOMINO, one of the most unspeakably awful movies of the last decade.

JB said...

You're not the only one -even among those who dislike the movie- to say they liked The Rock. If one were to draw a correlation, I am admittedly a great admirer of certain performances from Schwarzenegger, (STAY HUNGRY, CONAN THE BARBARIAN, TERMINATOR, KINDERGARDEN COP), but I had a harder time with getting the appeal of The Rock in this. I guess I kind of felt like he was just one more addition to a long list of elements in the movie that Kelly injected to make it deliberately bad in a winky-winky way. (Do you think The Rock's actually doing something admirable in the movie, or is he just so hopelessly bad an actor that he's endearing?) It's one of the things I sort of resent in the film, this willful imposition of crappiness all over the place that feels like a lazy stab at a certain Gen X brand of irony, or should I say "irony."

I do have a feeling I'll watch SOUTHLAND TALES again someday, and I figure there's a perfectly good chance I'll enjoy it a little more, if for no other reason than it's just so fucking out there. And I have a sneaking suspicion that Kelly is going to play things safer with THE BOX, which may or may not be a good thing.

Alas, I have not seen DOMINO, so I can't say how representative it is of Kelly. But oddly enough there were several moments in SOUTHLAND TALES that reminded me of Tony Scott. ...Others reminded me of Ken Russell.