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.