Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
January 2008

"Right now, it's only a notion . . .*

. . . but I think I can get money to make it into a concept. And then later, turn it into an idea.": The story of 'Southland Tales'

Southland Tales
Samuel Goldwyn Films
Director: Richard Kelly
Screenplay: Richard Kelly
Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Seann William Scott, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Justin Timberlake, Nora Dunn, John Laroquette, Miranda Richardson, Wallace Shawn, Bai Ling, Mandy Moore and Lou Taylor Pucci
Rated R / 2 hours, 24 minutes
Now playing in limited release
(out of four)

Southland Tales already has a reputation as a spectacular failure; in re-cutting it for its theatrical release, writer/director Richard Kelly had nothing to lose.

In fact, now that the rancid initial reception has become a memory and the echoes from the Cannes catcalls and whistles have finally died down, we can actually assess the film on its own terms - like The Fountain, The Brown Bunny and Marie Antoinette before it (other films hampered by bad "buzz," which can be just as damaging to a film as overly positive buzz).

I am unabashedly sympathetic toward ambitious films and ambitious filmmakers - anyone who's actually trying to do something interesting gains my admiration. That isn't to say that ambitious films are always good ones. Ambition involves risk, and risks don't always pay off. But I'd rather see someone take those risks and fail marvelously than play it safe and churn out an indifferent formula pic.

For this reason, I eagerly anticipate films like Southland Tales, Kelly's follow-up to Donnie Darko. I wasn't even discouraged by all the early criticism that came flooding out of the south of France last spring. In fact, I was oddly encouraged by it - not because I expected to see anything brilliant, but because I at least knew I was going to see something.

Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, Southland Tales (or, at least this re-cut version of it) lets its Ambition get in the way of many potentially ambitious ideas that could have gone toward that end. In other words, it's maximum ambition with minimal exploration.

An uneven blend of the satirical, the apocalyptic, the dystopian, the melodramatic and the metaphysical - with a sci-fi noir plot and production design/art direction choices that suggest broad comedy or musical - Southland Tales is deliberately trying to be many things at once. And its fusion of so many elements can, at least theoretically, help serve the story as both a literal and figurative representation of our confused, paranoid, insecure, 500-channel times.

"This is how the world ends," our narrator, Private Pilot Abilene (Justin Timberlake) informs us, perched above the Southland on the coast, surveilling the various crimes, mysteries, top-secret government experiments, conspiracies and all-around intrigue that the people have to offer. We're in the wake of a brutal terrorist attack (captured via home video in the film's opening scene) that either necessitates or agitates (depending on your point of view . . . or rather, whether you're among those in control or those being controlled) an already-intrusive, hyper-sensitive, hyper-controlling, hyper-aware government.

This only leads to more surveillance, more government control, and more neo-Marxist cels popping up in and around the Los Angeles area threatening to sabotage the upcoming election and/or corporate/government mergers currently in the works.

Stuck somewhere in all this is Boxer Santaros (Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, in a standout performance), an amnesiac action-star who has gone missing. Santaros has awoken with no idea who he is and with a new porn-star girlfriend, Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar), much to the chagrin of his wife (Mandy Moore), the daughter of the leading Vice Presidential candidate.

Other characters filling various conspiratorial roles pop in and out, and it's [purposely] hard to figure out who is with whom, or why. And the narration is used only to express ideas, themes and events that Kelly otherwise cannot.

Given the scope of Kelly's vision, elements of Southland Tales display a curious lack of commitment - a perfect example of a filmmaker going for broke but not quite knowing what tone to go for or how best to present his ideas. The film doesn't really generate the out-of-control, apocalyptic feeling it's going for - it's too busy being cheeky and cute about it. Kelly refuses to play his satirical bits straight - instead, he winks, undermining their impact, making them not really satire at all.

It's a way to satirize something without really satirizing it. In a strange way, the film reminds me of some of David Lynch's worst tendencies. Instead of being many things at once, it doesn't fully work in any way. One element undermines the next, instead of putting it in a different context or enhancing it in some way.

Southland Tales has been called a "mess" by just about everyone who's reviewed it, but I can handle messiness and confusion - it's the film's inability to use its own ideas to their fullest that is most frustrating. The film is not without interest and is rarely boring, but could definitely have used more time in the conception process.

For example, perhaps deliberately and perhaps not, Kelly uses Marxism as a brand name rather than a concept - maybe that's another satirical jab, or maybe Kelly's ideas and those of his would-be revolutionaries are virtually indistinguishable.

Despite the film's problems, there are inspired ideas in the process. The Marxists' scheme to slice off thumbs in order to use their prints to rig an election. The political talk show featuring a panel of adult film stars. The leader of the rebel group's all-too-obvious alias, "Deep Throat 2." The performance from Johnson, a talented but undervalued and often-unlucky actor.

The editing and execution of one important sequence momentarily bring the film to life. In these moments we see a glimpse of what Kelly may have had in his head. But moments like that aren't quite common enough to amplify the film's intentions.

Regardless of political ideas or even filmmaking techniques, Kelly seems to be feeding off a great deal of cultural angst, which many of us can instinctively respond to - and that, more than anything, is what the film is about. That he couldn't express it with more depth or, if not clarity, precision, is unfortunate, but the ambition - and the sparks of inspiration and thought that come shining through - are worth notice at the very least.

* From Annie Hall

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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