“It had to be this way.”
American films have not been as audacious since Richard Kelly’s 2006 magnum-opus Southland Tales. In fact, very little seems even comparable to Kelly’s film, aside from Hideo Kojima’s Metal Gear Solid series of video games (particularly Metal Gear Solid 2‘s combination of political paranoia and deconstruction of the video game avatar). But while MGS2 gave users hours of time to parse through its web of convolution, Southland Tales gives less and reaches further. Watching now, twelve years later, it seems obvious that the film was doomed from the outset. Yet, now, it’s also clear how misunderstood Southland Tales was. What was perceived as a complete misfire is more a reworking of Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days as if run through Google’s deep dream algorithm and sprinkled with influence from David Lynch’s later works.
Ostensibly, Southland Tales is the story of an amnesiac Republican action-movie star (with ties to the President) and a porn actress with a popular reality television talk show, who write an over-the-top, hacky script that, incidentally, correctly prophesies the end of the world. Across several narrative threads, this story intermingles with political uprising, conspiracy, time travel, and religious allegory. But all of this seems beside the point. The narrative plays on several levels. Southland Tales is itself an absurd film, a reflection of the in-movie script, yet also the Book of Revelations (repeatedly quoted in voice-over). A literal pastiche that extends outwards to all levels of production — from Moby’s Vangelis-styled score, to the bleeding of genres (musical, comedy, sci-fi, thriller, noir, etc), to the literal construction of the film, an overwhelming combination of digital cinema, internet videos, archive footage, and CG renderings. (Here is a good moment to point out that there is a sequence where two CG trucks have sex, pipe forming into phallus and exhaust morphing into a vagina).
With this intense use of pastiche, Kelly’s world becomes a brilliant, frenzied attempt to understand our own — a complex look at cultural saturation in post-9/11 America where all sides of the political world are defined by the convergence of news and pornography. In fact, culture itself is now influenced on all levels by what some might call “low humor.” The most important proposition on an upcoming ballot is Number 69, an informant dubs themselves Deep Throat 2 (‘The Bitch is Back’), and police have been rebranded as UPU2 (Pronounced, “You Poo Too). It seems branding has become all too important as we near Revelation.
Smartly, the cast is made of actors known for their brand more than their talent (though they are all greatly talented as well) — Justin Timberlake (JT), Dwayne Johnson (The Rock), Sarah Michelle Geller (Buffy), and Seann Michael Scott (Stiffler) make up the main cast. Beyond that, the supporting roles consist of dozens of comedic actors, playing either excessively to their strengths (Amy Poehler as an anarchist improv comic) or strangely against (Jon Lovitz as a monotoned racist cop) — even Bai Ling shows up, seemingly playing a parody of her own oversaturated filmic persona.
To quote Kelly himself: “At the time that we were making Southland Tales, it was Iraq war and Britney Spears. That dichotomy on your TV screen. The branding and everything was happening. It seemed inevitable that everyone would start to co-opt branding.” It all rings eerily prescient, now that a groping reality star is in the Oval Office.
Southland Tales is impossible to fully articulate in such little space — I haven’t even touched on its strange artificiality or science fiction elements — but part of its wonder is how it seems to reach past itself into the unknown. The film itself is only three parts of the whole story. The other three exist as prequel graphic novels — I’ve never read them, and I’d be hesitant to do so for fear or disrupting the wavelength of Kelly’s bizarro masterpiece.
“I’m a pimp. And pimps don’t commit suicide.”
dir. Richard Kelly
Screens Saturday, 3/10 at 7:00 pm @ Harvard Film Archive. Part of the ongoing series: Caught in the Net. The Early Internet in the Paranoid Imagination.