Every once and a while, an American film surfaces from nowhere and captures the complete aura of that time in our society. In the 50s, it can easily be pointed at a film called Rebel without a Cause in which James Dean and his red wind jacket became the symbol of teenagers everywhere who felt smothered by their parents’ old-fashioned norms. The outcome of this rebellious nature can be seen in the 60s, when Bonnie and Clyde showed us the fearlessness in expressing one’s self and The Graduate showed us that the next generation feels just as much smothered as the previous – and by those who share the same feelings of entrapment. That’s when Easy Rider came along and spoke volumes. Throughout the next many years we had such products of their time as ranging from social commentaries like The French Connection and Cruising to teen-spirit pictures such as The Breakfast Club and Clueless. Now that we have exited the aught-period, we have yet to really name off the film that captured what our society was like. Some would say The Social Network which, yes, I guess it captures our current technological socializing. But following the events of September 11, 2001 and leading up to the high-level possibility of terrorism and the high-speed upgrading of technology and in-your-face consumerism, I can’t think of a better film to capture our chaotic and fear-filled mindset of the past ten years better than Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales.
Say what? Yeah, I know. It’s a film about starring “The Rock” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and was met with scorn by the audiences at the Cannes Film Festival. Follow that up with a wave of spiteful reviews (although a very small ounce of high positives) from mainstream critics. Let’s also add onto the fire with the fact that the film flopped miserably at the box office. To put it simply, things were looking absolutely terrible for director Kelly after coming off his high-wave of praise and cult status for his directorial debut Donnie Darko five years prior. It’s frequently intriguing looking at how the reception of Southland Tales seems to almost always be very high on the positive side or very low on the negative. In a way, it has found its own cult following of a different vein compared to Kelly’s first film. It’s unheard of, but Kelly kind of achieved it. Twice. In a row.
Southland Tales’ blatant originality is composed of how it so dutifully blends so many genres and themes together while balancing morals, twists, turns, and confusions into a seizure of the bizarre. It makes sense why it managed to spin around so many heads on a virginal viewing, just as much as it makes it quite difficult for many to finish watching it. The thing is, though, throughout all this clutter and debris of seeming randomness, everything does, in fact, fall together in the end; only it all comes together with multiple viewings and slowly piecing together every strand of its myriad of plot points. When you grasp onto Kelly’s labyrinth of intentions, Southland Tales not only makes sense all the way through – it also becomes much a film much easier to watch. Not to mention, more enjoyable.
When it comes to atmosphere and mood, Southland Tales is thoroughly off-kilter compared to Kelly’s Donnie Darko, as wello as any kind of mainstream American film in recent memory. The only thing the picture comes close to recalling is Jean-Luc Godard, which Southland Tales proudly shares its marriage of sound and visuals alongside political and social commentary with. However Godardian it may be, however, it still grasps onto its own feeling and its own taste of atmosphere. Nothing comes close to sharing the film‘s palette of style, not even Kelly’s first film.
Not to say Donnie Darko didn’t hold onto moods of its own, as it did through coming-of-age drama mixed with spots of humor, science fiction, fantasy, and horror. And it really is a great film, and very accessible as its status now proves. Southland Tales is its own breed, though. A full-blown satirical melodrama fueled with both campy and sitcom-like dialogue. It’s also got an unconventionally eyebrow-raising cast seeming chosen at random as well as a self-aware and sometimes sexually perverse sense of humor and a chill-inducing attention to the structure of musical sequences. By breathing this out in a futuristic setting that is as dark and sinister as the very best utopias in science fiction and you have a collection of various subplots and characters crashing together to bring you a quirky version of how American arrived to its post-9/11 existence.
With the jagged edge of a tongue-in-cheek blade, Kelly clashes and contrasts an assortment of different emotions and responses thereof. Southland Tales uses all it can to give off the messages it feels important to tell and does so by projecting it all in any way it can; whether it being of a political, scientific, philosophical or even spiritual kind. Kelly interestingly casts his characters with actors who seem to play patterns based off their actual celebrity images. They never take their parts seriously and are always seemingly aware that they should not be taking the proceedings as anything but on a level of humor. So, we have an action movie star being played by an action movie star and he does it with an incredibly goofy level of slapstick and emotional humor. Such humor is ever present in the film, even if sometimes unbelievably quirky and strange, but the bottom of many scenes throughout the film is of a darker and twisted variety. Seeing how Kelly has this all leak from the pores of such well-constructed comedy helps bring forth that queasy feeling that Southland Tales creates. Why aren’t these characters treating their state of being seriously? Then again, why isn’t our society treating our country’s state of mind seriously?
Pick any scene or moment from the film and you can embrace and laugh at its humor all while embracing the undercurrent of heartbreak and drama that exists at its very core. The best example of Kelly’s canvas is the infamous musical sequence toward the end of the second act of the picture. Justin Timberlake’s character, a man who watches for violence on the streets of Los Angeles with a gun in hand, has been assigned to this government-forced job after being injured during friendly fire in the Iraq war. Due to these chain of events, the character, whose name is Pilot, no longer exists as the well-known actor and singer that he once was before the draft. Pilot spends his life watching the beaches and streets of the city by day while dealing the film’s fictional Fluid Karma drug by night. After taking some of the drug, Pilot enters into a dream state and finds himself in a world that bleeds together his multiple emotional fears and regrets.
This scene could have been constructed a number of ways using the templates of many old-fashioned layouts of dream and nightmare sequences, but Kelly goes beyond that and dishes out his own recipe. This three-minute fantasy sequences shows Pilot wearing a blood-stained shirt and drinking a beer, lip-syncing “All These Things That I’ve Done” by The Killers while looking directly into the camera at the audience. The way Kelly layers this moment with American iconography with reminders of war ranging from the aforementioned blood-stained shirt, the various American flags planted in the background, and the Marilyn Monroe-centric back-up dancers wearing nurse uniforms. The political and social evaluating is literally bleeding on the screen, and the way it all connects to the character of Pilot is on an equal level of genius. Kelly casting the real actor/singer Justin Timberlake in the role of a character who lip-syncs another artist’s song? Symbolically, this stroke of brilliance helps illustrate how the character has been robbed of his own voice both as a has-been celebrity and as a has-been American soldier. This is the very kind of layering that goes on throughout the entire film as Kelly reminds us over and over again about our very culture.
This layering that Kelly fuels his film on is what makes the overall depth of the film have its own spunk, as well. On the surface, Kelly likes to insert artistic homage and nods to multiple arts that he has personally responded to. Many examples include the film’s use of music – which ranges from contemporary rock to bubblegum pop to an original score by Moby that is beautiful in its melancholy. Kelly also pays complete tribute to the cinema by reconstructing multiple moments from the classic film noir Kiss Me Deadly, as well as the dreamlike mystique that lives in David Lynch’s masterpiece Mulholland Drive. A scene in which an important character falls into a dumpster filled with movie posters is another highlight of this voyeur viewpoint. By basing the film‘s main apocalyptic plot on the Christian book of Revelation, each character ties into a parabolic story that helps bring the film home in arriving at its spiritual place. It’s a beautiful way for Kelly to ask for society’s eyes to open and ditch its denial that everything will eventually come to an end.
Southland Tales is a very colorful assembly of many things that spill from the mind of someone as cryptic and hyperactive as Richard Kelly. When I first watched the film, I felt as most of the critics who reviewed the film upon its original release. I was confused by what I saw and I grew incredibly angry at it as well. Hell, I would even add that I was quite bored with it and felt cheated because nothing made a lick of sense. In short, I fucking hated it with a passion. On a second viewing, though, I began to feel there was something there – and on the many viewing following that, I started to slowly pull it all together and it all became clear to me. With his beautiful attention to his own ambition and his showcase for social commentary, Kelly crafted a film that miraculously manages to both tickle your funny bones and still move you to tears. It’s the defining film of our generation, no matter how much you hate it.
Interesting film but I did not see too much of Godard in it.
Yeah, it’s not a Godard film in the sense that it could be something he had made – but it’s definitely Godardian in Kelly’s approach to the material.