America Is Watching
Damon Smith on Southland Tales and The Parallax View

“The pure products of America/go crazy”—William Carlos Williams

Paranoia has been out of fashion in the movies since the 1970s. After Oliver Stone’s JFK, the last serious Hollywood-style entry of the post-Kennedy era to posit a hinky what-if conspiratorial scenario, Richard Donner’s execrable Conspiracy Theory, featuring a wild-eyed, motor-mouthed Mel Gibson, demonstrated how marginalized and discredited such tortuously convoluted mindsets had become to the mainstream. In the late ’90s, the American empire was flourishing, and world conflict seemed distant. The X-Files movie, created by Paranoiac-in-Chief Chris Carter, was more an homage to TV’s favorite paranormal investigators Mulder and Scully than it was an attempt to version reality; it was character-based rather than event-driven. But the tragedy of 9/11 roiled all the old fears about government deception, and the culture industry set about its work: Jonathan Demme remade The Manchurian Candidate, AMC created the series Rubicon, modeled after the classic paranoid thrillers, and the Truth Movement gained a foothold, thanks to the Internet-distributed documentary Loose Change. This film, a farrago of irresponsible, sensationalized conjecture, stoked the imagination of those primed to believe that the Bush administration had either orchestrated the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center towers, or had allowed the hijackers to implement mass murder in accordance with a neo-conservative ideology hatched under the aegis of William Kristol and Robert Kagan’s Project for the New American Century. Theories like these proved that the will to believe anything was still a feature of American public discourse and its politically disenfranchised classes.

By late 2007, as critics dutifully compiled their year-end best-of lists, one film in particular seemed to be vying with Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood (an allegory of capitalism-as-madness) for the grand prize of over-the-top, deranged masterpiece: Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales, an independently financed, studio-distributed amalgam of Biblical and pop-cultural prophesying spiked with a heady dose of security-state paranoia. Unlike films of the earlier era—Executive Action and Marathon Man, The Conversation and Three Days of the Condor—or present-day thrillers which sought to explain world events in terms of secret political or corporate rationales (Michael Clayton’s tagline: “The truth can be adjusted”), Kelly’s logic-defying Southland Tales was a baffling exercise in futuristic, sci-fi apocalyptica that appears to have burst like a loose, baggy monster from the director’s adolescent id.

The story, like the film itself, is incredibly knotted and nearly impossible to summarize. It doesn’t help that the movie begins with an atomic bomb exploding on the Fourth of July 2008 in Abilene, Texas, and the onset of World War III in the Axis of Evil nations, information conveyed to us by a narrator, Pilot Abilene (Justin Timberlake), who happens to be a badly disfigured Iraq War veteran and drug addict. From there, we enter the world of an amnesiac, Republican Party–connected action-movie star, Boxer Santaros (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson), who, after vanishing in the Nevada desert for several days, returns believing he is Jericho Kane, a fictional character from a screenplay he’s co-written with celebrity porn star and talk-show host Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar) about the end of the world. The reasons for his disappearance have to do with the machinations of an evil baron (Wallace Shawn), a troupe of culture-jamming neo-Marxist renegades, the advent of new government program USIdent, and the tortured recollections of L.A. police officer and Fallujah survivor (Seann William Scott). Got all that?

Despite the lampooning of celebrity culture and political chicanery, militarism in video-game iconography and our millennial appetite for destruction, Kelly’s pop-sick idyll seems to belong more to the era of self-consciously bloated, puerile sci-fi entertainment—the eighties—than it does to the decade of the War on Terror. Following George Lucas’s simplistic binarisms (good/evil, black/white, rebel/Empire), Kelly creates cartoon versions of political factions on the loony left and the hardline right without honestly engaging the ideologies of either one. His invocation of every conceivable 21st-century anxiety (nukes, enviro calamity, fuel depletion, war and terror, mad science, government/corporate collusion) raises the stakes, perhaps, in the minds of some generous viewers willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. But ultimately, Kelly’s febrile stew of sociocultural hooey, entertaining at times in its ambitious ineptitude but lacking any real discernible critical attitude, is as serious as a bag of buttered popcorn. The film’s naiveté extends to its far-fetched assumptions about the nature of power (conspiratorial, top-down, quasi-Dickian) and its lack of faith in almost any mode of representation except idiot-grade eccentricity. It isn’t so much that Tales explodes distinctions between genres or messes with audience expectation by shifting suddenly from one tonal extreme to the next. It does something much more suspect: it devours the pulp-pop sensibility of an earlier era and regurgitates it in the hopes that it will register as dead-serious satirical art. (The 1980 “remake” of Flash Gordon—an objectively terrible kiddie musical in which a football hero must save Earth from a dastardly villain on planet Mongo while Queen anthems rock the screen—is closest to the antic spirit of Southland Tales and its utterly bonkers story architecture.) In the sense that it has no audience, imagined or otherwise (the film was famously booed at Cannes, then trimmed and reworked for its cricket-chirping U.S. release, when sci-fi nuts, cool hunters, and Timberlake fans alike kept a leprous distance), Tales is truly indie.

So how does an unwieldy mess of provocative but politically neutered ideas like Southland Tales, which shares some DNA with noirish thrillers of the Nuclear Age (Kelly explicitly references Kiss Me Deadly and The Manchurian Candidate) as well as eighties cult films (Repo Man, Brazil), stack up against a studio product that arrived in theaters in the downbeat decade between these periods? Alan J. Pakula’s The Parallax View speaks in a colder language to its own time, from within a darker, more cynical worldview than Kelly’s apocalypse-culture by-product. While Southland Tales re-imagined the (future) present as an ever-collapsing plane of alternate realities and half-baked systems of thought folding continuously in on itself like an origami universe, The Parallax View re-visions American history and electoral politics in a classically paranoid register, demolishing the notion of political agency as a naive fantasy. Talk about cynical! Where Kelly’s comic-book fantasy cum death trip is maximalist, tongue-in-cheek, and hyperbolically “paratactic,” to borrow a turn of phrase from cultural-studies guru Steven Shaviro, Pakula’s The Parallax View fosters a quiet sense of foreboding with its emphasis on long, dialogue-free scenes and an elegantly impersonal, Antonioni-like attention to the claustrophobia of geometric space.

Returning to the screen after a two-year absence (which he spent campaigning for George McGovern), Warren Beatty plays Joe Frady, a raffish local newspaper reporter who is present the day popular Senator Charles Carroll (Willian Joyce) is assassinated during a crowded fundraising event at Seattle’s Space Needle tower. Three years later, after a Warren Commission–style investigation determines the man acted alone, Frady is paid an anxious visit by his ex-girlfriend, Lee Carter (Paula Prentiss), who believes someone is trying to murder her and everyone else who witnessed the Carroll killing. When she turns up dead like several others, with the coroner ruling suicide, Frady confides his growing suspicions to editor Bill Rintels (Hume Cronyn) and heads out of the city to investigate a lead. Eventually targeted himself by a small-town sheriff (Kelly Thordsen), Frady uncovers the existence of the Parallax Corporation, a shadowy entity in the business of hiring outcasts to work as high-dollar assassins, and decides to apply to the program himself in order to determine who their clients might be.

The post-Watergate conspiracy thriller par excellence, Pakula’s 1974 film was released at the height of the American public’s distrust in elected officials, when questions about the aims of the Vietnam War led to a sense of collective unease about our own national identity. The Pentagon Papers were released in 1971, revealing a trail of lies and historical distortions that spanned two administrations; Nixon had been embroiled in controversy for over a year when the film hit theaters in June, and resigned in disgrace over the Watergate cover-up eight weeks later. Riding this wave of popular skepticism and disillusionment, The Parallax View was an unexpected box-office success: its dark paranoid reality must have seemed not only plausible at the time, but true to form in a general sense. Even the film’s acerbic tagline—“As American as apple pie”—suggested a curdled patriotism. (By contrast, to illustrate how much the national mood had shifted in the previous decade, John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate—a film about political assassination, mind control, and a Communist scheme to install a puppet leader in the U.S. Senate, now hailed as a classic—failed to interest ticket buyers in 1962, a year before the Kennedy assassination.)

Given the disparity in their aims and accomplishments, it wouldn’t be fair or fruitful to compare Southland Tales to The Parallax View, at least not in terms of technical artistry (Gordon Willis, aka The Prince of Darkness, easily leapfrogs DP Steven Poster, if only for his exquisite long-shot compositions, which isolate individuals amid forbidding interiors, or the masterful way he photographs the last encounter between Beatty and Prentiss through diaphanous hotel-room curtains using available light). As for screenwriting, Pakula worked on the fly without a finished script, and his film has hardly any memorable dialogue apart from ominous lines spoken to Frady by a creepy Parallax recruiter (“We’re prepared to offer you the most lucrative and rewarding work of your life”). Originated as a graphic-novel cycle, Kelly’s film is full of art-slang catchphrases—“Pimps don’t commit suicide”—that sound portentous but are empty of signification. Pakula’s film has a merciless and methodical rationality, moreover, that contrasts sharply with Kelly’s wildly Romantic yearnings. If Southland Tales is the cinematic equivalent of a mopey emo kid lightly cutting himself in the basement of his parents’ house while contemplating the end of everything, The Parallax View is an unhappily married couple coming to terms with their failed relationship, parsing the circumstances that have enabled them to live in utterly alien realities.

Consider how each handles a dreamlike, midfilm showcase sequence, the sole point of convergence between their dystopic visions of America. In Southland Tales, Timberlake’s Pilot Abilene is both omniscient narrator—reading bits from the Book of Revelation, as well as the poetry of Robert Frost and T.S. Eliot—and an on-screen character seen mostly in a machine-gun-mounted turret overlooking Venice Beach. Presumably, he is part of the Republican-backed USIdent effort to establish martial law in the wake of the nuke attacks that have drawn the country into war with Axis of Evil nations, remaining vigilant to nefarious activity by foreign terror groups and homegrown, loony-left cells alike. To further complicate his role, Abilene is also an illegal dealer and recreational user of “fluid karma,” an alternative energy under development at an offshore rig by Wallace Shawn’s evil, ludic Baron von Westphalen, a political agnostic (read: Antichrist) who seeks world domination. When injected in the neck, fluid karma has hallucinogenic effects, and Abilene—one of the Baron’s guinea pigs during the new fuel/drug’s illicit test phase—is an addict. In a key scene (the only time he appears outside his beach-side gunner’s post), Pilot Abilene meets an anxious kid named Martin Kefauver (Lou Pucci), who wants to exchange some grass for fluid karma. Abilene obliges, then self-medicates via syringe and drops to the floor in a narcotic stupor, setting up an extended musical dream sequence choreographed Busby Berkeley–style to the Killers’ “All These Things I’ve Done.” Playing up his real-life reputation as a pop icon, Timberlake struts toward the camera with a dope-groggy grin and lip-synchs “I’ve got soul/but I’m not a soldier,” draining a can of Budweiser (in the world of the film, one of the Iraq war’s official sponsors) while leggy line dancers in peroxide-white wigs and short-skirted porno-grade nursing uniforms ogle him lustily. It’s an extra-narrative extravagance seemingly slotted in for its own sake, simply because someone thought of it (“Let’s cut to a music video!”). Ironically, it may be the only scene in the entire film to have enjoyed a life outside the doomed zeppelin of Southland’s box-office run, on YouTube.

In The Parallax View, which has a similar scene-to-scene discontinuity, achieved through canny elliptical editing, Frady’s intrepid detective work leads him to the doorstep of the anonymous namesake corporation. After Frady vets a Parallax psychological test through a scientist friend (Anthony Zerbe) who tells him the goal of the exam is to identify sociopaths, he applies under an alias and is visited by a company rep (Walter McGinn) who observes Frady’s explosive moodiness (he whips a coffee pot across the room in feigned frustration) with coldly delighted interest, saying “We can use someone like you.” At the Parallax Corporation’s Division of Human Engineering, Frady is seated in a screening-room chair equipped with sensors and told by a control-room voice to simply observe the “visual materials.” A montage sequence begins, intercutting the words “LOVE,” “MOM,” “GOD,” “HAPPINESS,” “FREEDOM,” and “ME” with bland homespun images of a father and son, an elderly couple, babies, baseball players, pies, churches, and rural farmhouses, accompanied by a soothing ’70s soft-rock theme. The word “COUNTRY” is paired with glimpses of Mount Rushmore and the Statue of Liberty, the word “ENEMY” with stills of Castro, Mao, and Hitler. As the music shifts to a more dissonant register, the images arrive faster and have an uglier, more harrowing aspect (lynchings, prison cells, muddy-faced children, riot scenes, bodies), leading to disturbing juxtapositions and presumably confused emotional reactions on the part of the viewer, who is invited to identify with comic-book avenger Thor. Since we see it all through Frady’s eyes — there are no cutaways or reaction shots during the entire six-minute sequence — the experience has the flavor of a bad acid trip, speaking to the ways American ideologies can be twisted into revenge fantasy by pathology. Or more to the point of the scene within Pakula’s film, deployed as such by mind-control experts.

Although Southland Tales and The Parallax View both deal squarely with American mythology from somewhat similar vantage points—channeling anxieties over turbulent events and sinister revelations of duplicity and corruption at the highest levels of government into nightmare scenarios, some extrapolated from real life and others purely imagined—their methods are incongruous. The Parallax View is a closed circuit of inexorable fatalism: the film begins and ends with political assassinations. The last scene reprises the prologue, in which an official committee (their faces eerily illumined by Willis against a field of shadow as they deliver their inevitable findings) determines no evidence of a conspiracy. The system is rigged, in other words. You may know the truth, but what are you going to do about it? How, more importantly, are you going to prove it? (Pakula’s next film, All the President’s Men, though mired in the same air of paranoia, addressed these questions with a healthier degree of optimism.) Southland Tales ends, as the narrator has promised all along, with a bang, inside a levitating ice-cream truck where Officer Roland Taverner attempts to mend a rift in the space-time continuum with his spiritual double (both played by Seann William Scott). Or something. Suffice to say it requires a leap of faith.

Plenty of professional reviewers have called out Southland Tales as a bloated, brooding, half-cocked surfer-dude fantasy that addresses various cultural paradoxes (the ubiquity of religion and porn, for instance) and looming systemic crises (world war, resource scarcity, the ascendance of a fascistic state) with feverish, faux-intellectual lunacy—but it’s precisely on these terms that it’s also been celebrated as surreal satire by a clutch of admirers. But if it were possible to disentangle Kelly’s ludicrous, why-we-are-all-fucked-and-headed-for-oblivion teleology from the self-indulgent, quasi-religious elements of his paranoid pastiche, it wouldn’t need such lonely defenders. Furthermore, with its sprawling, hardly intelligible mashup of genre codes, aimless plotlines, and pop-culture balderdash (everything from Fox News to Saturday Night Live sketches seem to have inspired its creators), Kelly’s $17 million indie whatchamacallit demolishes any possible political reading it might have earned in the estimable summations of senior critics Manohla Dargis (“its ambition and pleasures remain undiminished”) and J. Hoberman (“there hasn’t been anything comparable in American movies since Mulholland Drive”), who seemed weirdly impressed that an incoherent film could reflect its moment without, somehow, reflecting coherently on it. Perhaps this is what Fredric Jameson meant, in his grand analysis of the cultural logic of late capitalism, when he likened the postmodern era’s most salient artistic strategy—parody without substance—to “a statue with blind eyes.” If the choice today is between aestheticized blindness and the “parallax view” (how the nature of an object changes in relation to the angle at which it is observed), there really can be no contest. It isn’t enough to be naively sincere. Paranoia makes us a little more honest.