By Michael Koresky
Dir. Richard Kelly, U.S., Samuel Goldwyn Films/Sony
These days, films maudits can be recouped as misunderstood masterpieces within the span of about five days. The indieWIRE news briefings and blog posts reporting the boos and hisses at their initial festival screenings are summarily followed, about seven or so days later, by (relatively) more considered think pieces, from those reliable festival pros who counter the bad buzz and dare to speak the truth. Word spreads so fast that all these reactions get processed together into one mealy critical mash, and the actual movie gets lost. For general audiences, the proof will always be in the pudding (when the film comes out, they’ll either like it or hate it, divisive critical community be damned); for cinephiles, these fought-over films become locuses of redemptive self-actualization, as with The New World, or cults in the making.
This latter category is the more dubious—and self-defeating—as one can’t create a cult movie from scratch. As the word implies, taste for the film has to be cultivated, whispered about, passed around, before it’s designated as some sort of lost, grand entertainment. Likewise, a successful, or even watchable, cult movie cannot be made with the intention of being such—the level of self-consciousness in its form would falsify and negate all of its traits and intentions. And those signifying cult markers would cancel themselves out: direction too predicated on calculated idiosyncrasy, performance boxed into certain stylistic parameters. Woe to the filmmaker who starts to believe his own cult.
Which, of course, brings us to Richard Kelly, whose Southland Tales was reviled and then instantly reclaimed at Cannes 2006, and whose debut, Donnie Darko, was one of the few genuine cult film success stories of the aughts. After a promising Sundance premiere, it was released to stunning public indifference in October 2001, even in New York City, where it opened and closed in mere weeks. But once downtown Manhattan’s little-cinema-that-could, the Two Boots Pioneer Theater, began to re-establish Kelly’s film as a midnight movie, word of mouth grew; even after Darko came to home video, screenings would sell out consistently, and the film played for well over a year. Darko was a communal experience contrived by a generation disinterested in Rocky Horror’s performative histrionics, sure, but, despite its calculated sentiment and muddled science-cum-spirituality, it was the real deal. And though this sounds like the most withering of clichés now, I can verify that much of the film’s embrace came out of how it played to an audience of wary twentysomething New Yorkers still reeling from the trauma of 9/11. Its lack of blatant Hollywood narrative pandering, tied in with its reliable 1980s nostalgia, and its central image of a plane engine falling from the sky (and effectively “ending the world”) made it something like catnip for us; it seemed different, yet also reassuring in its period markers and clear-cut morality. And our experience was concurred by smart critics in the pages of Film Comment, the Village Voice, and elsewhere, appreciated as, variously, a commentary on 80s conservatism in America, a Gilliam-esque time travel thrill-ride, a showcase for star-is-born Jake Gyllenhaal, an emotional condemnation of overmedicated kids, or a classical teenage rebel yell in a decade that had seen youth cinema go the way of Starbucks.
The truth about Darko is that its backbreaking narrative convolutions mask not much of anything; it’s all about the act of trying to piece together the puzzle, and get into Kelly’s headspace, which is aligned with Donnie himself. Darko might not add up (I’ve seen it quite a few times and tried to make complete sense of its time-travel scenario, and each time have ended up less than convinced), but its textures are immensely pleasurable. Darko probably wouldn’t have become as big a deal if not for its metallic skeleton-bunny mask, its Abyss-cribbed portal effects, its Tears for Fears/Echo and the Bunnymen-decked soundtrack, its unmotivated musical digressions. Kelly, first time out, gave his “little indie” a glistening, professional sheen, and all of the sociopolitical/generic/symbolic ideas projected onto it seemed almost beside the point.
The feeling that he truly tapped into the zeitgeist (that elusive thing that doesn’t exist until someone claims it’s there) must have put up a series of creative roadblocks for Richard Kelly, and understandably so. The term “sophomore slump” doesn’t even begin to describe the catastrophic lengths Kelly goes to prove himself (to himself and his hopefully loyal fans) with Southland Tales. Neither utterly disingenuous nor completely honest in its political aims, it falls somewhere in the lukewarm middle. Southland Tales may be closer to the disaster its noisy Cannes detractors had so fervently hissed about back in 2006 (in a slightly longer cut than is appearing now in U.S. theaters) than the hellzapoppin American crassterpiece that J. Hoberman and Amy Taubin have been championing since day two—yet neither response gets us anywhere with a film as wide-ranging, confused, and infantile as Southland Tales, which deserves a little more parsing out. Southland isn’t trenchant or amusing in its unrelenting cynicism, and as a take on the apocalypse-as-American circus it doesn’t veer too far conceptually from Mike Judge’s recent studio-buried Idiocracy, albeit blinded by belief in its own import. The film seems to embrace itself as a clever commentary on everything from partisan politics to global warming to star texts, and this is where it goes from charmlessly abnormal to downright irritating.
If Southland’s smugness doesn’t get to you, then its barriers of built-in self-protection should. The film is designed so that any of the obvious critical grenades one can lob at it can be deflected with the force of a fly swatter: try “scattershot,” “messy,” “inelegant,” “politically confused” and its defenders will follow the Richard Kelly line, that it’s supposed to be that way (its idiocies and logic lapses are safeguarded by the fact that all its characters are idiots or amnesiacs), and what better way to deal with the “current moment” than to stab out in all directions, using a host of multimedia techniques, juggled genres, tonal inconsistencies, etc.? Yet Kelly can’t harness all of these approaches: it’s an actual mishmash disguised as an intended mishmash, lacking not in narrative coherence so much as a verifiable ideology. Comparisons to Thomas Pynchon and Kurt Vonnegut only make the mousiness of Southland all the more evident: it’s the filmic equivalent of the diary doodling of a high-school daydreamer who just read Cat’s Cradle for the first time. This United States, following nuclear attacks on Texas, is a fantasia of juvenility, where porn actresses are political pundits (Sarah Michelle Gellar as Krysta Now) and muscle-bound movie stars actually do try to save the day (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as Boxer Santaros) when the country is divided between doofy leftist radicals (mostly played by various Saturday Night Live alumni) and civil liberty-hampering right-wingers.
The fact that Kelly simply sets up this allegedly recognizable, not-too-distant future seems to be all Southland’s defenders need: yet what is it really saying about our political moment when Buffy, the Rock, and Justin Timberlake (as the film’s scarified narrator and Iraqi war veteran, named Abilene, like the dead Texas town) are let loose inside this crazy movie contraption? Metatextual wankery and basic points about degenerative MTV culture aside, not much. After its Starship Troopers-like opening, in which various digitized windows open to narrative compartments, betraying a very generalized “we’re living in a state of information overload” that’s been the territory of sci-fi novelists since the first hint of the microchip, Southland Tales doesn’t do much with its form, either as political rabble-rouser or sci-fi epic.
That Kelly purports Southland to be an interactive, multimedia experience (the graphic novel and website branches of the Southland enterprise, as envisioned by Kelly, exist as false symbols of its contemporary expanse) speaks to the disconnect between the director and his audience. In reality the film is entirely self-sufficient, satisfied in its own form and invention, and its audience only exists to be impressed by its assumed daring stance as a counter-culture inside job. A Kiss Me Deadly reference (actually it’s not a reference so much as a literal appearance) flatters the film lovers, while the psychoactive drug “fluid karma” evokes fond memories of Philip K. Dick for those with literary pedigrees. Yet for all his ambition, Kelly doesn’t know how to make his bits and pieces come together in any meaningful way or to give us a reason to care, leaving threads dangling and audience and actors equally stranded. Many members of the cast reportedly were confused during shooting, yet had faith that Kelly could make sense of it in the editing room—and this is obvious judging by the desperate maneuvers of Johnson, Seann William Scott, and Gellar, reduced, respectively, to cartoonish ticks, dour vacancy, and bimbo buffoonery.
If Southland Tales is indeed reflective of “these times of ours,” with its doomsday rhetoric and heightened pop culture grotesquerie, then it’s simply part of the problem, replacing a possible space for conversation with more cheap bombast (disguised as self-critique). In a film full of bad jokes (intentional and otherwise), the worst is its central narrative device of the “Neo-Marxists,” a group of underground radical leftists sprung up after the nuclear detonation to form an opposition against the evil corporate-conservative catch-all US-Ident, a byproduct of the Patriot Act (run by Miranda Richardson, channeling Fu Manchu). In painting the Neo-Marxists as borderline prat-falling incompetents, Kelly makes a bid for that most increasingly boring movement in comic irony: equal opportunity offense. Southland views political radicalism with the same goofball incredulity as it does the corporate-backed German scientists who harness the natural power of the ocean’s currents for an alternative fuel source. The fact that Kelly shows no interest in the history, politics, or even the legacy of Marxist thought in his portrait of the Neo-Marxists is meant, I suppose, to define the group as wayward and thoughtless, removed from reality and true idealism; yet peopled as they are by sketch comedy actors like Amy Poehler, Cheri Oteri, and Nora Dunn, the satire seems way off, juvenile and nonprogressive. Kelly’s certainly not a deft joke-teller, and Southland is riddled with misfired comedy set pieces and punch lines that don’t hit; his aspirations toward political commentary are all tied up with his propensity for comic detachment. The result is airless, toothless satire, not brave, just madcap.
Did Kelly feel driven to make Southland Tales because he truly had to get these ideas out there, or because he needed to make good on the promise of his first feature? Film history is packed to the gills with sophomore efforts crushed by their makers’ outsized ambitions, and Southland sticks to the template. Kelly’s narrative comes across as less genuinely nutball than calculated and show-offy. There’s no poignancy in watching his stranded cast try to navigate this material; they don’t even make for compelling stick figures. The critical community deeply desires, even needs, a visionary, especially in American cinema, which has been going through a very long, very rough patch. Simultaneously, Kelly seems to see himself as a visionary, pushing to both go beyond what he accomplished in Donnie Darko, in terms of scale (in American cinema, size is your marker of accomplishment), and also to leave enough auteurist breadcrumbs for viewers to pick up on: as in his first film, we have a tear in the space-time continuum, near biblical end-of-days prophesizing, and interjected musical numbers.
Yet it’s this latter, oft-cited example of Kelly’s devil-may-care ingenuity, that most calls into question his “visionary” cinema. Justin Timberlake’s Abilene shoots up a little fluid karma and then enters into a fogged, trippy singalong to a truncated version of the Killers’ “All These Things That I’ve Done,” elaborately choreographed with lines of chorus girls kicklining in a pinball arcade. Kelly has said he used the song for no greater reason than that he loves it (and its references to soldiers, I guess), and it’s difficult not to see shades of the Kenny Rogers-scored number from The Big Lebowski, a favorite film of Kelly’s, in its bowl-o-rama setting and Busby Berkeley-esque uniformity. The sequence momentarily clarifies the look-at-me frat-boy antics that trump the film’s half-hearted political address. The ultimate cult film of the past decade, yes, but also the pothead film of choice that loses its luster with each passing toke, The Big Lebowski seems a proper point of reference for Kelly, especially when accompanied by the music of a Vegas band that’s the final word on posturing and preening. The resulting digression isn’t particularly artful or invigorating, just a burst of self-serving invention. Let’s just call it something for the cult.