I Can’t Make You Love Me
Michael Koresky Revisits Southland Tales
If I’ve learned anything from the last 15 or so years of social media–degenerated film criticism, it’s that it’s a waste of time fretting over differences of opinion. It matters little to me that Roger Ebert once called Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man “a strange, slow, unrewarding movie that provides us with more time to think about its meaning than with meaning.” (I think this very rewarding film’s meaning is what we bring to it, making these hardly exclusive concepts.) Or that Pauline Kael once wrote, “The tragedy in Scorsese’s struggles with the material in both New York, New York and Raging Bull is that he is a great director when he doesn’t press so hard at it, when he doesn’t suffer so much. He’s got moviemaking and the Church mixed up together; he’s trying to be the saint of cinema.” (I don’t think he’s trying to be anything, and the effort he expended on those two films pays wild emotional and aesthetic dividends.) Manny Farber and I do not share the same opinion of The Third Man, although his unforgettably harsh critique of this film, “over-elaborated to the point of being a monsterpiece,” is fascinating and crucial to me for the way it reveals the historical persistence of a certain brand of cinephile—of which I am one, likely—resistant to trend-setting virtuosity. How Farber felt in 1949 about The Third Man’s “pretentious camera, motorless design, self-conscious involvement with balloon hawker, porter, belly dancer tramp” could be similar to how I felt about, say, Fight Club upon release, a film whose intestinal, insistent design is frequently regarded as “classic.”
I bring up these reviews because they’re but a small sample that have been lodged in my brain, crouching like goblins, throughout much of my cinephile existence. There’s the cliché of a critic’s life being a solitary, even lonely one, spent ruining our eyes in the dark, but for many of us it’s disconcertingly social. In addition to the communities of like-minded folks that critics tend to build up, we cannot help but notice, read, and wring hands over other critics’ writing. Some of us may pretend to be bold iconoclasts, but we more likely wish to be part of an impenetrable phalanx fearlessly and fiercely defending our cultural territory. It’s no wonder that a field of interest (I can no longer call it a profession) so obsessed with consensus—whether throwing one’s weight against it or joining in the chorus—was destined to be destroyed by the fetid stench of the “Tomatometer.” Just like Twitter and Facebook were brilliantly engineered to exploit human insecurity and loneliness, Rotten Tomatoes has all but replaced criticism because, like a poltergeist, it knows what scares you: the feeling that maybe, just maybe, you’re not part of the crowd.
Any true critic knows, of course, there is no wrong and there is no right. This doesn’t stop us from writing as though these poles exist. The anxiety of influence is real for a critic: no matter how confident we may be in our opinions and discursive and fair in our aims, we are, like those in any other field, not immune from the methodological skepticism our peers sow in us. The act of criticism is creative and, when done right, artistically fulfilling for the writer and the reader, but it’s also essentially interpretive, and thus open to all manner of personal blind spots, misreadings, mood swings, and environmental circumstance. This is why films are worth revisiting and opinions are worth revising, if you’re so inclined. (Kael’s admittance that she never saw—never had to see—a movie more than once before forming her in-depth reviews has always struck me as little more than the wink of a prankster.) Because other writers’ reviews remain such an unavoidable part of my internal landscape, especially from my younger days as a more voracious reader of criticism, I often have a difficult time maintaining the kind of pure, personal response to a film I might prize. I restrict myself from reading anyone else’s writing on a particular movie before I pen my own review, but in the rearview mirror, I nevertheless balance my thoughts in relation to others’, wondering what they or I saw or didn’t see. As much as I would like to maintain a monolithic attitude about writing and opinion-making, it’s seductive to justify one’s taste by pointing to other respected voices who might have fallen in the same camp. Anxiety—of being misunderstood, mistaken, or misguided—is a powerful motivator in critical writing.
In 2007, I wrote about Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales for this publication, and while I have remained steadfast in the distaste and annoyance expressed in that review in the intervening 16 years, I’ve had nagging doubts about it ever since. This has nothing to do with my memories of the experience of watching it, but rather the still vibrant ardor Kelly’s film triggered from a select group of critics for whom I have nothing but admiration. Amy Taubin, long a model for me for the way she swiftly and persuasively cuts through bullshit, called Southland Tales “a sprawling piece of pop surrealism about the End Days in Los Angeles, unfurled with tenderness and pizzazz.” J. Hoberman admired its “high-voltage farrago of unsynopsizable plots and counterplots” and “high-octane sci-fi social satire.” More measured, Manohla Dargis nevertheless assured readers that Southland Tales “has more ideas, visual and intellectual, in a single scene than most American independent films have in their entirety.” Nathan Lee called it a “new-media masterwork” and praised its “poignant, trenchant, visionary excellence.” Some of these reviews were written soon after the film’s infamous 2006 Cannes competition debut, which Kelly later would recoup as a “work-in-progress” screening; others were written upon the theatrical distribution of the film more than a year later by Samuel Goldwyn Films. The reactions to both its festival premiere and its general release were largely the same: perplexity, if not outrage—the kind of loathing that comes with accusations of overambition and anger that a filmmaker has wasted both the viewer’s time and the funders’ precious money (those moments when some critics show their true callings as frugal accountants). The $17 million–budgeted movie, which was ultimately to gross less than $500,000 worldwide theatrically, was almost instantly tagged as a film maudit, so this minor but vocal groundswell of critical support was perhaps unsurprising.
My own review, published here upon the official release, already portrayed the effect that the film’s extant reception, both pro and con, had on my viewing. For me, there was simply no way of decoupling the film from the critical divisions that had sprung up around it. I wrote that 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.” (Was I under the influence of Farber’s term “monsterpiece” without knowing it?) There was simply no way that Southland Tales, like so many films that elicit passionate responses at high-profile festival premieres, would be granted the kind of pure, in-a-vacuum critical responses that filmmakers must dream about. Weighing my opinions against those of others, I was already in the hall of mirrors. And even though I had an absolutely terrible time watching Southland Tales, and the idea of revisiting a film I initially found to be “airless, toothless satire” sent shudders down my spine, the presiding feeling I’ve had about Southland Tales for the past decade and a half was not smug surety but a latent uncertainty that ever so gradually had begun to metastasize as something like guilt. Yes, no self-respecting critic wants to find themselves on the side of the rabble—it wasn’t simply that I feared disagreeing with all these smarties made me inept, but maybe, just maybe, I had let my own sense of righteousness about a film cloud my ability to see it.
The reasons to revisit the film were manifold. Here was a film with an eye towards its own posterity: whereas most cult films, Kelly’s own Donnie Darko (2001) being a prime example, find their own passionate audiences organically, amassing followers due to unexpected social currents and shifts in cultural taste, Southland Tales was a film rather explicitly in search of its own cult—a “cross-media storytelling experience” (per Kelly) that purposely dropped you into chapters four through six of a vast network of narratives that also existed in graphic novel form and other online rabbit holes for the curious. So, I wondered, how would a film so invested in its own long game hold up? Furthermore, the clearest thing about Southland Tales was its attempt to capture the fragmented political and pop-cultural moment of the Bush II era. So, wouldn’t it be fascinating to now revisit the film as a time capsule of the aughts rather than as a frazzled, in-the-moment transmission from that decade—one we couldn’t truly get a handle on in the moment? There was also the possibility of its prescience: after all, wouldn’t Kelly’s film about the symbiotic and schizoid relationship between politics and popular culture—in which the boundaries between political elites and entertainers had blurred to insignificance and all discourse had devolved into rowdy, bald-faced, Las Vegas hucksterism—look particularly provocative post-2016? Certainly the film’s subplot about rigged presidential elections (made possible via severed fingers and thumbs) would resonate.
Kelly says that Southland Tales, which he made when he was 29, “was my long-simmering response to 9/11 and response to the anxiety of terror and the terrorist threat and trying to make a big piece of satire that would be comfort food in light of the terrorist threat. That’s what the film is intended to be for people.” The film does inhabit a feeling of derangement and political instability that many of us can surely understand when reflecting back on that first decade of the 21st century, ravaged by war, blatant xenophobia, and rampant reality television. And there’s a genuine hollowness to the film’s anti-spectacle spectacle that, if one so desired, could be chalked up to the centerless bravado of American masculinist culture, personified here by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s Boxer Santaros, an amnesiac Republican movie star; Seann William Scott’s kidnapped, drugged, and doubled cops Ronald and Roland Taverner; and Justin Timberlake’s Bible-quoting Iraq War veteran Abilene, also the film’s narrator. Southland also makes space for Sarah Michelle Gellar’s porn star-cum-influential talk show host (and psychic) Krysta Now—whose roundtable chat program deals with issues like Abortion, Crime, and “Teen Horniness”—yet the film moves more to the rhythms of its trio of leaden male stars than the broad jokiness of Gellar’s characterization (unfortunately, for she contributes the best performance in the movie). This gives the overall enterprise a lumbering butchness that keeps it from attaining the galvanic freneticism—and maybe its sociopolitical reason for being—that its fans breathlessly sketch out in strings of superlatives. Perhaps one of the reasons I find Southland so frustrating as a critic is it lays bare the inadequacy of words to describe the enervating feeling of watching it—despite the fact that critics who love it tend to lob a lot of words at it, as if providing an inventory of its overstuffed cornucopia with exciting, frantic sentences will somehow make it come to life on the screen for others.
Southland Tales’ vision of a post-WWIII United States hurtling towards a 2008 election and a concurrent literal apocalypse remains for me so distractingly underrealized in narrative, performance, and visual composition that I keep losing its thread. It’s a hideous-looking film, not because it apes trash culture, but because so few shots seem compellingly composed—but again…is that the point? I can’t disagree with my original verdict that “it’s an actual mishmash disguised as an intended mishmash, lacking not in narrative coherence so much as a verifiable ideology.” Yet I’m now skeptical that my subsequent line—“Comparisons to Thomas Pynchon and Kurt Vonnegut only make the mousiness of Southland all the more evident”—was anything more than a straw-man act; after all, Kelly’s film deserves to be considered as a piece of self-made pop-culture detritus more than trenchant political burlesque.
This is an America that has expanded Bush II’s Patriot Act to form an Orwellian dystopia, creating military checkpoints at state lines and requiring travel visas for all citizens; a country so desperate for alternative fuel sources that it’s considering switching to the dangerous, barely tested electromagnetic Fluid Karma, a powerful drug invented by a renegade scientist played by who else but Wallace Shawn; a country so fractured that the radical left “neo-Marxists” (embodied mostly by ex-SNL boobs) have risen as a dissenting antiauthoritarian force to be reckoned with. This all flows out with an alternating coolness (the narcotized machismo of Timberlake, Johnson, and especially Scott, his American Pie schtick tamped down to negative wattage) and flamboyance (the high-decibel antics of Cheri Oteri, Amy Poehler, and Wood Harris), which never reconcile into an aesthetic that might help the political mania register as either poignant or authentically wild. With neither extreme pole registering for me, what’s left is little more than an air of self-satisfaction.
If my response to the film in 2023 was similar to the one I had in 2007—and perhaps even a little more annoyed for the fact that I had willingly subjected myself to it again—I want to stress that the point of this essay is neither to relitigate my feelings about Southland Tales nor to reconfirm that I was “right” all along. Rather, I’m far more intrigued by the mental calisthenics and self-doubt a critic goes through, sometimes unconsciously, when faced with a film that they are in puzzled disagreement about with others. For me, Southland so clearly appears not to “work” that its passionate and articulate guardians lead me to believe the fault lies within me rather than in its infantile catch-phrasing (“I’m a pimp, and pimps don’t commit suicide”), doubling down on goofy profundity (Timberlake’s annoying repetition of his inverted T. S. Eliot quotation: “This is the way the world ends / This is the way the world ends / This is the way the world ends / Not with a whimper but with a bang”), and fish-in-a-barrel political reference points (“We don’t negotiate with terrorists!”).
It’s the kind of film whose responses seem to short circuit normal reactions. If I point out that its many comic set pieces (Nora Dunn tasering John Larroquette in the balls at a restaurant; a RoboCop-esque CGI TV commercial of two hummers fucking like wildebeests) are thudding and unfunny and that its actors’ stabs at embodying comic personas are hapless (Johnson’s irritating, Looney Tunes finger-twiddling), then I sound like someone who just can’t appreciate some sophisticated register of sophomoric humor—but shouldn’t questions of pacing, framing, and build-and-release matter to an ostensible comedy, even one that functions within an absurdist, tragicomic framework? Then again, the argument that the film is intentionally anti-entertainment goes a long way to convincing the unconvinced that we’re not seeing the forest for the trees. Its admirers insist that its mechanical breakdown is part of the point—and, evidently, the fun. It’s as though I would need to come up with new ways of defining cinematic functionality itself to understand Kelly’s film. There are ways in which I am impressed by how closed-off the film is, and how little it yields despite its superficial comic trappings. At the very least, Southland Tales and the fans who continue to boost it produce an effect of emotional and intellectual estrangement productive enough for me to sit down and write this essay.
The film’s reputation among its admirers hasn’t exactly waned. Upon its screening this past summer during BAM’s “Second Features” series, which included a wide survey of directors’ sophomore efforts, Taubin instructed her “X” followers to “Just Go.” Southland Tales has inspired younger viewers as well, counting some of the smartest among a new generation of critics among its ranks. In a 2021 piece for Decider proclaiming its “surge of renewed relevance,” Charles Bramesco writes that the film’s surreality “closely corresponds to our new normal” and that “the deliberate overstuffed quality simulates Trumpism’s non-stop barrage of crises and bad news with better fidelity than any other film at its titanic scale.” This reflects what I wanted to find on my revisitation, although I ultimately have a hard time squaring the film’s critique of gung-ho American imperialism with the Trump era, marked more by a systematic dismantling of democratic norms and an excavation of pure racist American id than Bush’s fin-de-siècle world conquering. Moreover, recent world horrors have, if anything, revealed its critique of American war-mongering to be even more timid than remembered—but, again, the effects of movies are variable to the moment in which we watch them.
My curiosity also led me to ask critic Sam Bodrojan for some thoughts on the film, gleaning her enthusiasm from social media posts. “In my eyes, there are few movies as ideologically sound as this,” she wrote to me. “The total, horrifying detachment from the apocalyptic violence with which we Americans are all complicit causing a suicidal warp in the collective unconscious.” Bodrojan, who informed me that she was six when the film was released, here gets at something I hadn’t really thought about from that handful of breathless positive reviews at the time, and something it perhaps took a viewer born into the miasmic 21st century to fully articulate to me: that the “horrifying detachment” one feels in Southland Tales is part and parcel of living now and, regardless of where it came from in the filmmaker’s highly calculated process (indeed, all I see is calculation and posturing in Kelly’s film), his film exists as a product of it. Southland Tales is beyond cynicism, beyond sadness, beyond entertainment, beyond narrative, really, and its disinterest in corralling (or is it a lack of ability? we’ll never know) all its broken pieces into anything resembling a pleasant, coherent, or functioning machine makes it a reflection of a world that has become inoperative.
Does this revelation mean that I have to admire Southland Tales for not working? Perhaps it doesn’t matter because, as I said at the outset, my thoughts on the film—my disagreements with those who love it—don’t matter a whit. A semi-enthused Mila Matveeva wrote in Screen Slate, “In all its mess, it now feels like one of the defining post-9/11 films. The film not only bottles a very specific cultural and political moment, but also a time in which a film like this could be made.” This latter point is perhaps the most poignant lasting truth about Kelly’s film, which could make even its staunchest hater nostalgic for a time in which producers were willing to risk considerable medium-level budgets for auteurist visions with little chance of recouping costs. Yet this is another way to admire the broad strokes rather than the details of a film that requires close attention but doesn’t reward it. In its attempts at explosive futuristic mythmaking, Southland Tales already feels like a thing of the distant past. There is something tender about that, to use a word Taubin employed. Yet, for me, perhaps not as poignant as this: my feeling of being out of step with a more accomplished cadre of elder statesmen critics in 2007 has now been mirrored by the feeling of being, in 2023, unable to see in Southland Tales what a new generation of critics appear to hold dear. And around it goes.