Sunday, July 5, 2009

Southland Tales: A Year After The Apocalypse

Southland Tales remains an intriguing conundrum. I don’t even know if you can say it has a proper cult so much as a few intrigued apologists. It’s certainly not a film that I would recommend or defend as good in any objective sense. As a piece of filmmaking it’s meandering, it’s story, script construction and editing are damn near dadist. And the whole thing has such a self satisfied air to it, as if it had already decided it was a classic before it was even half way shot make it pretty hard to like. And yet it’s a movie I’ve watched at least a half dozen times and one that I’m likely to keep rewatching despite the fact that I realize it’s not any good at all.


A word like unique gets tossed around a lot. Used for stuff that’s merely quirky. Southland Tales though is truly unique. It’s like a movie from another dimension, one with a style of film completely alien to our own. Not bad filmmaking but filmmaking that’s developed on a separate evolutionary track from ours. One where every shot is a few seconds too long, every scene has got a few too many beats, every transition is a bit too abrupt, every revelation a bit too hazy, where the CGI is so bad I can only hope it’s intentional, one where a dwarf singing Jane’s Addiction Lyrics is a suitable payoff for a scene, one where The Rock’s and Seann William Scott’s strangely sympathetic childlike performances are acceptable, and there is nothing odd about cutting to a random computerized model of the human muscle structure at random intervals during a conversation. It’s not exactly a place I’d like to live, but it’s fun to visit.

The film is hypnotic. Roger Ebert famously wrote that I Heart Huckabee’s seemed to be the first movie that could exist without an audience. Southland Tales might be the second (Tideland is probably the third).

Part of Southland Tale’s problem was Richard Kelly, in the run up to the films Cannes release he kept name dropping the likes of Dr. Strangelove and Brazil. Now those are pretty big shoes to fill no matter who you are. If you happen to be a wunderkid director whose looking fixed for a comeuppance after writing freaking Domino and cutting an underwhelming “Definitive Version” of the beloved movie that sent you to stardom. It starts to look like you’re painting a bulls eye on your forehead even if you have a masterpiece in the can. Which, as we have established, was simply not the case.

It’s the wrong comparison to make anyway. Brazil and Strangelove are both intricately constructed satires. Southland Tales has the skuzzy charm of something that grew inside a beer can. It’s organic, bizarre, spontaneous not made. It’s closer to something like Repo Man, from which the film takes it’s biggest steal (and considering there are some pretty egregious lifts from Muholland Drive, and Donnie Darko itself; shots through the eye, time travel, the end of the world at a distinctive date, and the long ass tracking shot in the mega zeppelin that’s a total rip off from the high school shot in Donnie Darko; that’s saying a whole hell of a lot).

Because it’s impossible to deny that there are some chunks of the film that really work. The sequences involving Sara Michelle Gellar’s cultural Icon Porn Star (And maker of a really good tasting drink) and Wallace Shawn’s effete Anti Christ, not to mention the unforgettable fucking cars, hit the level of Social Satire done by the Looney Tunes that the rest of the film is so desperately aiming for. A lot of the film is visually striking (The perpetually clear streets of Hermosa and Venice shrouded in Fog are a remarkably creepy image)And The film’s twin musical sequences set to The Killer’s All These Things That I’ve Done and Rebecca Del Rio’s National Anthem, as well as the raids on The Neo Marxists and USIDENT, and the opening Nuclear Attacks on the good ole suburbia of 2005, verge on being, dare I say powerful.

That’s why despite the fact that it contains toxic amounts of Cheri Oteri and Jon Lovitz, despite the fact that I literally have no idea what’s happening in the final fifteen minutes of the film, despite the fact that I have no idea why Curtis Armstrong and Kevin Smith are present, and yes despite the fact that Justin Timberlake has a five minute monologue about speaking with angels. I’ve seen this movie six times and will probably see it six more. It’s not a movie it’s an artifact. One from a world of Nana Mae Frost threatens to criminalize teen horniness and the wave of mutilation rolls merrily through the southland. And it’s One I can’t help but keep examining.

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