It's amazing what 18 months can do for an unfinished film. Richard Kelly called Southland Tales "a work in progress" when it screened at Cannes in 2006. Had Southland Tales been a resounding critical success, Kelly probably would have found another phrase to describe his new film. As it was, it was met with audience snobbery and critical damning for it's pop-culture audacity and its overwhelming ambition. Kelly, faced with a battle with the studio, probably spent much of the time since wrangling about running times and budgets. As little as three months ago, in a smattering of interviews that seem to surround ComicCom in San Diego, Kelly was happy as a clam with his finished product. With some added CGI and a paired down running time, Kelly seemed convinced that he had worked Southland into a better film.
Unfortunately, I think the studio gave up on this film after its disastrous performance at Cannes. Did anyone see a trailer for this film in the theater? Not me. Or how about any pre-release press? Nope. Even the website, which had huge potential given the nature of the film, still has pages that say 'coming soon'...not. If it hadn't been for like-minded people posting on various sites and blogs, I wouldn't have heard the news that this film was finally coming out. What can only be seen as a weird last ditch effort to promote this film, there was a full page ad in our "alternative" weekly City Pages on opening week. (I have never seen a full page movie ad in the City Pages.) Most who should have known about this film, the so-called target audience, didn't even know what the hell I was talking about when I said Southland Tales. (Over Thanksgiving, a friend said "Oh, the Donnie Darko guy's new film..." At least he was on the right track.) A mere week and a half after opening, Southland has been pushed out of Landmark's Lagoon Theater to make way for Margot at the Wedding on two screens, and dumped at the Block E Theaters. (Although it is not listed in the newspaper.) If it makes it through next weekend, I will be surprised.
I take the liberty to do some grumbling because Southland Tales deserves to better than it ultimately will do. By the looks of it, with poor reviews and non-existent marketing, it is doomed to do nothing short of bombing. If Richard Kelly is guilty of anything, it is being too ambitious. Southland Tales tries to do too much. Within the first ten minutes I was struck with two thoughts: first was a conspiracy theory that Southland hit a little too close to home and that government forces and black helicopters had some hand in quashing its release; the second was that I would have to see the film again. It is easy to say that a successful film should be able to tell/show you exactly what you need to know in one viewing. But what happens when the images and information are so compelling and dense that a second viewing becomes compulsory? Southland Tales is a six part story. The first three parts, Two Roads Diverge, Fingerprints, The Mechanicals, are told in graphic novels (recently re-released in one volume) and the last three parts, Temptation Waits, Memory Gospel, Wave of Mutilation, are told in the film. The opening scenes attempt to provide a very complicated backstory that is important to the richness of the narrative but not entirely necessary for the movie experience. Despite the fact that I had read the graphic novels, I was still scrambling to assimilate information as images, text and narration erupted from the screen.
The absurdly long cast of characters provide the foundation of Southland Tales. Undeniably one of the biggest characters in the film is Los Angeles, California: the epicenter of our celebrity culture and Southland's heart and soul. Malibu worthy Krysta Now, played with conviction and candor by Sarah Michelle Gellar, is the girl-next-door porn star who has a reality TV show and enough merchandising to make Disney's head spin. She also has a 'hit single' titled Teen Horniness is Not a Crime. Cheeky. Krysta is both an inconsequential dumb blond and prophetess with the future of the world in her hands. Gellar's character is the anchor of Southland Tales, and it is no surprise that she had a hand in developing Krysta Now with Richard Kelly. Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson plays Boxer Santaros, an actor with right-wing political ties. He's married to the daughter of the Republican candidate for president, but Boxer has amnesia and has fallen under the care of oracle/sex kitten Krysta Now. Johnson cuts the perfect physique of the iconic American man: buff, brown and beautiful. Boxer also seems to be something of a messiah, the relevance of which is hinged on the events leading up to his amnesia. Justin Timberlake and Sean William Scott round out the cast by playing an interconnected trio. Timberlake plays Pilot Abilene, a scarred Iraq War veteran who is the product of a mysterious experimental military drug. Pilot Abilene is our narrator and a demented voice of reason, as he monitors the Santa Monica pier in his gun tower. Scott plays Ronald and Roland Taverner, twin brothers, one a police office and the other a Neo-Marxist. (If the duality of the brothers seems a little too ironic, you are right.) Scott is great as the understandably confused and fragile radical. While these five might constitute the main characters, there's another dozen that have equal importance: Nora Dunn and Cheri Oteri play the Neo-Marxist duo of Cyndi Pinziki and Zora Carmichaels; John Lovitz is Bart Bookman, sent to foil the Neo-Marxist (or is he?); Mandy Moore is Madeline Frost Santaros, Boxer's wife; Holmes Osborn plays presidential candidate Bobby Frost; Miranda Richardson is the evil matriarch, who works for the government and is married to Bobby; Wallace Shawn is the weird new-age scientist Baron Von Westphalen, a decendant of Hitler who holds the key to a new alternate energy; and there are also a host of bit parts played by Bai Ling, Kevin Smith, and Christopher Lambert.
Still with me? A conventional synopsis of the film would send you to the door. The story, as interesting as it is, is confusing and complicated. (Visit Wiki for a dry but thorough rundown of the plot.) Take every A-list issue in the US Today, and imagine it as an engaging and sad fairy tale with the stars. Richard Kelly takes pop culture and mocks it and embraces it in one fell swoop. At the heart of the film is a standout musical number that couldn't be more ironic or perfect. Justin Timberlake as Pilot Abilene performs The Killers' All These Things I've Done replete with dancing girls and arcade. Put a scar on pretty boy Justin Timberlake's face and have him lip-sync a rock song and you have a distilled representation of the Iraq War through the rose colored glasses of American culture. The brilliance of this scene (and many others) is that, for all its superficial glamour, it still possesses a genuine emotive force. Maybe I'm a sucker for this slight of hand, or maybe Kelly has a knack for weaving something beautiful out of something empty and artificial. Or maybe it is a little of both.
And let us not forget the real sci-fi moment of the film where the ice cream truck hovers in the air like a spaceship. The illuminated ice cream truck is our escape route from the darkness, be it comedy or melodrama, in the film.
At it's best Southland Tales is a hipster doomsday wonder world that any Gen-Xer (or Y or Z) could appreciate. At it's worst Southland is an undeniable mess that stuffs way too many ideas and information into what seems a very short 2 hours and 20 minutes. Each of the six parts could have easily satisfied a full length film. Instead we get three abbreviated graphic novels and a very very dense film. Suggestions of parring down the scope of the project are legitimate but ultimately unfair when the essence of the film is the culmination of its vastness and its resemblance with our endless number of modern day contradictions. "El Paso and Abilene, Texas have fallen victim to simultaneous nuclear attacks on July 4, 2005—a catastrophe of unimaginable proportions which sends America into World War 3. The GOP's overwhelming victory in the 2006 elections upgrades the Patriot Act into new agency known as US-IDENT, a Big Brother surveillance agency under the guise of a national security think-tank. America not only shuts its borders to all other nations, but also requires visa for interstate travel." The future is now, and Southland Tales reiterates this over and over again. If we open our eyes, the unimaginable is happening, likening the world we live in to something akin to science fiction. How do we react? How about an interpretive end-of-the-world dance by Krysta Now and Boxer Santaros—a scene that is equal parts sugar and sincerity. This is how the world ends.
Personally I enjoyed Southland Tales immensely, and while I am aware of its faults, critics seem to be ignoring its strengths. The criticisms being hurled at Southland since day one are a bit unfair. In the end, maybe the tongue-in-cheek post-modern Americana analogies that Kelly dishes out is not for everyone; too low-brow for the Canes audience, and too high-brow for the average movie-goer. Beyond the overly ambitious 'shortcomings', Southland Tales is funny, poignant, lavish, moving, clever, and totally riveting. See it while you can, and may it live on with cult status.