Southland Tales

Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales is an amazing movie, and I will try to do it justice in what follows, although all I can do for the moment is spew out a series of speculations and observations, in a random, and no doubt contradictory as well as repetitive, order. But I think that this is not only a brilliant film, but an extraordinarily important one, in that it is one of those rare works that is “as radical as reality itself,” and that reflects upon our real situation while at the same time inserting itself within that situation, rather than taking a pretended distance from it. The film is a demented fabulation, but in such a way that it can best be described as hyperreal. Its “science fiction” is scientifically and technologically unsound, and could best be described as delirious — but that is precisely why it is directly relevant to a world that has increasingly come to be “indistinguishable from science fiction.” Southland Tales makes nearly all other contemporary movies seem inadequate, outdated, and guilty of fleeing our actual social world in search of nostalgic consolations. I cannot help suspect that the radicality of Southland Tales is the reason why the film has received such a savagely negative response from most reviewers, and has been such a disastrous flop at the box office. (Several of the film critics I most respect, including Amy Taubin, J. Hoberman, and Manohla Dargis, have praised the movie; but most have regarded it as unspeakably awful, an unmitigated disaster. As for general audiences, the film has only made something like $160,000 in box office gross, nearly a month after its initial release).

Southland Tales is all about the flow of images, the multimedia feed. Although it is very much a movie, in the way that it is big and spectacular and meant to be viewed on an enormous screen, it is also deeply post-cinematic, both in terms of contents and of form. Southland Tales takes place in an alternative universe to our own: one in which atomic bombs detonated by terrorists in Texas in 2005 have led us into World War III, reconfiguring both the political landscape and the development of internet and alternative-fuel technologies. Nonetheless, the movie is recognizably contemporary, in that it is set firmly in a world of handheld video cameras, and You Tube, and 24-hour cable news channels, and ubiquitous surveillance cameras, and celebrity-tracking papparazzi.

Southland Tales‘s visual flow is also that of these post-cinematic media that play such a role within it. Properly cinematic images are intermixed with a barrage of home video footage, internet and cable-TV news feeds, commercials, simulated CGI environments, and especially sequences in which the film’s characters are watching all of the above on multiple computer windows or screens. The compositional logic of Southland Tales is paratactic and additive, having little to do with conventional film syntax. Indeed, Kelly’s disjunctive flow is almost the polar opposite of Eisensteinian montage. Eisenstein wanted his contradictory images to interact, dialectically or alchemically, in order to produce by their clash a higher order image/concept, a whole greater than the sum of its parts. But Kelly’s discordant images refuse thus to come together; they don’t even clash, but co-exist in their distance from one another, their “incompossibility” (to use a word that Deleuze adapts from Leibniz). In Southland Tales, chains of cause and effect both multiply and break down entirely, in defiance of linear or narrative logic; everything in the film is a matter, neither of causality, nor of action grounded in character, nor even of dialectical contrast; but rather of juxtaposition, “free” association, and the proliferation of multiple levels of self-referential feedback loops.

For instance: a pair of hip, “underground” performance artists, a black man and a white woman, who are a couple in “real life” and in their performances, disguise themselves in facial prosthetics so that they will not be recognized. In this disguise, they pretend to be an arguing married couple, in order to simulate a scenario in which they will be murdered by a racist cop. There are doing this apparently for a political cause; but it also seems that they are interested in blackmail for financial advantage (seed money to feed back into their “art”). The racist cop who is supposed to seem to murder them, after responding to a domestic violence call, is himself being impersonated by his twin brother, and accompanied by an actor trying to research his own forthcoming role as a cop by slipping into character on the (ostensibly) real cop’s rounds, as well as by hauling around a video camera with which he records everything that happens. The fake racist cop is supposed to fire blanks, and the performance artists will pretend to be hit, while a hidden accomplice presses a button in order to make fake blood spurt out. But the whole scenario is detourned when a second cop barges in on the scene and fires real bullets, so that the performing couple (who have already, in their desparation not to be really killed, gone out of character and revealed themselves as the notorious performers they are) are actually killed — though, as they fall, the hidden accomplice still pushes the special-effects button at the sound of gunfire, in order to make the prosthetic blood spill out. In a subsequent scene, the second, killer cop is revealed also to be an impersonator rather than an actual cop, who has performed the killing, and confiscated the video camera that recorded it, in service to yet another confused agenda that also seems to involve both political activism and blackmail for cash…

I’ve described at such cumbersome length a scene that only takes up a few minutes of Southland Tales‘s two-and-a-quarter-hour running time, simply to give a sense of how twisted and multi-leveled the film is. These convolutions of content go along with the sensory-overload barrage of multiple media images that fill the screen, or often multiple screens within the screen. I haven’t even mentioned the fact that everything that happens in the film is under surveillance, so that most of what we see on screen is viewed in progress, or a second time, by the evil Republican homeland-security czar (played by Miranda Richardson, channeling Angela Lansbury’s performance in The Manchurian Candidate), who monitors multiple screens from her command center at the heart of US-Ident, a “think tank” turned spy facility that (in the interest of “national security”) tracks everything that streams across the Internet.

The great theoretician of film sound Michel Chion notes that, while in cinema the sound subliminally supports the primacy of the image, in video the sound becomes up-front central, and weaves together and makes coherent what otherwise might appear to be an utterly random stream of images. In cinema the images are primary, the coherence of the film coming mostly from mise en scene and cinematography and montage, and the soundtrack really serves as a support for the images, by giving them emotional resonance and a guarantee of (seeming) naturalism. Video, to the contrary, is more like “illustrated radio,” according to Chion: the sound is primary (whether it be the voice in a news report, or the music in a music video), and the images have no intrinsic logic of their own, but are only strung together through the guidance provided by the sound. This does not necessarily mean that images tend to disappear; it more likely means that there is a proliferation of images, due to the fact that they are no longer constrained by an imagistic logic, but instead opened up by the fact that a logic external to them, based instead in the sonic, is the only regulating principle. (Chion’s formulation should be compared with Marshall McLuhan’s claim that television and computer-based media are audio-tactile, rather than predominantly visual).

In any case, this is yet another sense in which Southland Tales is resolutely post-cinematic. Its use of sound is much closer to that of television and music video than it is to that of anything recognizable in the history of cinema. We are guided through the labyrinth of the movie’s proliferating images almost exclusively by Justin Timberlake’s voiceover narration (together with other forms of narration, like those from various CNN-style news reports) and Moby’s musical score. While the electronic music modulates our mood, the voiceover makes connections between layers and levels of imagery that otherwise could not emerge. Stylistically, Kelly’s images tend toward televisual flatness, and conventional character positioning (either two-shots or shot/reverse-shot setups). He does, however, throw in more heavily stylized cinematography every once in a while (I recall an extraordinary long take, towards the end of the film, in the mega-zeppelin, as the camera weaves through the partying crowds, following first one character, then another, without a cut). But the emphasis is never on strictly optical tableaux: there is always too much of a welter of too-flat images, which need the soundtrack to be unscrambled.

This is not a matter of “telling instead of showing” (the accusation that is usually made against the use of voiceover in more traditional Hollywood films, e.g. in the films of Billy Wilder), but rather of voice enunciating what literally cannot be shown, because it exceeds the limits of the visual. I am thinking here of Jameson’s dictum that postmodern capitalist society cannot be imaged or represented; this does not mean that it cannot be known, or “mapped,” but that such a mapping itself exceeds what can be imaged or represented or “visualized.” And I am also thinking of Deleuze’s notion is to make us sense and feel that which literally cannot be sensed or felt, but which remains implicit in whatever it is that we do sense or feel, and which therefore cannot be registered in any other way, but can only be sensed or felt. For both Jameson and Deleuze, and despite their radically different orientations (since Jameson is focused on cognition, and Deleuze on affect), what’s needed is a certain rupture or disparity: in the case of any medium involving images in motion, this means both disjunction among the images, and discordance between the images and the sounds (words and speech, music, noise) that underly them.

In Southland Tales, as in the network society we live in, the world is entirely composed of images: bodies are not only registered on video as images, but are themselves images; and images are themselves entirely real, because they are what,to a large extent, compose the material substance of the real. But this means that everything is flat or two-dimensional, everything is laid out in a configuration that is essentially spatial and simultaneous, even if not conforming to any literal geography. Sound is what energizes this configuration; it provides the temporality (both the existential duration, and the principle of ordering) for this labyrinthine array of images; it thereby realizes the actual connections between images that, on the image track itself, are merely latent or virtual.

This means that Kelly is one of the very few contemporary directors — alongside David Lynch, David Fincher, and really I am not sure who else — who is actually rethinking what film might mean, and what sense it might make, in our post-cinematic, videocentric and thoroughly digitized age. We can profitably contrast Southland Tales with Lynch’s Inland Empire: these films are complementary to one another. Lynch’s film is shot on digital video, and constructed in such a way that it is no longer a movie any longer, but some newer media form. It is intimate and interior in a way that traditional movies (because they are public and collective and operate on a grand scale) are incapable of, and that therefore can only be attained by fracturing and fragmenting cinematic codes, and by rejecting 35mm film for digital video. But the deep logic of Inland Empire is still a cinematic one, precisely because it refers back to the cinematic codes that it deconstructs. Inland Empire is based on the enigma of images, all the more so in that Lynch’s digital camera flattens out and makes more glaring the images whose subtleties he used to capture on film. Lynch’s sound design provides an exquisite support for these deconstructed images, but the images still come first. Southland Tales, to the contrary, no longer recognizes cinematic logic at all, not even in order to deconstruct it. This is because it is no longer based on cinema’s image-centric logic at all — despite the fact that, as a media object, it is still (in contrast to Inland Empire) a movie. The two works thus explore the same contested territory, but from opposite perspectives, moving in opposite directions. I am not saying that Southland Tales is as great an accomplishment as Inland Empire, but nothing I have seen recently, aside from Lynch’s work, comes close to matching it.

As for the content of Southland Tales — since it is anything but a formal exercise — this has as much to do with the auras of the actors making up the cast, as it does with what the characters played by these actors actually do on screen. Everybody in the film is a pop culture icon of one sort or another. The main characters are played by such actors as Dwayne Johnson (The Rock, of both wrestling and action-picture fame); Sarah Michelle Gellar (Buffy); Seann William Scott (from American Pie). The minor roles are played by the likes of Wallace Shawn (as a mad-scientist dwarf), and Mandy Moore (as a fashion-victim Republican Senator’s daughter). All the minor roles are acted by people whom I can recognize, even if I cannot actually place them without the help of the IMDB. (Thus, Christopher Lambert — Highlander — plays a brutal and crazed cynic who sells heavy weaponry from inside an ice cream truck usually parked in Venice Beach). But nearly all these actors are cast against type, playing roles that largely contradict the characterizations for which they are best known. Thus, the Rock is denied action-hero status, as he spends most of the film as an amnesiac Hollywood actor, lost in various varieties of fear and befuddlement. Sarah Michelle Gellar is hilarious as a humorless porn actress with her own business plan, that includes a talk show (sort of an X-rated version of The View), a pop record (“Teenage Horniness is Not a Crime”), and an energy drink.

Special mention must go, of course, to Justin Timberlake, who narrates the film with omniscient voiceovers — even though at the same time he is a character within the film, who could not possibly know most of the things that his voiceover confides to us. His character is an Iraqi-war vet, Pilot Abilene, who was wounded (and facially disfigured) by “friendly fire” (shot, in fact, by the Seann William Scott character). He spends most of the movie sitting in a sniper’s post over Venice Beach, seated at the controls of a long-range machine gun with telephoto lens, which he occasionally uses to pick off people on the beach, when the film’s narrative demands it. The rest of the time, he both deals and takes Fluid Karma, an illicit psychedelic drug, manufactured by the mad scientist’s company and used in Army trials on unwitting soldiers. Fluid Karma is injected by a syringe into the neck, and it is supposed to promote both telepathy and transcendent visions.

Probably the high point of the film is when we actually get to see one of these visions. The sequence is a sort of music video, in which Timberlake/Abilene, under the drug’s influence, dances and lip-synchs to the Killers’ “All These Things I’ve Done,” stumbling about in a blood-stained T-shirt, flipping his dog tags to the repeated line “I’ve got soul, but I’m not a soldier,” and drinking beer and pouring it over his head like a frat-boy party dude — all the while surrounded by a bevy of Busby Berkeley-esque nearly-identical women wearing skimpy nurses’ uniforms as they gyrate and kick their legs. Timberlake, here as everywhere else in American pop culture today, displays a charisma that seems incompatible with, and yet that somehow arises seamlessly out of, his bland-as-white-bread, blue-eyed-soul persona. His Killers-inspired hallucination is at once utterly depraved, and yet also oddly impersonal, as well as being flat, self-contained, and without resonance, as if it were being performed in a special chamber designed to muffle and absorb anything that might exceed the literal, or that might lead us to connotations beyond the obvious. The scene is nearly unspeakably ridiculous, at the same time that it is creepily menacing, and yet also exhilarating. Let the forces of the cosmos stream through you, and you will find yourself channeling chintzy advertising specials and reality shows. Which is not to say that such material is devoid of impact. Watching Timberlake strut and lip-sync among the fake-porno nurses, it’s almost as if time had stopped for the duration of the song, looping back upon itself in order to intensify, by a sort of positive feedback, the film’s overall sense of apocalyptic imminence — of something catastrophic not so much happening, as always being about to happen. Teetering on a precipice without actually falling over; or better, falling over but never finishing falling over, never quite hitting the ground.

What I have just been trying to say about the Timberlake music video scene applies to the movie as a whole: it is utterly hallucinatory, and yet it possesses at the same time a sort of flatness, or lack of resonance, something that is extremely claustrophobic. It is as if the film were always holding something back, or running repeatedly through a holding pattern, like an airplane circling the airport but never landing. Timberlake/Abilene repeatedly tells us that we are watching the end of the world, and that this end is coming (in a reversal of T.S. Eliot), not with a whimper but with a bang. But this end is repeatedly deferred. We hear of tidal drag causing the earth’s rotation to slow down, and of rifts in the spacetime continuum. But it is never clear how these apocalyptic events are manifested in the media flow that proclaims and amplifies them. Kelly strongly suggests that even nuclear holcaust, World War III, and the institution of a totalitarian police state do not much interfere with life as usual. People are still partying and drinking, filling the boutiques and cafes of Venice Beach and Santa Monica. The July 4th celebration with which the film concludes involves not only fireworks, and partying among the rich and powerful on Wallace Shawn’s “mega-zeppelin,” but also gun battles between “neo-Marxist” guerrillas and the police on the streets of downtown Los Angeles. But these latter only add to the general sense of carnivalesque release, of the sort that we are all too used to gawking at on TV. (And even the people who are there, in the streets, act in the full knowledge of being on TV). Even when the promised apocalyptic bang finally comes, in the last few minutes of the film, it seems weirdly anti-climactic, if only because we are all too familiar with seeing disaster footage on TV. Seann William Scott apparently becomes the Messiah, taking over a role that should have, by right, gone to The Rock; and Justin Timberlake is his John the Baptist.

Southland Tales is both infinitely diverse and expansive, and yet at the same time oddly claustrophobic, because of the way that all of its crazy tangents, detours, irrational cuts, and meta-fictional leaps are all enclosed within the self-validating feedback loop of its multimedia bubble (the network, the Net, the communications infrastructure, what have you). This claustrophobia is what gives the film its compulsive power. The narrative is filled with conspiracies and rumors of conspiracy, with plots and schemes that go nowhere, or that implode upon the schemers and plotters themselves, and with paranoid and apocalyptic premonitions that have their effect precisely as premonitions, rather than on account of what they actually foresee or prophesy. In the course of his voiceover narration, Timberlake/Abilene incessantly quotes from the Book of Revelations; only in such a way that it becomes impossible to tell which are the powers of light and which the powers of darkness. The Book of Revelations is not so much a guide to the final days, as it is a funhouse-mirror roadmap of the actually existing mediasphere. Everyone in the film is under surveillance by somebody else, and is being plotted against by somebody else. The excesses of the Security State are matched by the blind, grandilquent self-delusions of everybody who is a subject of that State, or a self-declared enemy of that State. The only characters more or less free from this grandiloquence are the disfigured Timberlake/Abilene, and the befuddled amnesiacs played by The Rock and by Scott.

Grandiloquence and amnesia, and a continual sense of performing for an audience that one desperately invokes, but that one cannot actually see are all parts of the model of subjectivity that Southland Tales presents to us. We are probably all familiar by now with the description of postmodern subjectivity as the experience of oddly impersonal fluxes of affect, flows that traverse me much more than they can be said to be “mine.” You can find such descriptions in Jameson, in Deleuze/Guattari, in Baudrillard, in Lyotard, and in others, dating back to the 1970s (or, perhaps, even to certain aspects of McLuhan in the 1960s). These thinkers are all vastly different, of course, in how they describe the phenomenon, and the (positive or negative) value they place upon it; but still it’s a thread that can be followed through all of them. Southland Tales does not expound such a theory, so much as it takes it for granted and explores its consequences. Indeed, the movie takes it as a self-evident axiom that this is the only form of subjectivity that one can even imagine. Within it, however, we get a whole series of fluctuations and hesitations, and back-and-forth negotiations.

For instance, the Rock’s character, Boxer Santaros, is amnesiac and literally beside himself (we ultimately learn that this amnesia is the effect of space/time displacement, together with the murder of his “other” self). Apparently he is a a rich and famous Hollywood star with Republican Party connections (as The Rock himself more or less is in “real life”). But he doesn’t remember any of this, which means that, although everybody else recognizes him, he does not recognize himself. Amnesia takes away his knowledge of his own stardom, but it also turns him into even more of an actor, since anything he does feels like a fictive role, and his only possible mode of being is to imagine himself into such a role. No wonder he keeps slipping into the role of a character in an apocalyptic screenplay that he is supposed to have written — though he doesn’t remember writing it either, but only having read it. The Rock gives a brilliant performance as such a performer — you can see him trying on the various roles, being touched by fear and anxiety and surprise, and above all a sort of bemused puzzlement, but always braving it out and trying to act in the way the situation demands. Is it possible to be a method actor, inhabiting your role, when you don’t have any personal memories to call upon in order to think yourself into that role? Is it possible to be a method actor, drawing upon personal memories in order to inhabit the role of somebody without such personal memories? Boxer Santaros’ performative, or improvisational, simulation of interiority is one model of subjectivity in Southland Tales; Pilot Abilene’s odd, soft-spoken cool, and toned-down but ecstatic nihilism is another; Krysta Now (the porn starlet played by Sarah Michelle Gellar), with her business plan, her self-imposed instrumentalization of pleasure, her immediate reduction of feeling to self-conscious enactment, offers another. These are all types; and Kelly’s attempt to typologize the sorts of “subjective expression” that are generated and enabled within the overriding multimedia flow is one main reason for the meandering length of his narrative.

I’ll stop here, though I feel that I could go on indefinitely, because Southland Tales is so rich and convoluted, at the same time that (and precisely because) it pursues its vision of chaos and dread and media flow with such a monomaniacal intensity. Booed at Cannes in 2006, and both a critical and box-office disaster in 2007, the film obviously has not found its niche, nor found its cult, nor even made the sort of negative impact that would qualify it as a Cultural Event on the order of all the things that it narrates. I’m inclined to think that this is simply because the film is too prophetic: which is also to say, too real, too close to the actuality of which it is a part and which it anatomizes and mirrors, to be receivable at this point in time. The most alien messages are the ones that point out clearly what is staring us in the face. All the more so, in that such messages can have no sense of detachment, no critical perspective, to provide a justification for what they say. Southland Tales declines to exempt itself in the slightest from the overall situation that it describes; it declines even to overtly criticize that situation, as this would mean having to step outside it, as well as because simply presenting it, in its own compulsive mirroring and feeding back of itself, is already more than enough. Kelly’s film is too weird to be taken up by a mainstream audience; but also too mainstream, too much a part of the so-called mainstream, to please viewers and critics who are looking for either visionary, experimental formalism, or an informed oppositional politics. It also explodes the very being of cinema (including experimental cinema) so slyly and casually that it unavoidably offends most cinephiles. It immerses us in the present, in the Now, relentlessly and without release. (It even makes a joke of this valuation of the Now, in the person of Gellar’s character, Krysta, who takes on the last name “Now” because she is so doggedly interested in freedom and sexual gratification Now: not in the future, or tomorrow, or in ten minutes, but right Now). This immersion in the Now is what makes Southland Tales such a brilliantly futuristic film. (Krysta even remarks, at one point, something to the effect that futurists now think the future will be much more futuristic than they had previously believed). It is because it speaks in and to the Now that Southland Tales cannot be received now, but must look to the future for its reception. Combining irony and prophecy, it is at once too ironic for its meanings to be acceptable, and yet too earnest and visionary for the kind of ironic acceptance that we otherwise revel in.

36 thoughts on “Southland Tales”

  1. This is a really thoughtful review. I’m just glad to see that somebody else out there liked the movie. I think the main reason that this one likely won’t achieve the same kind of cult status as Kelly’s Donnie Darko is that it requires almost a superhuman level of commitment from the audience.

    Did you read the prequel graphic novel? It doesn’t really add much in terms of plot coherence, but it makes certain scenes from the movie a little more resonant. This is especially true for the Timberlake/Killers scene. I don’t think the comics are essential, but they are a big part of why I found the movie as haunting and affecting as I did, and I’m not sure most people are willing or able to read prequel comics and still have to make sense of the narrative largely by themselves.

    Kelly is very stingy with meaning in the movie, and I found I actually kind of had to will myself to like it. I don’t mean that in a bad way, but more in the sense that you kind of have to totally open yourself to the film to get anything out of it.

  2. Another thing that Southland Tales and Inland Empire have in common is both refererence and play upon images of LA as a sort-of chrono synclastic infundibula of American desire.

    LA is the place, more than any other place in the country, where entertainment and lifestyle collide, where nature is mediated and altered to accomodate the dreams of both, where the real estate industry jockeys with environmentalism, where mega-church Religionism co-exists with New-Ageism, Occultism and Science Fiction and where Hollywood has operated as a stimulus and a foil to European Avante-Gardism from Anger and Deren to Lynch and Kelly.

    Oh, and that’s not to forget LA as a major locus of the Military and Aerospace industries as well as Agriculture, Manufacturing and, at one time, Ranching and Oil production.

    LA, in a way, has been and represented everyplace in America and, in Jennifer Price’s words, has “stood in for… some larger story about successes and failures of American dreams: New Eden, Parasise Lost, Utopia, Dystopia, City of Angels, City of Fallen Angels, Autopia, Surfurbia, American Daydream, City of the Second Chance and the Great Wrong Place.”

    LA, as a locus of all these things, can be a pretty fascinating subject and its gratifying to see artists, like Kelly and Lynch, meditating on the complexities of their adopted towns.

  3. Yes, I did read the prequel comic before I saw the film; and it certainly did orient me towards what was going on more than might otherwise have been the case.

  4. I absolutely can’t wait to see this movie (I will have to get out of Alabama first as it will never play down here). Thanks for the in-depth review, Steven. I’m hoping people take this piece of work seriously.

    With his track record so far (brilliant films that don’t make money), is Richard Kelly destined to be the next Kubrick or the next Gilliam?

  5. I’m glad this movie drove you to write such a dense, thoughtful review, but what it boils down to, I guess, is that YOU get the movie, and I don’t, and neither does anyone else. I would argue that there is nothing to get, Steven, that the movie is a mess, and that Richard Kelly has no idea what he’s trying to say. And when you say the movie is prophetic, I think what you’re really trying to say is the you’re prophetic, obviously, since no one else can parse through this garbage and sniff out what it means.

    Idiocracy nailed what this country is all about with more wit and less bloat. Kelly can have his half-baked PKD references and lame stunt casting and sci-fi gibberish, but nothing is as cutting and to the point as a theater full of dullards laughing at the Warhol-esque image of a static naked ass farting ad infinitum. Southland Tales is an ego-fueled folly, on par with 1941 and Hudson Hawk.

    And as someone who grew up in Los Angeles, Richard Kelly doesn’t understand the first thing about this city. You want to see a movie by someone who has absorbed Los Angeles through and through? See Damon Packard’s Reflections of Evil. Los Angeles is coated in a sticky film consisting of dread and melancholy, neither of which is present in one frame of Southland Tales.

    Trying to represent chaos by inacting it is the easiest thing in the world to do. No discipline is required. Richard Kelly took the easy way out with this movie. He’s a lazy filmmaker. Commending him for his laziness seems an odd thing to do.

  6. This is easily the most intelligent and thoughtful review written on SOUTHLAND TALES yet. Your analysis is very succinct for a film that might be anything but that. Even Amy Taubin’s rave in FILM COMMENT didn’t get much further than scratching the surface, so to speak.

    I’ve got to say that the film has had a strange hold on me since seeing it opening weekend with a befuddled crowd at the Angelika in New York. There was just a confused response that I don’t think hated the film, but had just given up trying to make sense of it at a certain point. I still haven’t given up on it… It’s a strange film that I’ve taken to calling the “the film of next year” to anyone who will listen.

    Thank you!

  7. Thanks for this appreciation and analysis of a woefully underrated film. I remember being puzzled by Cannes reports that compared the work to a Rivette film, but his trademark emphasis on performance and multi-layered sense of reality are there, to be sure.

    You do a great job breaking down just how dense this film can be. It’s frustrating, but not surprising, that few critics have met its challenge, instead choosing to reject it at face value, as a direct-to-cable-level sci-fi epic.

    Personally, I didn’t read the comics, and don’t intend to. Going into the film blind, I felt both overwhelmed by the density of the narrative and put in a similarly dislocated place as the amnesiac protagonists. The first hour, with only Moby’s brilliant score to guide me, I felt like I was trying to put together a complicated chain of events while channel surfing, which is surely the intended effect.

  8. Richard Kelly marries all of the worst aspects of Verhoven to the dream-like logic of Lynch and does neither successfully. I don’t know which planet the rest of you live on, but the one I inhabit is quotidian and banal and resembles a Dumont film without the sex or violence. Southland Tales is the reflection of the world as wished by a teenage boy who wants a bucket of Ice-9 for Christmas. This movie is about as prophetic as every other sci-fi extravagnza that’s ever been made, i.e., not at all. The future is beyond our imaginative comprehension and will be infinitely more strange and shocking (to us, at least) than anything Richard Kelly can think of, as if Justin Timberlake singing the Killers (really now; no grown man should ever admit to liking their music. It’s for little girls, don’t you know that?) is some kind of monument to the present avante-garde. The hyperbolic rantings of those who like Southland Tales make me think of collegiate dorm rooms stinking of dirt weed, littered with empty boxes of cocoa puffs. In fifty years, or a hundred, if people of the future want to get a good read on what life was like in the part of the 21rst century all they need to do is read Kennth Goldsmith’s incredible novels, like Day or Traffic or Weather. And I get the feeling that Steven Shaviro could apply his considerable intelligence to any film and make it sound as dense of hypnotic as he does with Southland Tales.

  9. Thank you, thank you. I loved this movie, precisely for the stagnant melancholy that you mention, and also the deliberate merging of pop culture/entertainment and art. Did you, by any chance, get the numerous Barbara Kruger references to the film? Or, the fact that the ‘logo’ for the movie is the 2004 election results, adjusted for population:

    It seems strange that Southland Tales seems to alienate its two classes of viewers – the mainstream and the intellectual – while being a hybrid of both in the first place. Richard Kelly seems to be a director that knows exactly what he’s doing, and his movie seems to be shrugged off by mainstream viewers who “don’t get it” or intellectual, thoughtful moviegoers who dislike this movie for its crassness/mainstream references (like some of the commenters above).

    I’d say that Idiocracy would be a safer, more obvious form of finger-pointing at US stupidity and the ‘mainstream’ that also denies the fact that it itself participates in the facilitation of that which it criticizes: a snake eating its own tail. In contrast, Southland Tales knows this and is a willing participant in this sensationalism, the schizophrenic method of attaining knowledge by imbibing media. Barbara Kruger, formerly trained in commercial graphic design, works with it to lampoon consumerism. Is that not representative of the same irony and self-awareness that Southland Tales has?

    What struck me most was the series of scenes at USIDENT with multiple television feeds, set up so that the entire frame is full of several televisions at a time. To me, Kelly’s being really direct here: Nana Mae Frost’s view = our understanding of Southland Tales = our understanding of our own world: i.e., a soft fictionalization of our method of gaining information.

    Once again, thanks for your review.

  10. Dear Steven, This is a fabulous piece, certainly the best thing published on the film. I hope you write more on it.I have a piece (partly an interview with Kelly) on Southland Tales in the current Sight and Sound (January 08.) It’s interesting mostly for the stuff he told me about the production and for his often contradictory ideas about the contradictory ideas embodied in the film. Sight and Sound didn’t post it on-line, but if you send me your email (sorry to ask you in a public forum) I’ll send it to you. best, amy

  11. I was really looking forward to this movie, and it ended up being like Donnie Darko for me all over again. The first time thru, I was almost embarassed by the way Kelly ignored plot points, shot composition, good acting, subtlety — all the things we’ve been traught to think of as “good” cinematic style. But then I couldn’t stop thinking about it & had to see it again. Once I didn’t have to worry what happens next, I was able to see a succession of images instead of just a novel transposed onto a set. Film is a linear art form: you have to experience it in sequence, in time. And the filmmakers has to choose a sequence. But I think a second viewing of Southland Tales came as close to enveloping me in a non-linear, multi-directional universe or mind as may be possible in this medium.

    I really appreciated your analysis of multiplicities & redundancies in the film, one of its most effective techniques. Again, a 2nd time thru instead of seeming like 2 & a half hours of what-the-hell-is-this, or a bunch of tv screens, I realized it is in fact so densely packed with information that it’s almost a haiku. Just like the conflicting information as to whether the gov’t sees everything or nothing, whether it is Republican fascism or infiltrated by marxists (neo maybe a violently ironic prefix for such a dead ideology); or whether the world is ending or it’s a party, or how it will end — each character is so mirrored and doubled that the heroic part is simply hanging on to identity. Boxer thinks he’s Jericho, but is also doubled by Ronald as cop-model, fellow-time traveller, and in the maze dream. Plus, there are 2 Boxers & 2 Ronald/Roland. Krysta has her indistinguishable entourage, then dances with Madeline. Eliot and Frost are a pair. Ronald playing a racist cop has his fake shooting carried out by a real racist cop, who is in fact playing a role as he is. Madelin’s baby’s father is not her husband. Starla becomes Muriel, who was the alter ego of Krysta. Martin Kefauver is drafted like Ronald & Pilot were, then re-enacts their anguish. More doubles are added in the graphic novels, till every character is on one level reduced to a component inside some giant psyche… My favorite interpretation so far is that this is all taking place inside the post-Iraq damaged mind of Pilot Abilene: that’s why he makes everyone a star, everything is hyper-real. That’s why at the end Ronald doesn’t let go, why he says “friendly fire” while pointing the gun at his head, and why he ultimately forgives himself. It’s not clear from that interpretation whether Pilot & Ronald are alive or dead, but they are in fact the 2 doubles who do not meet, do not shake hands. While the Killers video can be seen as Ronald’s dream of Pilot, if in fact Pilot is imagining Ronald forgiving Roland (wounded on the same side of the face as Pilot), it is still the reverse of Pilot (wounded) forgiving Roland (the one who wounded him). It is still backwards. It is still bang, not whimper. I don’t think this movie is just anti-war, or a specific commentary on current events. But it does make me think of Timothy McVeigh. Once you’ve seen war you can’t go back.

  12. I stopped reading this piece after about four paragraphs because I want to go into this film as blank and receptive as possible, but I have bookmarked it and will certainly come back to it when I finally get to see this film (current release date is “somewhere in May of 2008” for the Netherlands, for now).

    I’m a bit on the fence about it, really. Donnie Darko was my favorite film for about 3 years (ages 17 to 20, more or less), and it still reveals something new every time I see it, but sometimes I feel the brilliance of it is merely accidental. The Director’s cut is somehow a much lesser film than the original, and I didn’t even listen all the way through the commentary because it felt to me like Richard Kelly (though he’s obviously intelligent and insightful about other people’s movies) didn’t quite ‘get’ his own film.

    Of course, this feeling might reflect the my own possessiveness. After all, when a film feels as personally made for you as Donnie Darko did for me, you feel your own reaction to the film is the truest. But it does seem as if Richard Kelly has a thousand thoughts a second, not particularly coherent but based in a subconscious that somehow “connects” with the world as it is now – or maybe just with my own subconscious.

    The above is just a long-winded way to explain my hesitations about Southland Tales. Some of what I’ve heard seems so out-there that it could only be brilliant. Then again, it might just be out-there, period. It’s clearly a film that needs to be championed by some, but I’m not sure if I’ll be able to. Not sure if it deserves all the thought it’s being given in pieces like your own. I guess I’ll find out in May.

  13. Would you say that the highly disjointed and schizophrenic satire of the film resembles the Cultural Parody Center in tone? If so, that is DELIBERATE.

  14. When is this movie coming out in the US? I see all these dates for it saying it is already out but I can’t find it showing anywhere in Washington. I know it showed back in November at a select few theaters around the US but I haven’t found any listings for it since.

  15. What a wonderful analysis of the film. It pains me that this work-of-art was so overlooked. It’s a really sad state of cinema where something this original and poignant doesn’t have a market where it can flourish. Perhaps DVD is that market – we’ll see.

  16. I’d add to that list of filmmakers rethinking the function or nature of film in contemporary culture Satoshi Kon and Apichatpong Weerasethakul. I’d also say that the elder statesmen/women of French cinema – Godard, Marker, Varda – have made a practice of persistently questioning what film means, and that, especially with their recent digital films, have been at the forefront of rethinking the relationship of the video camera to the filmmaker as well as to the audience. For Marker, Godard and Varda, I’m particularly heartened by their incorporation of filming/filmmaking into the rhythms of everyday life – filmmaking is less a site of privilege than of casual observation. The international art house cinema of these filmmakers is obviously different than the quasi-narrative realm of Kelly, Fincher and Lynch, but I’m willing to bet that the worldwide audiences for Notre Musique or The Gleaners and I are comparable to that of Southland Tales.

  17. Dwayne Johnson and J.Timberlake are surprisingly talented actors; but i’m still trying to figure out what Southland Tales was about… maybe it’s really obvious, i.e. life in Los Angeles is blurred, cluttered, flashy and not always meaningful.

  18. Wow, it’s been a while since I’ve read dense film analysis like this, but I have to admit Southland Tales is worth digging into. I loved what the film tried to do, but I think it’s wrong to praise it as brilliantly “post-cinematic”, that to me just seems like an excuse for a weak narrative.

    You may appreciate our analysis of the film over at “The Watchers” podcast:

  19. Alright, I know I’m way late to be replying to this review, but after seeing this movie a few days ago, I’m starting to think I’m the only one that really “got” it. Don’t get me wrong, all the review here was more or less what I took from it too, how the multi-tasked images and clutter all kinda represent our modern lives, etc. and I really did enjoy the movie on that level too, but I’m talking about having an actual, direct interpretation/answer for the whole film…

    The whole thing is inside Tavener’s head while he struggles with the guilt (and thoughts of suicide) from the friendly fire incident. It opens with Abilene getting nuked. Tavener shot Abeliene in friendly fire. In his mind, he’d just nuked his best friend. He snapped, he’s going crazy… and we’re seeing everything in his head.

    Boxer says “Do you ever feel like there’s a 1000 voices in your head?” and Tavener says “yes.” Everyone in the movie is a voice in his head… he’s working through his guilt about the shooting accident. A drug called “karma” that was tested to let soldiers link telepathically with each other? Anything like real karma perhaps? The fact that it kills most of the soliders they gave it to as well. The way many reviewers said it all seems like a young/male view of the world… there’s porn and sex and music everywhere… because we’re in a young man’s head? The world ends “with a bang” like when Tavener’s world ended when he shot Abilene? The whole search to find his brother/twin… he’s trying to find himself in all the confusion, and he’s constantly thinking of suicide. Boxer wonders why he’d commit suicide… “But I’m a pimp” he said, “and pimps don’t commit suicide.” The guy Tavener finds in the hummer was about to commit suicide. It’s all through the movie, and yet always barely avoided. Tavener finally does find himself in the back of the ice cream truck, and he snaps back to the accident, repeating “friendly fire” over and over. The other self has taken on the stigmata (eye injury) that Abilene had, and is forgiving him. The zeppelin get shot down, all the crazy voices “go away” and that whole “universe” in his head finally ends when he finds himself and forgives himself. And it does so, with the line about not committing suicide.

    The whole movie is a twist ending, where the framing you get from the last 60 seconds changes the meaning of everything before. Why was there an entire group of midgets in the USIDent facility for no reason? Because it’s a crazy dream! All the chaos and randomness is directly symbolic of a guilt ridden psyche trying to come to terms with something too horrible to face directly. Heck, even the orbs that kept showing up could be the pills he was being given for his depression. And the fact that he hadn’t taken a whiz in 6 days… because in a dream, you don’t have to remember to go take a bathroom break. There’s a thousand other references I could quote that I think make the most sense in this context. Of course, I could be wrong… I just hope the DVD comes with a commentary that actually addresses this in some way/shape/form. šŸ™‚

  20. This article and subsequent replies made for a fascinating read after finishing a fascinating film. Thanks for the depth of insight, Steven.

    And Xepher, it wasn’t too late to add your comments. I think that is a wonderful interpretation that seemingly hasn’t occurred to anyone else, but makes perfect sense. Almost like a Jacob’s Ladder twist at the end which reframes everything, and explains many things that are seemingly random on first viewing. Actually a lot of parallels to Jacob’s Ladder now that I think about it… I plan on watching the film again this week with that in mind, and appreciate your turning me on to it!

  21. Xepher, that was an excellent interpretation and i think you’re right. You, my friend, are very smart. I watched the film and i swear i was trying hard to get it because im a big fan of Donnie Darko so i knew Kelly’d pull something like this…but i didnt understand it at all.
    With your interpretation in mind, i’ll watch it again. Hopefully, it’ll make much more sense now.

  22. I, along with previous posters, would also like to thank you for one of the best reviews of Southland Tales that I have seen.

    If nothing else, this movie is most definitely art. Whether you love it or hate it (I loved it), it evokes a response. Not only a response, but a highly individualized response. While many of the intrepretations in this review were similar to mine, many were so completely different. And that is okay! Kelly’s movies seem to be made for the audience’s interpretation. This way it can be so many different things to so many different people.

    I, for one, love the multi-layered story telling. LOVE it! I wish more movies were like that. Until I say Donnie Darko and Southland Tales I veryveryvery rarely watched a movie twice. Why? I already knew what was going to happen? In this movie, I re-watch it and pick up some new aspect of the movie that went over my head the time before. With Donnie Darko, as I’ve grown and changed over the years, the movie seems completely different from the first time I watched it in 2001. I just can’t rave enough about it!

    There are those of us who consider the film brilliant! While others criticize that those who say that are really in turn calling themselves brilliant for ‘getting’ the movie and believe that it was just complete crap. Whatever you believe, this is a movie worth seeing! Whether you’re part of the ‘get it’ crowd, the ‘hate it’ crowd, or the ‘huh!?!? crowd’, this movie is an EXPERIENCE worthwhile.

  23. I’ve just had a slight insight into this amazing review by xepher, what Steven said was all good and that but me being only 17 I wanted a simple review or analysis of this fantastic film, hey I undoubtedly loved this film and didn’t even understand it first time round, but what I’m getting at is that xepher gave me the simple answer and it sounded so right.

    The one thing I wanted to say was that perhaps when Boxer Santaros taps his fingers in a state of confusion does that at all reflect on Roland’s state of mind, i.e. he is confused about the various situation he is in. One last mention is that Boxer only taps his fingers when trouble has happened and usually Roland is in trouble too, albeit perhaps of a different nature.

    I could be wrong and it was more of a ‘spur of the moment’ epiphany but to me this seems ‘right’ and I do realise how a lot of people have used the word ‘right’ in context with this film. Thanks.

  24. I have to echo what has been said above and say this is the most intelligent, insightful and thought-provoking review/essay I’ve read on Southland Tales. I came across this review a couple of years ago (when I was searching for people who enjoyed the film) but didn’t realise I could comment on it.

    I think it’s an excellent film, one unafraid (like The Box) to go further than others and risk the ridicule of close-minded critics – to make the film about grand ideas.

    I’ve recently written an essay on this film along with Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant:

    I thought they both need closer scrutiny and wider praise.

  25. Xepher. I read through all the comments and your’s was the one I was waiting for. I know on a deeper level, the movie suggests the non linear method of TELLING the story throught the comparisons of our current media surges, international war culture frenzy, and the insatiable data/television appetite of the individual person. But, THE story itself is of the war veteran Roland and his mental unstableness from killing his friend Pilot which is inhanced by his taking of experimental drugs. And it was a GREAT story.

  26. This is definitely the most thoughtful review of Southland Tales I’ve found since becoming obsessed with it after a first-time watch in 2020. Thank you for articulating a lot of the chaos I experienced while attempting to follow along!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.