Southland Tales

Southland Tales ★★★½

[dusting this off from my archives as I prepare to go to my first Cannes, where I promise to NOT boo a film!!]

The Cannes boo is the annual terrorist attack of film festivals. The act of prestigious defiance happens in a far away place, where 99% of filmgoers will never tread, but reverberates like a tidal blog wave. In the Internet age, the Cannes cackle is so pronounced that more casual filmgoers know what was booed at Cannes than what was bestowed awards.

The end result for films that are greeted with gleeful disdain in a festival vacuum that’s then digitally funneled to all of humanity? Tourism (number of screens for distribution) generally suffers, dictators are overthrown (directors often find it harder to mount their next picture), and countless think pieces in defense of a film are subsequently launched (was it really as bad as we were led to believe?).

Though films like Marie Antoinette, Only God Forgives, and Antichrist have found many esteemed defenders, perhaps no film has paid for its Cannes reception like Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales. Hell, even Vincent Gallo’s bug-splattered road trip windshield + climactic blowjob flick, The Brown Bunny, recovered from Roger Ebert’s “most disastrous screening ever” Cannes declaration to receive not only a Vienna Film Festival Award for his “bold exploration of yearning and grief and for its radical departure from dominant tendencies in current American filmmaking” but a non-Cannes positive review from Ebert. The “radical departure from dominant tendencies in current American filmmaking” certainly applies to the Donnie Darko-wunderkid’s follow-up, Tales. But Ebert, and most critics, still kept his Tales rating at one star—with the suggestion that Kelly keep trimming the movie down until it's nothing.

Sure, there was a lovely defense written by The New York Times’ Manhola Dargis for a post-Cannes-cutting release (20 minutes trimmed! Special effects added!) one-year later. Dargis wrote that Tales “has more ideas, visual and intellectual, in a single scene than most American independent films have in their entirety”—but the dye had been cast. And the cast? Dwayne Johnson, Sarah Michelle Gellar, and Sean William Scott couldn’t even promote the film due to the 2007's writer’s strike that cancelled Johnson’s appearance on Saturday Night Live, Gellar’s appearance on David Letterman and Scott’s appearance on Jimmy Kimmel. Like the terrorist attack that opens Tales and disturbs an All-American barbecue, a mushroom cloud was detonated by “deafening boos” from Cannes, and reinforcements were cut off.

15 years ago, on May 21, 2006, a critical audience in France sealed Southland Tales’ fate. The film was not yet completed (it needed funding for special effects). And around this time each year, Kelly (who has only made one film since, 2009’s The Box) is prone to open up to give a truly eye-opening interview about his experience with the reception, his intention with the film, and some of the cultural oddities that it predicted (Gellar’s porn-star-with-ideas who desires her own reality show to talk about feminist values and market her own energy drink was perhaps too "as if" in 2006, but is very prescient today with reality television brands that have built empires big enough that no one can keep up with the Kardashians and Donald Trump became President of the United States; Trump also brought porn star discussions to the White House and Mia Khalifa is better at policy than most public officials). There are also many guides that can explain the labyrinth of the plot for you (of both the film and the graphic novels that Kelly co-wrote to precede the film, which greatly inform some of the WTF images—such as Johnson’s bleeding Jesus tattoo—that pop up later in the film).

What I would like to do is, instead of explain what (I think) happens on this Venice boardwalk of broken dreams, implore you to watch this movie now. There’s never been a better time to watch Southland Tales than post-2016. And no it’s not just because of the NSA and Trump parallels. Viewers were befuddled in 2006/2007 and you will still be befuddled now. However, the way that films have grown in scope and attention to canon and deviation from canon, our entertainment brains are more equipped to be patient with Southland Tales and search for answers after concluding it. Southland Tales is endlessly fascinating in both its final product and its ideation for production.

I’m not going to play the “ahead of its time” card, here. Southland Tales and its post-9/11 Patriot Act and Reality TV fears is very much a product of its time. However, the overstuffed nature of its plot—which involves an actor with amnesia (Johnson), a script that predicts the future that he wrote with a former porn star who’s quasi holding him hostage (Gellar), a soldier with friendly fire PTSD (Justin Timberlake), a racist cop whose twin is not a racist cop (Scott), a radical group of activists who distrust the government (Amy Poehler, Cheri Oteri, and Wood Harris), a massive government watchdog organization (headed by Miranda Richardson), and a rift in the space-time-continuum that has been opened up in the empty American desert—is perfect for the way that we digest tentpole movie news (based on an existing property) now.

You know the beats. A movie, cast and crew are announced, and then set photos leak and those who’ve paid close attention to the source material look very closely to emblems on costumes, signs on the fictional street, etc.—anything that could provide a clue as to what is happening. Speculation ensues. Then a teaser hits, then a trailer hits, and in each instance, each frame is analyzed as to what it might hint to within the canon. Posts roll out. By the time the movie is seen it merely lives up to all the speculation and hopes from all this predictive research.

You can do the same thing with Southland Tales, as Kelly has written prequel graphic novels that set up his film, or you could just use the Cliff Notes summaries from the Internet. But here’s the beautiful thing. They don’t give away anything. They enhance everything you see. Kelly wasn’t necessarily ahead of his time; he was overactive in his narrative, but the atmosphere (aided by the butterfly in water score from Moby) that Kelly creates is a contact high. You want to take another hit.

There are such exciting scenes that exist in this movie that some divergent critics and audiences loved the sheer audacity in the undertaking and have been beating its drum for the past 15 years. Allusions to cult cinema abounded—i.e. the news segments in Tales are very similar to Paul Verhoeven’s “Would You Like to Know More?” fascist indoctrination videos in Starship Troopers, David Lynch's "Silencio" singer is the national anthem singer here, Eli Roth is unceremoniously shot on the toilet a la John Travolta's bathroom exit in Pulp Fiction, and speaking of Quentin Tarantino, there’s a pre-Grindhouse basement film quality that Tales maintains (in glorious widescreen, with many extras). Then there was the crazily beautiful/trashy lip-sync music video to The Killers’ “All These Things I’ve Done”.

Additionally, the off-kilter, Hollywood-averse casting choices are so much more amazing now that, ten-years later, Johnson is one of the world’s biggest movie stars, (that’s right, Rock, “pimps don’t commit suicide”) and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, American Pie and the Will Ferrell-era of SNL are at an all-time nostalgia high. And the casting isn't a novelty, each performer's real life persona helps drive Kelly's discarded culture narrative.

There are many legitimate reasons to experience Southland Tales without ever seeking all of Kelly’s backstory. But I recommend that you do. Now that so many of us are trained to look up the ramifications and history of something that happened in pre-2016 episodes of Game of Thrones, and research (or aggregate) how everything Marvel, DC, etc. fits into different eras of comics and what Easter eggs and character allegiances mean for future installments, and dammit, the possible bloodlines of every being that exists in the new Star Wars entries, feel free to pause Southland Tales whenever you start to feel lost. And look at Kelly’s immense backstory (which includes, amongst other things, a child who holds world-ending gas in its bowels and a religious war that is literally etched onto someone’s body, from which the victor will distinguish itself on this chosen person’s skin in a moment of its vessel’s sacrifice). The experience will be enhanced.

Is this how Kelly intended the film to be watched? Sort of. It’s a cart before the horse problem. He made the middle film, a la A New Hope, and had written up all the prequels in a graphic novel, screenplay combo. But the only film he got to make is loaded with iconography that was never filmed. It’s beautiful as is, with deft satire of how war and reality TV intersect to capacitate the audience, but it is enhanced by knowledge of his immensely laid out plans. Pause and read. Pause and read. Similar to the way many of us read recaps in between binges on television programs we’re behind on. We’re not supposed to say this about a story from the moving image, but dammit, Southland Tales gets better and better the more you read about it. The intent is there. The atmosphere created is so enveloping (and questionable) you just want to know more.

My final call to action will be this: Southland Tales is a panel-by-panel recreation of a graphic novel that never existed. Zack Snyder’s Watchmen has a fervent fan following because they cherish how closely he recreated scenario after scenario for the novel’s faithful, regardless of how narratively overwrought or thematically loosey-goosey it got as a movie. Kelly had a graphic novel in his mind and he made it, panel by panel, we just don’t know the canon beforehand. So here’s the glorious kicker in watching Southland Tales now, even if you soak up everything in his prequels: the outcome is still unknown and everything you see is a surprise. Sometimes it’s glorious and sometimes it’ll leave you underwhelmed—but on to the next panel for another surprise.

In 2006, Southland Tales already took more risks than most American films. Now, every step of the way is riskier than anything that exists in the studio system. We live in a world where Tetris—a video game where users stack blocks to try and erase blocks—is an $80 million enterprise envisioned as a thriller trilogy, greenlit and funded on brand name awareness alone. Figure out the story later.

Kelly had a huge (yuge?) story for Southland Tales. In 2006, they booed. Post-2016, I say “boo-urns”. Boo-urns, Kelly. Boo-urns. A messy, ridiculous movie. But it's fun to watch.

Brian liked these reviews