Southland Tales

Southland Tales ★★★★

If this movie had a taste it would be Mountain Dew and Diesel.

Let's get something out of the way: in many ways this film is quite bad. Richard Kelly does not have the aesthetic command to handle this sort of Altmanesaue, expansive ensemble tapestry. It's so intent on letting the audience know it's a satire that sometimes it veers into mid 2000s "Epic Bacon" humor. It begins with a dense info dump explaining the events of a comic released in the run up to the film. It ends with a literally unfinished CG set piece. There are problems.

And I love this movie. It's fun to watch. It's a maximalist exploration of everything crass in the aesthetic zeitgeist of the mid-2000s: the time that birthed YouTube and Facebook and console online gaming. Understanding that this period was also a time of the most easily delineated culture war - the Bible Belt Southern Evangelicals VS the Rad Coastal Liberals - Kelly also decided to make it a retelling of the Book of Revelations. It's aiming to be a 2000s Watchmen, or the cinematic equivalent of The Divine Invasion. It lacks the craft of those works, but I still love it.

Unlike other of these paranoiac, mythological conspiracy films that I've become obsessed with (Night Moves, Under the Silver Lake), I'm not sure I actually want to know everything the creator intended with this work. I have a feeling that really digging into the minutiae of this one's mythology would probably lessen the fascination I have with some of these plot threads. There are some creators who can craft a dense, ambiguous universe like this where the answers are as interesting as the questions. Philip K Dick is one of them, but that's because the "answers" he offers up in his most personal works, about the cosmos and the nature of being, are so bizzare, so addled in such a genuinely different perspective on the fundamentals of existence, that they feel like peering into a 4th dimension. I don't think Kelly quite has the insight to offer up that sort of a gnosis. 

That doesn't matter, what we have here is a perfect tone poem to everything crass about post 9/11 culture, rendered as an evangelical elegy. If you fed a super powerful AI playlists of 2006 YouTube videos (epic Hitchens takedowns; Halo 2 matches; anime music videos set to The Killers; South Park clips; The Daily Show with Jon Stewart moments) then this is what you'd get. Even the fading Gen X fascination with "Eastern Religion" is here, with Dwayne Johnson covered in tattoos that serve as gaudy, half-understood references to Buddhism and Hinduism. The end of the film, with its unfinished CG depicting a Blimp that looks like it came from a late 90s final fantasy game (inside of which are villains who also look like they are from a late 90s final fantasy game) becomes a nice example of form following theme. As the reality of the world is put in jeopardy - the 4th dimension literally about to fold into itself - so does the film seem to over extend itself to a point where it cannot materially keep up with its narrative. The reality of the film is literally improperly rendered. And then we end with an ego confronting itself: a traumatized war veteran in dialogue with his own suicidal ideation - while reality hangs in the balance. This would be a very hard film for me not to love.

I think claims that this movie is prophetic are fun, but it ignores the extent to which we built that prophecy. Russiagate and QAnon and the various other stories of the last 4 years (which we all engage in to some degree) are the detritus of the same miasma of pop culture that Richard Kelly was stewing in. We've all built our own Southland Tales, our own ur-text cobbled together from books and comics and video games. 

When Kelly tries to explain this movie in interviews it's a disaster: he knows what everything means both on a (usually redundant) lore basis, and on a sincerely metaphorical level. Even the famous line "and pimps don't commit suicide" is readily explained by Kelly as a statement on veteran suicide rates - with no irony. He sometimes looks embarrassed in Q&A's of this movie. But Kelly has nothing to be embarrassed about. Southland Tales is great in the way only a technically "bad" film could be. I promise.

However, can anyone tell me what Wallace Shawn's motivation is in this movie? What's he trying to do? What's the deal there????

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